I hadn’t been back to my old Jewish summer camp in a decade. But last summer, when I was visiting family in Chicago, my mother told me she was driving up to visit my younger sister, who, at 19, was working as a counselor at OSRUI, the Reform camp in Wisconsin where I’d spent nearly every summer of my youth. I decided, spur-of-the-moment, to go along.
Walking the dusty path to my sister’s unit, I passed the landmarks that were still etched into my brain from childhood: the barn where Charlie Smith kissed me, the waterfront with its sun-bleached canoes, the dusty Israeli army tents propped atop concrete slabs where we used to sleep. Inside the tents, the air retained its particular camp scent: hormones and sweat, mixed with Herbal Essences shampoo. My sister and her fellow staffers subscribed to the same aesthetic my counselors had—cute and slightly crunchy, in an Abercrombie-approved way.
In some ways, it was like going home again. But in another way, it was a reminder of how much I’d changed, and how much my Jewish identity—which once seemed so tied to my summers in this very place—had evolved in the decade since I’d last visited. I’d rejected camp and Judaism flat-out as a rebellious teen. I was nervous to go back, but revisiting the place that had given me something to rebel against helped me appreciate how far I’d truly come. I may not have grown into the Jew my counselors hoped I’d be, but camp played an integral role in shaping the religious identity I would eventually embrace.
Every summer for most of the ’90s, I went to OSRUI, a camp affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism. Every year, my parents dropped me off at our suburban Chicago synagogue’s parking lot, and a bus drove two dozen of us hyper Jewish kids three hours north to a tiny town outside Milwaukee. For eight years, I experienced all of the pivotal moments of adolescence, surrounded by hundreds of other Midwestern Reform Jews, a stark contrast from my daily life in a mostly Christian suburb.
The camp, like many URJ affiliates, had a healthy population of Israelis on staff. They pushed an unabashedly Zionist agenda, lassoing us for Israeli pride rallies and plunking us down in makeshift kibbutzim for conversational Hebrew lessons. We had prayer services twice a day and said hamotzi before gobbling down gluey challah. The American staffers, largely college students from Big Ten schools, had often grown up at camp themselves before spending semesters in Israel and getting elected to the NFTY board. They wore Teva sandals and listened to noodly jam bands. Some of them would eventually move to Israel and serve in the army; others would go on to rabbinical school.
Back at home, there were almost no other Jews in my public school, where, thanks to my too-short hair, too-big nose, and good grades, I was already something of an outsider. At camp, for a few blissful years, I was considered cool. I had a gaggle of girlfriends that moved as a pack, all of us witheringly jealous of Jen Schneider’s overdeveloped chest. I enjoyed my six weeks of popularity a year, gamely sang along to “Hatikvah,” and imagined I would one day be a counselor, too. My first kiss was with the aforementioned Charlie, a popular Minnesotan who had frosted blond tips and a tendency to use too much tongue and who was widely considered the cutest boy at camp.
Things started to change around my freshman year in high school. My small junior high gave way to a 2,000-student-strong high school, and I suddenly saw a place where even outsiders could manage to create their own clique. In the vast social landscape of my high school, I found myself drawn toward a new and exotic group: the punks. I started listening to the Sex Pistols and Rancid, wore tight plaid pants, and dyed chunks of my hair green. I pierced my ear with a safety pin and slunk home smelling of cigarettes and weed. My parents were nervous about my grades and my friends.
The summer after freshman year was my last one at camp. My new-found identity didn’t have much room for religion, and the social dynamic at Jewish summer camp didn’t have much room for me—girls with spiky hair and studded jewelry couldn’t be queen bees. Charlie declared me “not hot,” and my former friends said my music and wardrobe were too weird. I returned home in even more of a sulk, announcing that I was no longer interested in being popular or Jewish. I spent the rest of high school in varying degrees of antisocial behavior, decked out in ratty thrift-store clothes and loudly pronouncing my atheism. I stopped talking to old camp friends and eschewed reunions in favor of earsplitting basement concerts. I claimed to be done with Judaism.
When, much to the surprise of everyone (myself included), I was admitted to NYU for college, both my rebellious streak and my feelings toward religion started to soften. In New York, there seemed to be Jews everywhere, but most of them weren’t pushing an agenda. In fact, the majority seemed urbane and competent, with the presence of Judaism whirring only as a sort of white noise in the background of their lives. I took the safety pin out of my ear and started working in the school library, going to free readings at night and preciously decorated coffee shops during the day. I made artsy, pseudo-intellectual friends, and, although I felt a slight pang of recognition when I walked past, we sniffed our noses at the punks who clustered around St. Marks Place.
In college, as my rebellion started to wane, I began cautiously re-allowing certain aspects of Judaism back into my life, identifying with the cultural touchstones, if not necessarily the religious ones. I rallied friends for dim sum in Chinatown on Christmas Day and joked about neuroticism and bagels as part of my heritage. I signed up for a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, filled with ambivalence about the Zionist message but happy to accept a free trip to a foreign country. By the time I was out of college and in my mid-20s, I was comfortable with a sort of casual Judaism: My identity was tied more to Russ & Daughters than to Rosh Hashanah services, but at least I wasn’t scribbling “fuck God” on my notebooks anymore.
Going back to OSRUI after a decade away, I wandered through the campground with a sort of stoned detachment. I had expected to feel nostalgic, but something more was happening. I found myself effortlessly singing along to Hebrew songs I hadn’t thought about in years. I mindlessly said hamotzi and ate the same rubbery roasted chicken I’d disliked a decade earlier. I ran into a former campmate and was surprised to share pleasant remember-whens with him, given how bitterly I had parted ways with camp after my final summer. I told him about my life in New York, and he seemed impressed. He’d bounced around after college, spending a year in Israel and then crashing in different cities with camp buddies, some of them working for Jewish nonprofits or lobbyists. His brother was now a rabbi at the camp and had gotten married there the previous summer. I let this information wash over me, then wondered about my own split and eventual reconciliation with Judaism.
That day, it became obvious to me just how much of my Jewish identity as an adult had been shaped by my adolescent summers at camp. It wasn’t that camp taught me how to be Jewish—it was that camp, by being what I didn’t want, taught me what kind of Jew I did want to be.
In some ways, my tumultuous relationship with religion was exacerbated by my summers at OSRUI. The camp model for popularity doesn’t cater to young teenagers experimenting with an alternative mien, and the social repercussions of my punk phase were swift and brutal. Filled with resentment, I railed against camp for “ramming religion down my throat.” Years later, I realize that my rejection of being Jewish was, in many ways, a reaction to being rejected socially.
Allowing Judaism back into my life was the result of two forces: becoming more comfortable with my own identity, and being introduced to an environment where Judaism took on a more flexible context. The cultural aspects of the religion were not a priority at camp, so discovering them later on my own was both a surprise and a profound personal victory. I am no longer being told to stand unquestioningly behind Israel or go to prayer services twice a day; instead, I’ve cherry-picked the aspects of Judaism that speak to me most, a distinct step forward from my antireligion attitude 10 years ago. A rabbi would probably suggest I incorporate more of the religious aspects of Judaism, but for now, I’ve done enough to feel that I belong.
I have no doubts that in another 10 years I’ll have a different relationship with Judaism. Perhaps my bond to religion will grow stronger as I continue to mature, or maybe the opposite will happen. But I also feel confident that much of the reason I’ve come this far to begin with is because of camp. Only by being thrust into a very specific model of Judaism and then rejecting it was I able to embrace religion on my own terms later in life. A decade later, I’m finally comfortable with my own brand of Judaism, a handcrafted religion I’ve custom-built around my camper past.
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