The campers and staff of Camp Ramah in Nyack danced with the crazed enthusiasm of people who had just won a $100 million jackpot. It was just past 9 a.m., the last Friday of camp in Rockland County, New York, and the Hebrew song playing was fittingly called "Lo Normali." I could not help but think that this amount of energy was freakish.
"What would it be like if I went back?" is a nostalgic question shared by many who reminisce about Jewish summer camp.
Succumbing to the temptation, I decided, as a mid-30's professional, to tag along with a bunk at my camp alma mater to see what's changed and what's stayed the same since my summer camp glory days circa 1999.
One new activity is a high-ropes course where boys Solelim (entering 3rdgrade) rose more than 30 feet in the air with no fear as specially trained staffers like Daniel Fischer controlled the harnesses and ropes that securely tied them. When I last saw Fischer, who will attend Yale in the fall, he was my 3rd grade student at Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School.
"It's great to see kids who've never even climbed a ladder conquer their fear," he told me.
Other new elements included the integration of dance into prayers, veggie-nuggets, and a lot more security than I recall from my pre-9/11 glory days.
But some things remained the same. There is something absurdly fun about kickball, from the sound that's made when your foot hits the ball to the knowledge that someone is trying to throw a giant red ball at you. I got a single and scored.
I then tested my skill at ceramics. As a camper at Ramah, I once tried to make a plate and it looked like an ashtray. I tried to make a bowl and it looked like an ashtray. Then I tried to make an ashtray and it looked like a bowl. So this time I made a lace bowl, which involves pushing down on a piece of lace to make an impression on the clay.
As a camper, my counselor Shai Held told me my goal of being a journalist was attainable. When I began to work at Ramah, my rosh edah (head of the division) Menachem Creditor led an a cappella group and I told him I hoped to start my own group one day and sing at Madison Square Garden. I eventually had articles published in The Jewish Week and in college, was fortunate to meet Mike Boxer. He and I later founded the a capella group Six13. Held and Creditor have become noted rabbis and writers. They always taught me to aim high.
These high expectations are still imparted to campers. Adam Rosenstein, a 19-year-old counselor whose bunk I traveled with, could be the spokesman for five- or ten-hour energy bars. He encouraged the campers at every turn and retained the energy to beat me in a 1-on-1 basketball game, then to sprint to pick up some challah from the camp's bakery.
"When I wake up in the morning I'm really excited to be here," said Rosenstein, who hails from New Rochelle and studies at the University of Rochester. "I only get to do this two months out of the year so I have to go all out."
Itay Amit, who is from Givatayim, Israel, said he immediately realized the camp was not normal.
"From the first day I saw they expected everyone to dance," he recalls. "I said to myself, 'I'm 23 years-old. I'm really gonna dance like a child?' But I did it, I love it, and I wait for it every day. I also am impressed with the Jewish community here.
As an Israeli, I had no idea it was like this."
Amit was among about 35 Israelis, known as mishlachat, who came to work at the camp. This summer was harder for them as their homeland was under attack.
"It was very tough," Amit said. "The camp was great about letting us call home whenever we needed. We missed home but it helped that we knew there is a lot of love here."
I walked by the patch of grass where I got my first kiss at the age of 17, and sat on the steps of a building where many friends professed their love to each other and are now married. I saw Amichai Margolis, who met his wife while working at Ramah in New England. Margolis, who is the head of songs, sang in the cheder ochel (lunchroom) and I joined him in harmony on "Nachamu," a song that tells of how the Jewish people should be comforted.
The Jewish people have had to protect ourselves with bullets and tanks to ensure survival. My Ramah, run during my time by Rabbi Albert Thaler and for the past 17 years by Amy Skopp Cooper, has armed children with songs, dances, and stories that allow them to take pride their heritage, their culture and themselves.
In life, we assign value to different things. And while summer at camp may not earn anyone millions, it is an invaluable and unforgettable experience. When you are surrounded by infectious passion, it is a lot harder to be cynical. And it is easier to know who you are, where you came from, and where you should be going.
Alan Zeitlin is a contributing editor on the Jewish Week’s Blueprint series of websites.
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