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A Stranger Among Us—A Catholic Boy at a Jewish Camp

I took my Catholic friend to my Jewish summer camp when we were teenagers. Now he’s an honorary Jew.

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(Courtesy of the author)

To some kids, overnight camp is about as appealing as military school. No air conditioning, no sleeping late, no television; what kind of summer is that? But Jews are different. We love camp. Throughout the ’90s, I gave up hot showers and Sega Genesis every summer so I could spend eight weeks among New England’s Goldbergs, Schwartzes, and Cohens.

By seventh grade, my friend Jeff, who’d heard me rave about camp for three years, decided he wanted to partake in this tradition, too. The only problem was that he was Catholic. Camp Tel Noar in Hampstead, N.H., wasn’t just a camp that Jews happened to attend. It had a Hebrew name. (The direct translation is “Youth Hill.”) We ate kosher food, said prayers before and after meals, and endured Jewish culture classes. The most Jewish thing Jeff had ever done was sit through my bar mitzvah.

When I told him about camp life, I tried to de-emphasize the things I thought made it sound like a cult. I didn’t mention the endless sing-alongs, the Israeli dancing, and the Shabbat observance. At one point, he asked if he’d be required to go to Friday night and Saturday morning services. “No,” I said, lying through my teeth. It was a cowardly thing to do, but at 13 I didn’t have the courage to tell him the truth. I guess I was afraid of scaring him off. But by the end of seventh grade, his mind was made up. Jeff’s mother, if I remember correctly, took my endorsement as gospel and agreed to sign him up. So, he was coming to camp. This was both exciting and unsettling. The last thing I wanted was his ruined summer on my conscience. Plus, I was absolutely terrified that he’d think that Jews were strange.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that at Camp Tel Noar, our roles would be reversed. In American society, Jews are usually the ones doing the assimilating. I can’t say I faced much anti-Semitism growing up in Lynnfield, Mass., a town that was mostly Irish and Italian, but there were certainly times when I felt like an alien. At camp, Jeff would be the extraterrestrial, and I’d be the one helping him find a place in my world.

***

One morning in late June 1996, Jeff, whose mom used to save me leftover Easter ham, became the newest member of my bunk. Lunch that first day was harrowing—for me. As we said hamotzi, I looked over at Jeff. He wasn’t groaning. Birkat hamazon, the post-meal prayer that was often a complete slog in the stuffy mess hall, didn’t faze him either.

On the first night, after we’d unpacked and gotten ready for bed, I heard him laughing along with my friends Todd and Steve, two of the bunk’s biggest wise-asses. Over what, I have no idea. But I knew right then that acceptance wasn’t going to be an issue. For a bunch of middle-schoolers, we were a fairly welcoming group. (That summer we rallied around another new, older bunkmate who was, I think, developmentally delayed. He found his calling selling cans of Sprite to the junk-food deprived.)

Unlike me and most of our bunkmates, Jeff had not spent the previous six months attending dozens of bar mitzvahs—that school year I must’ve downed 300 Shirley Temples and 1,000 pigs in a blanket—but he quickly became one of us. And it seemed others at Camp Tell Everyone, where information spread faster than athlete’s foot, liked him, too. He made people laugh. That first summer, Jeff carried around a Chia Pet on a leash. I’ll give him credit; it was a good bit. But even as he became part of the group, he also remained the token goy. It was like A Stranger Among Us, but actually fun to watch.

And here’s what I learned: For a young non-Jew, overnight camp may actually be the best place to learn about Judaism. It’s essentially its own little society with its own set of rules, some of which are inescapable. Like the rest of us, Jeff had to celebrate Shabbat. When it was 90 degrees and the mosquitoes were biting, the weekly outdoor services could be brutal. Even though services rarely stretched longer than an hour, we found time to goof off: I once ate bugs for entertainment. Unbeknownst to me, Jeff managed to pry himself away from my sideshow and actually pay attention. “I remember being impressed that at such a young age, he was able to blend in,” Mark, an old counselor of ours, recently told me, “and to appear to be interested and inquisitive about services in a religion foreign from his own.”

It didn’t take Jeff long to figure out which rules were circumventable. For instance, the way the adults euphemistically put it, there was no “fraternization” at coed Camp Tel Noar. But as we all know, puppy love is irrepressible. I vividly remember Jeff leading the hooting and hollering after witnessing our friend Dan making out with a girl for the first time.

Food was another ambiguous issue. Snacks were allowed—I still contend that camp is the only pot-free environment where Sour Cream & Onion Pringles actually taste good—but non-kosher stuff was taboo. Still, there were counselors who knew how to get things: chicken patties from the general store up the street, leftover Chinese food, and Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers, which were coveted like whiskey during Prohibition. (When I worked at camp during college, a guy almost got fired for selling JBCs to campers at a significant markup.)

As it turns out, spending a summer at Jewish camp sometimes involved distancing ourselves from Jewishness. Occasionally, though, we were rudely reminded of our collective identity. Once a “townie” drove by camp and screamed, “Kikes!” Hampstead wasn’t usually that hostile, but I did get the feeling that the locals viewed the camp as an oddity. After all, every summer the town’s Jewish population increased by about 99 percent. For the most part, however, we remained undisturbed in our self-governed bubble.

Jeff never seemed bothered by camp customs, as foreign as they were. I’m pretty sure that within a week, he knew all the words to the birkat. He even willingly sang Hebrew songs with us on Friday nights. One Saturday afternoon, during some kind of biblical trivia contest, our counselors thought it would be funny to send Jeff up to the stage. I forget what the question was, but he came very close to answering it correctly. My bunk cheered for him anyway. Not all of our pursuits were so noble, of course. Once we reached Bogrim, the camp’s oldest age group, we started partaking in the “Bogrim Tradition.” This meant spending havdalah—the short ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath—farting as loudly and as often as possible.

***

Jeff liked camp enough to come back the next summer. And the next. After three summers as a camper at Tel Noar, Jeff entered the counselor-in-training program, which included a trip to Israel. My parents, fearing for my safety, didn’t allow me to go. And so my Catholic friend went to the Promised Land without me. It was a brave choice on his part, but not all that surprising. Unlike most of the kids I grew up with, he didn’t mind escaping his comfort zone. In hindsight, though, he doesn’t quite see it that way. “Jews were normal to me at that point,” he recently told me, citing the fact that by then, he’d spent plenty of time with my family. Sometimes, he said, “I just feel like I get credit for taking some flying leap.”

Once our camp years were behind us, Jeff and I ended up rooming together at George Washington University, where we probably interacted with more Jews on a daily basis than we had at camp. Religion still comes up in conversation; recently, discussion has centered on the differences between Catholic guilt—which is usually turned inward—and Jewish guilt—which is usually turned outward. And to this day, he can still sing along with the birkat.

The things Jeff learned at a Jewish summer camp have stayed with him into his adult years. He is, in my mom’s eyes at least, an honorary Jew, even if he is about to marry a smart, beautiful shiksa from Iowa. The wedding is over Labor Day weekend. At the ceremony, I plan on slipping a glass under his foot.

***

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This heart-warming story helps prove the truth of the song from South Pacific, “You Have To Be Carefully Taught.” Fortunately for the world, this young man was not taught to hate.   Like in the story of Ruth and Naomi, someone from outside the faith is the recipient of love and kindness from Jewish people who live by the high ideals of Torah and because of that, he finds beauty in our faith and goodness in our people.

mimsy18 says:

Thank you for sharing your story. Your friendship with Jeff sounds amazing.

emunadate says:

Why would that camp give that spot away to a non Jew? How do we keep Jews connected? 
http://emunadate.blogspot.co.il/2012/01/pm-benjamin-netanyahu-at-2012-taglit.html

Nice story!!

I was the only Catholic at Camp Equinunk, near Honesdale, PA, in 1971. I was the Swim Instructor. That summer, All the kids had the album: Jesus Christ-Superstar! They loved my night-time stories. “That’s the best story we ever heard in this camp”, they said about the one where the kid’s mother is accidentally cremated. lol. At year’s end (8 weeks), they made a ‘yearbook’. In it, they said I was the best athelete in the camp. All my Catholic school friends would be rolling in the aisles upon hearing that. I felt like I died & went to Heaven! 

You just don’t get it do you? This is a kiddush Ha-Shem. 

you missed the entire point of the story.  I think you are digging very deep to try to be negative.  For all you know, they charged the Catholic guy twice as much so they could give a scholarship to a low-income Jew.  Your negativity is completely speculating just so you can find something to criticize.

South Park.  South Park.  South Park.

mrsshorts says:

You gotta take your head out of the sand. No spot was given away. These kids learned tolerance and acceptance from each other, More people need to take advantage of these opportunities to make our world a better place to exist. 

Susan Siegel says:

I, too, remember Jeff as a most respectful counselor….and Alan, I remember the summer you returned to Tel Noar as a counselor. I observed both of you in action as Tel Noar counselors, serving as terrific role models for our campers.

I had Jeff as a counselor and not only was he a great counselor but he would actually go out of his way to make sure that we all went to services, were respectful during prayers, etc. You are very shallow-minded if you are caught up on why the camp let a non-jew in. It doesnt matter – the goal of the camp is to unite jews and teach us all about ourselves and jeff helped to ensure that both of those goals were met for each camper..

Not to be too pedantic, but I think you mean that the town’s Jewish population DROPPED 99 percent AT THE END of each summer.  Terrific story otherwise.

seamus says:

I moved to Connecticut in 1963 from a small town in Illinois. It was my first experience in a public school  (after 6 years in Catholic school). The majority of my new friends were Jewish (probably because they got good grades and actually studied). When all of the guys were turning 13 I was asked to join the boy scout troop that met in the basement of the temple. My mother was concerned that the boy scouts were too militaristic. Seriously. 

Since all my buddies were preparing for their bar mitzvahs the rabbi would periodically come downstairs to recruit someone to do an opening prayer for whatever meeting the grownups were having upstairs. One night he asked me if I could do the honors. My response blew my cover: “As long as it’s in English, Father I’m good to go.” I guess I hadn’t done as good a job of assimilating as Jeff did.

Nice story. Brought back a lot of memories.

You’re right on the money! I must relate this tale of the Tenex Icelander club, many years ago. These were the guys in Coney Island who went down to the ocean New Years Day for a traditional swim in the coldest weather.

Among it’s members was one Italian Boy who happened to be Catholic! This created a dilemma! How were they going to get him involved in their social activities? A solution was found. He then became known as Bobbie Ginsberg. The Jewish Girls never knew That this guy was not of the tribe, and his social activity was plentiful!

The moral being that people are people! Regardless of religiouus affiliation. If we pay more atention to their character, rather than the differences among us  this would be a much better world!

James Stagg says:

What a wonderful story!  Thank you!

I’m all for treating non Jews respectfully. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein donated non Jewish charities—though I’m sure not to the Archdiocese. I’m sure Jeff is a lovely guy, but I can’t understand why the camp accepted him. I’m also puzzled by his continuing identification with  Roman Catholicism considering the church’s  long and disgraceful history of anti Semitism. A righteous non Jew can adopt the Noahide path, seven mitzvot including a renunciation of the Jew on the cross.

As a gentile, I was lucky enough to go to a Jewish summer camp.  The whole experience was fabulous.  No kid in my hometown ever talked about anything but baseball and cars.  And here were these kids arguing politics and the meaning of life. This was heaven for me.   It gave me my career (psychoanalysis) my politics (progressive) and my two Jewish kids. 

ricksonelliot says:

Stop being racist,that kind of Jewish behavior is what causes decent Christians to hate us

ricksonelliot says:

Sure

ricksonelliot says:

It’s that kind of mindset that makes decent people hate us

Oudtshoorn says:

Beautiful. I love this unusual, warm and funny story. Wish it could happen more often.

Oudtshoorn says:

What are you talking about? Nothing was “given away” to a non-Jew. And what if it was? Generosity of spirit might keep us even more connected than we are.

Oudtshoorn says:

You’re right, ricksonelliot, but not entirely. Centuries of teachings by the Catholic Church is what taught millions of Catholics to hate us, and helped Hitler with his Holocaust. But only we can remedy this by kindness and generosity, because the Church never will.

Oudtshoorn says:

ricksonelliot, sadly it’s often not “decent” people who hate us. Those who lived through the Hitler years can tell you about the horrible, hate-filled people who hate anyone who is not them. Have you seen the behaviour of Polish Catholics and Ukrainians at Euro 2012 – the soccer championships? THOSE are not decent people. There are signs up all over Poland, reading JEWS TO THE GAS, swastikas all over the country, and I saw some people chanting “Death to Hook Noses.” Catholic Poles are not often decent people. So do try to share the blame more equitably. Remember that it is the Church which taught the falsehoods about us, and the Catholic Church has always held tremendous power. Polish Catholics believe whatever they are told, and it is from their priests that they learnt the blood libels about us; their priests who encouraged massacres of Jews for three years after the end of WWII. Perhaps you should pick up a history book or two. The hatred of Jews in Poland has not dissipated. There are thousands of Poles who live in houses stolen from Jews, with belongings once owned by Jews – none of which the Poles paid for. Again, if you must blame religious Jews like Tzirel Chana, try at least to see the other side. For those of us who are older, fear of gentiles is a life-saving instinct, believe me.

Bill Pearlman says:

great story. I wish I were 12 and going to camp again. Who wouldn’t

Reb Yid says:

Sounds like the Jewish kids’ connection to Judaism was no greater than the Catholic kid’s.

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A Stranger Among Us—A Catholic Boy at a Jewish Camp

I took my Catholic friend to my Jewish summer camp when we were teenagers. Now he’s an honorary Jew.

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