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A Misfit Returns to Camp: The Punk and the Summer Funk

As a teenager, I felt alienated at my Jewish camp—but it helped me become the Jew I am today

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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.

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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Nice – reminds me of my own experiences at camp – both explicitly Jewish camp (Kutz, in upstate NY) and before that, at a Jewish-dominant but otherwise non-denom camp. Camp, like high school, has the same drama and passions, I just found that they were sped up – that things that would unfold over the course of a month in real life would happen in a week, or a day, in camp. Unquestionably, summer camp had a (positive) impact on my Judaism, although I look pretty critically at the Reform movement camps, and think that I would send my son to something more like Ramah, which was less ambiguous about its relationship with Judaism than I found at Reform camps. Thanks for a great story, and a memory.

Abraham Kleinman says:

APPARENTLY, AS A FORMER PUNKER, THE WRITER MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN A NEW DOCUMENTARY CALLED PUNKJEWS WHICH EXPLORES SIMILAR THEMES OF EXPRESSING JUDIASM IN DIFFERENT AND AWESOME WAYS. THE TRAILER CAN BE FOUND AT PUNKJEWS.COM

abbyklein says:

It is really too bad that you base your Jewish experience on a reform summer camp. I went to one, too, and I can tell you it had little to do with Jewish spirituality or religion, though it tried to act the part. For years, I thought the grace after meals was a camp song, never realizing that it was actually a central part of Jew’s daily life. I was lucky to experience an outreach camp for girls with little Jewish background. What an eye-opening experience! A full shabbat, Meaningful learning. Questions answered. Counselors who lived and breathed their Judaism. They never forced anything down our throats, but let us soak up the atmosphere and decide what aspects we wanted to explore. This experience led me to want to study more and I enrolled in a program in Israel before going to college. Don’t sell yourself short. Before you settle on your “handcrafted” Judaism, make sure you have sampled all its rich tapestry.

Good article!here

LaVerne Cohen says:

We all cherry pick! I loved the cardinal in the Da Vince code referring to ”cafeteria Catholics”. I am trying to find a J word to go with Jewish! The important part is that we see ourselves as “Jewish” I have told more than one Chabad Rabbi that I am not like them. They always reply, ”You are a Jew, that’s all that matters.” Every day is a journey, every year, every decade. What is always included is good food, friends, community, man jongg, Israeli dancing, love os Israel, and mitzvoth. Ever been with 4 Jews who get up from a table, or out of a car, and all say and the same time “OY”? It’s like music to my ears!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Michael says:

I had a lot of WTF moments reading this… starting with “I may not have grown into the Jew my counselors hoped I’d be” – the adult author’s delusion that her 18 & 19 year old camp counselors were so very defined in their own identities. And her assumption that counselors had some agenda beyond figuring out their own relationship with religion and culture and community. In reality they are just trying to learn how to navigate adult relationships for the first time – taking on responsibilities and being held accountable – and learning about their own Jewish heritage, culture and religion.

It seems that the author didn’t make the connection then (as most of us don’t) – and still doesn’t today – that camp counselors are only 5-7 years older than the high-school freshman (fresh-people?) they are responsible for. It’s a big 5 years – but still, just 5 years. Had she been able to hang in there for another year or two, she would likely have noticed that many of the young staff had the same questions and doubts she did – and found a very welcoming community to support her self-exploration. For myself, I found God at OSRUI (and haven’t missed a Springsteen concert since ’77).

“Some of them would eventually move to Israel and serve in the army; others would go on to rabbinical school.”
Yes, but most would not. Most would move forward with their lives, becoming teachers, doctors, labor organizers, parents, artists, accountants, business folk, filmmakers, bakers, and candle-stick makers – and writers… just as the author did – with a touchstone to turn to when considering their Jewish indentity.

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A Misfit Returns to Camp: The Punk and the Summer Funk

As a teenager, I felt alienated at my Jewish camp—but it helped me become the Jew I am today

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