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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Summer Camp


Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

One of my children’s favorite refuges from their parents is the Jewish summer camp that they attend. It is one of several summer programs in our religious denomination that, for over half a century, have built lasting friendships, produced marriages, perpetuated the values of Judaism, and left kids with cherished memories well after they have grown up. When my wife and I dropped our kids off at camp and picked them up a month later this past summer, I was mystified by its power to draw them away from the comforts of home and into the secret society of their circle of camp friends and activities. I attended one of these camping programs only once, the summer that I was thirteen. My parents made me go for a full eight weeks, and as a scared, insecure, unathletic homebody, I wanted nothing more than to escape that prison and hitchhike back to our house in Queens. Though I recognize now how wisely they helped me to cut the cord and become more independent, at the time I was miserable. That is why, even though we gladly pay the bills to have the kids be at camp summer after summer, I have had a hard time understanding what they see in the whole experience.

Two days after we picked them up, I drove back out to camp to spend some time teaching at our denomination’s regional high school youth group conference. Other than the voices of excited teenagers socializing and playing softball in the distance, the usually noisy, energetic campgrounds were deserted and quiet. The summer season was really over, but in the gentle movement of the wind as it passed through the tall pines, I imagined echoes of children, mine and others, singing, laughing and pledging their loyalties as they greeted one another then bade each other tearful goodbyes all too quickly. Almost immediately upon arriving I was haunted by images of my daughter running back and forth from one activity to the other with her bunkmates, her sweet smile and spunky personality filling camp with joy and warmth. I kept thinking about my teenage son walking around with his buddies, one year older, just dying to rule camp and to seek out the new, awesome adventures of adolescence. Walking from my car to the camp’s magnificent library I stopped and wept as these images filled me with memory and meanings. For me, camp had been in retrospect a necessary evil, without which my learning to leave home would have been so much more difficult. For my kids, camp has been a blessing that is teaching them to feel at home wherever they are, whenever they are in the company of friends and community. Yet camp also means that they are getting older. They are slowly taking their leave of us as each summer passes and they store up memories, have experiences, and form relationships to which my wife and I will mostly never be privy. That is as it should be, but that day I truly tasted the bittersweetness of growing up and saying farewell, a life cycle ritual that our kids reenact each camp season. Like my parents in the distant past, each summer my children are teaching me the fine and poignant art of letting go.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.

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