Romance in the redwoods

Time feels different at camp.

One day feels like a week; one month, a year.

After all, you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with your fellow campers. You swim together. Sweat together. Laugh together. Pray together. You sleep in bunk beds with battery-powered fans clipped to the wooden frame, dozing off to the mingled rhythm of snoring and fireflies.

Life in this petri dish breeds best friendships — and incubates romance.

Those summer sparks often don’t last after the flip-flops are stowed in overstuffed backpacks bound for suburban bedrooms. School begins; life happens and people lose touch.

And yet sometimes the stars align, and the romance that buds at camp blooms beyond the summertime.

This week, in honor of Camp Swig’s farewell, j. honors couples who met at Swig and ended up getting married by telling three of their stories.

Ken and Sue Weiss

Hometowns: Los Angeles and Oakland

Year met: 1965

Year married: 1966

The story: The summer that Camp Saratoga became Camp Swig was the same summer that Ken Weiss met Sue Levy.

Sue was an outsider, a counselor who had never been a camper. Ken was a native; he had already spent nine summers at the Jewish camp in the redwoods above Saratoga. He had been a camper, a counselor-in-training, a counselor and was finally a program director.

They liked each other. You could say they were dating, though Sue points out they didn’t go out on any actual dates at any point during their courtship. Just the dining hall.

When the summer ended, Sue returned to her parents’ house in Oakland and Ken went back to Los Angeles. They said they’d stay in touch. Ken wrote Sue a letter the day he got home. Five days passed and he hadn’t heard from her. His nerves ached.

“I was frantic — when you’re in love, you don’t know anything about the passage of time,” he said.

“When you live at camp for 10 weeks, you create a cocoon, a world separate from the rest of the world,” he added. “You think it will last when you’re in the middle of it, and all of a sudden, it’s over, camp ends, and that whole world disintegrates. I didn’t want our relationship to disintegrate with it.”

So he bought a plane ticket, flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco, rented a Ford Mustang and drove across the Bay Bridge. He called her from a pay phone and explained he “was in the area” and could he come by for a visit?

“My reaction was shock, absolute shock,” Sue said. “I had plans to go to Shabbat dinner next door, so I had to call my neighbor and say, ‘This guy just flew up from L.A., can I bring him over for dinner?’

“I told my parents, and my mother said, ‘Uh oh, something’s going on here.'”

They decided to stay together long-distance while Ken went off to hisfirst year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Sue finished her last year at Cal State Northridge and visited Ken’s parents often.

Their long-distance relationship flourished, and one year after they first met, Ken flew to California for Sue’s college graduation in early June.

A month later, they got married.

Then they moved to Cincinnati, where Ken finished rabbinical school.

“That’s when we really started to get to know each other,” Sue said. “We never went on a real date, he never had to walk me to the front door, I never wondered whether he would kiss me. As we say now, it was meant to be.”

The Weiss’ spent two years in Hawaii while Ken worked as a Navy chaplain. They then moved to El Paso, where they stayed for 23 years and raised three children, all of whom attended Camp Swig as campers and counselors. Weiss, a rabbi, also worked as rabbinic faculty every summer from 1971 until 2001.

The couple currently divides their time between San Diego and Salem, Mass., where their children and grandchildren live.

Phil and Dina Hankin

Hometowns: Fremont and Oakland

Year met: 1985

Year married: 1992

The story: As the leaves were falling from the redwoods in 1985 at Camp Swig, Phil Hankin and Dina Cohen began to fall in love.

They both ventured to the camp for a fall NFTY convention (North American Federation of Temple Youth). And at first, there weren’t any sparks. They were just a 17-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl who loved their youth group.

A month later, they both attended a Shabbaton dance/ sleepover at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

And that’s when they had their first kiss.

They dated throughout the year, and the following summer they both worked at Camp Swig, which marked Phil’s sixth summer and Dina’s first.

Their relationship was somewhat of a secret, since Phil was a counselor and Dina was only a counselor-in-training — and romance was not allowed between the two groups.

Even though they had dated throughout the school year, they still had to “work the system” — as they described it — so campers and administrators wouldn’t know they were an item. This basically meant they snuck around at night.

During that summer, three additional staff couples formed. All four couples grew close, and they tried to spend as much time together as possible.

The tried to schedule their days off together, but getting eight togetherwasn’t easy. In fact, it happened only once — and all the lovebirds went to Santa Cruz and then spent the night at Phil’s parents’ house in Fremont. They called themselves the “Mitzvah Corps” and made shirts with the name on the front. (One other couple, Richard Winer and Laura Novak — who are both rabbis in the Bay Area — ended up married, too.)

Fifteen years later, in 1999, Phil returned to Camp Swig (with the couples’ children) to work as faculty. The Winers and the Hankins made T-shirts that said “Reunion of the Mitzvah Corps.” And for their children, baby tees were imprinted with “Product of the Mitzvah Corps.”

Phil works as the education director at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. Dina is a psychologist at the Children’s Hospital in Oakland. They live in Oakland with their two children, Zachary and Sophie, both of whom have grown up spending summers at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, where Phil teaches each summer.

The family attended the Camp Swig Farewell in April, where for the first time in several years, they saw numerous people from the summer they first spent together at camp. On May 17, they will reunite again for a potluck Havdallah at the Hankins’ home.

“Our connection to Swig is strong,” Dina said. “But it’s really the relationships that grew out of the place that have been the most important to us.”

Joshua and Nicole Samuels

Hometowns: San Francisco and Sacramento

Year met: 1992

Year married: 2005

The story: It was a love neither anticipated.

Nicole Levy and Josh Samuels met as campers at Camp Swig when they were 14 years old. They remained just friends for almost a decade before they ever sensed romance.

“There weren’t necessarily any sparks until after college,” Josh recalled, “when we somehow got back in touch and started hanging out, and we saw each other in a totally different way.”

Nicole laughs, then adds, “He was in love with me from the very beginning.”

She’s joking. Sort of.

During the summer they both worked as counselors-in-training, Josh remembers his cabin going around the room and confessing their crushes to one another. He told his cabinmates he liked Nicole.

At this point, Nicole was an outgoing teen with wild curly hair and a big grin, whereas Josh was still somewhat shy, not yet a catch. His friend Steve told him, “Oh, she’d never be interested in you.”

Fast forward four years, to New Year’s Eve, 1999.

Josh was in San Francisco visiting his family and some old friends. The recent college graduates found themselves hanging out with mutual friends. The ball dropped. The millennium shifted. And something felt different between the old camp friends. They realized they really liked each other.

“We were young, right out of college, and I really didn’t want to do the long distance,” Nicole remembered. “So I tried to avoid the fact that I liked him … But Josh did a great job convincing me it would be worth it.”

The couple maintained a long-distance relationship for three years; Nicole in San Francisco, Josh in Los Angeles. Finally, Nicole moved south. They got engaged in April 2004, and married in May 2005 at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. A mutual friend they met at Camp Swig signed their ketubah.

Nicole has one more year of nursing school, after which she’d like to work in labor and delivery in a hospital. Josh is in his third year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College; he would like to be a pulpit rabbi and also work as faculty at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa.

“We’re excited to go back when Josh can teach,” Nicole said. “But it will be different for us. We didn’t grow up at Newman. We met at Swig, and we’d like it to be something that’s not only in our past but our future and our kids’ future.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.