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You Can’t Go Home Again

Returning to her beloved summer camp, one young adult ponders change, time, and the traditions that matter

Sophie Aroesty
August 24, 2017
Wikimedia Commons
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It was the last night of camp, 2011. On the dock of the lake, under the stars, I could just barely make out the faces around me. But I could see the same realization in my cabin mates’ eyes: This was our last night together as a cabin. The next summer, we’d be back as counselors, running our own cabins. We wouldn’t be sitting next to each other at meals, we wouldn’t have a sleepover every night, we wouldn’t be spending every second of camp together, ever again.

Camp Ben Frankel is small, only ever reaching about 100 people. But at this moment, while everyone slept in their cabins far, far up the hill, we might as well have been the only people in the entirety of Carbondale, Illinois. We spoke in hushed tones, trying to match the stillness of Little Grassy Lake.

“I have one,” Paul said. “Remember, Sophie, in seventh grade—”

“Yes, yes, yes,” I cut in. “ I already know what you’re going to say.”

“Hey! It’s my turn.”

He continued, despite my glaring.

“Remember in seventh grade, when we were playing the question game, and you were asked what candy you’d be, and you said you’d be a lollipop so you could be LICKED like a lollipop?!”

I buried my face in my hands as everyone laughed, once again, at the expense of 12-year-old me. At that age, I didn’t quite understand the double entendre in Lil Wayne’s 2008 hit, “Lollipop.”

There went the sentimentality. What could you expect of people who’d spent every summer together since that seventh-grade year? These people knew everything about me, including my most embarrassing moments. It’s inevitable when you grow up with each other.

My counselor was also able to reel the moment back, making us remember what we had shared together this summer. “CIT year isn’t just about learning how to be a good counselor,” she said. “It’s about learning how to be a good person.”

We fell silent, taking in her words. We tried to hold onto the moment—the infinite stars, the water lapping against the wood, the feeling of being together for the last time.

Driving up that familiar gravel road, I was jittery with nerves and anticipation. I had made the heartbreaking decision not to return to camp this year, but there was no way I was going to stay away the whole summer. I visited the last weekend of July, the last weekend of the camp season. I pulled up into the clearing of the woods, and once I saw the Cheder, our dining hall, I knew I was home.

Inside the Cheder, the same folding tables lined the walls where we sat for meals. The old drum set and keyboard still decorated the stage at its far end. And through the window, I could see campers turning the pavilion into a Beit Knesset as they always did on Friday afternoons, with an ark, Ner Tamid, and chairs to face them. My life may have been totally different, having moved to New York City for an internship instead of returning to CBF for the 10th time, but some things stayed the same.

Looking out the window, I didn’t notice Thunder running up behind me, tackling me for a hug.

“SALSA!,” was my only warning as we both went tumbling forward. That was my camp name, a tradition we’d started for staff members my first year as a counselor. After Thunder came Bounce, then Little Bird, then all my former co-counselors and campers who had been in the Cheder for Shabbat prep.

It was a quick hello as everyone got back to work. I watched them set up the tablecloths, the handwashing station, the grape juice. What do I do?, I thought, unsure of how I fit into this group effort. When had I ever not known what to do at camp, or felt like I didn’t belong? I stood frozen, gripped by the strangeness of the moment. But then I improvised, finding a spot in the back where I could stack chairs.

Luckily, after Shabbat prep, I knew exactly what to do. I went to the women’s staff cabin, dressed up, and headed to where the whole camp was gathering: a grassy area at its far end, to ceremoniously take pictures in our Shabbos best.

“Rascal! Tank! MouseTrap! Bounce!,” I yelled, calling out for the cabin mates I’d had as a CIT. We took the same picture we took week after week every summer, ever since 2011: everyone looking inquisitively up at the sky. (I couldn’t tell you how that tradition started.) After we took the picture, I pulled my friends into a group hug, excited to see them after missing them the whole summer. Yeah, okay, I teared up a little bit.

“Tank, let’s gather our kids for a picture,” I asked my old cabin mate, a.k.a., Paul.

Tank and I were counselors for the CITs the year before. Now, they were first-year junior counselors, with campers and camp nicknames of their own: Ducky, Kit Kat, Prez, Winter, Pollo, and Spider. I had given them those camp names. Every time I heard a camper call one out, wanting to take a picture with them, I was touched.

“I can’t,” Tank said. “I have to go setup the chuppah for everyone to pass under after the Shabbat Walk,” he said.

Him and the rest of my friends ran off to do their duties, now filling all of the senior roles on staff. I ran after them and pretended I was still important. But I wasn’t about to miss any traditions. I insisted we have our own Shabbat walk as we headed down the long path towards Beit Knesset. Everyone held hands as we sang together. “Mayah feh hayom, Shabbat shalom. Shabbat, Shabbat shalom…”

Another visitor this weekend was Yoyo, the song leader from 2012 who had since become a professional cantor. I had always missed Yoyo’s services, ever since he had left. When he led, it was the best kavanah of any congregation anywhere. Forget summer camps—his service was better than any synagogue, stateside or in the Holy Land.

He led us in all my favorites, from the Lecha Dodi with hand motions, to the four-part “Or Zaruach.”

“I can’t believe it. Campers have never participated this much this summer,” Bounce said to me in between songs. I wasn’t surprised—I was just as enthralled in Yoyo’s “Lecha Dodi” as the kids—but apparently, services this year had been pretty dry. Something like 50% of the campers were new, many of whom came from small towns across the Midwest. They were often the only Jews in their school or even town. So they weren’t familiar with Hebrew or prayers, and services weren’t their favorite. But it was unusual to have so many new kids.

This was in part thanks to H, a new director this year at CBF. H is 41, but often sporting a baseball cap and perpetual tan, he could easily be mistaken for an older counselor or veteran staff member. Which isn’t so far off from the truth. He grew up at CBF, attending as both a camper and counselor. Some time after that, he was director of a Jewish camp in Wisconsin for many years. For the past several years, H headed an organization called Camp Kesem, a nonprofit for kids whose families have been affected by cancer. Coming from the nonprofit meant that he was amazing at fundraising, and coming from a long history of camping meant he was amazing at recruiting campers. So, in short, he was an amazing pick to be the next director to run CBF.

At dinner, I tried to get to know one of these new campers, firing off question after silly question to try to make him laugh.

“Do you like Simpsons? You have the Simpsons on your shirt. Was your bar mitzvah Simpsons-themed? Do you want to name your future kids Bart or Lisa? Have you ever been on The Simpsons?”

He wasn’t amused. “Did your old campers also think you were super annoying?”

So these new campers were a little harder to get through to. That much was clear when toward the end of dinner, things started becoming uncharacteristically chaotic. Campers left the Cheder in droves to go loiter outside by the bathrooms. People were running around, talking to friends instead of cleaning up. It was making me anxious. And if it was making me anxious, it must have been upsetting Old Man, another visitor this weekend.

Old Man was an old program director who, like me, didn’t return to camp for the first summer in a long time. But his absence had to have been felt way more than mine—he had done so much to shape camp and build it up to its current glory. In past years, he had everything working so smoothly that people followed the schedule to the exact second. Literally. We called it “camp time.” Everyone had to synchronize their watches to Old Man’s, or risk getting a strong talking-to if they showed up to flag raising at 8:01.

“Is this bothering you as much as it’s bothering me?” I whispered to him, watching the anarchy wide-eyed.

“No,” he said, smiling. “It’s not my problem anymore.”

Old Man was right. We weren’t on staff anymore, and I couldn’t get worked up about these things. I tried to adopt this mantra and relax. Luckily, we started song session, and everyone returned to the Cheder. I grabbed campers’ hands as we jumped up and down to “Gesher Tsar Meod.” I climbed on a table and shouted out, “Let every good fellow now join in our song,” as the rest of the camp replied, “Vive la Compagnie!” We wrapped our arms around one another for the more meaningful but equally sweaty “Grove of Eucalyptus” and “Shabbos Prayer.” The song leader, MouseTrap, invited me into the center of the circle to help lead a slow rendition of “Adon Olam,” a beautiful melody I had taught to the camp years before. As our voices carried far out of the Cheder, probably reaching as far as the Methodist camp next to ours, my heart swelled with love and appreciation. I might have left camp, but come Friday night, CBF would always be celebrating Shabbat and singing my favorite songs.

Though Saturdays were our one day of the week to sleep in late, I was up at 8:30 anyway, still accustomed to my regular workday schedule. I jumped out of my top bunk and got dressed, putting on the traditional Camp Ben Frankel garb for Saturday services: a camp shirt. It was a fun competition, in a way, giving veterans a chance to show off the oldest shirts they’ve collected and the number of years they’d been coming back. I considered at length what year I was going to bring for my one Shabbat. 2016, so I could prove to all the new campers how relevant I am? I wasn’t a huge fan of that pastel green, so I opted for choosing my favorite color instead: the bold blue of 2012. It has “SALSA” emblazoned across my shoulder blades. It was my first staff shirt.

Still debating whether I had made the right choice, I didn’t notice I had accidentally woken up Bounce.

“Oh—my bad. You should go back to sleep, if you want to,” I told her, as she pulled on the 2016 pastel green. Damnit, maybe I should have gone with that one.

“What are you talking about?” she replied.

“You don’t have to be up for like, another hour, right?”

Her face was blank.

I tried again. “Services start at 10, but it’s optional breakfast?” I said, feeling like I was stating the obvious.

“Oh, we don’t do that anymore. Breakfast is mandatory, at 9:00. Didn’t you hear them tell everyone after song session last night?”

No, no I had not. I had been goofing off with Thunder in the kitchen while cleaning up, actually keeping in camp tradition. Which no else seemed to be doing.

Optional breakfast was a hallmark of Camp Ben Frankel. As a camper, when my whole schedule was decided for me, these few hours on Saturdays mornings could be spent sleeping, eating, playing gaga—whatever. It didn’t matter what I was doing, it just mattered that I had the choice and freedom. As an introverted and overwhelmed camper, waking up before my cabin mates meant time alone during the otherwise constant influx of social interaction. And as a counselor, when I spent nights staying up till ungodly hours, that forgiving wake-up time helped me survive weeks and weeks of sleep-deprivation.

“Supervision,” Bounce said, only needing one word to explain the policy change.

Supervision was number one on H’s agenda as the new director. I wouldn’t say that campers were wandering around at will before—except, okay, maybe Saturday mornings—but he took supervision to a whole other level.

Before, at night, campers were guarded by staff outside of the cabins, who stayed until counselors returned to the area for curfew. But H felt that no camper should ever be in a cabin without a counselor. I couldn’t even begin to understand the new system, with different counselors going in and out of cabins for shifts, some having multiple in a single night. Before, only four staff members were needed for guard-duty. The new system needed nine people at any one time. So staff never really had the chance to be all together after campers went to bed, like we used to be.

I sat down in the Cheder for breakfast, a way more crowded experience than it ever used to be. But, it meant all my friends were there for me to chat with, as I enjoyed my traditional Saturday morning bagel with lox and cream cheese.

The rest of the morning continued as usual. Everyone piled into the Beit Knesset where we did Shabbat services, including a skit narrating that week’s Torah parsha, and a cake for kiddush. After Shabbat services, I went to the CIT cabin to lead a program. H wanted visitors to add something productive to camp, and I couldn’t have been happier when he asked me to help out. Getting to pretend I was CIT counselor again? I’m there. I decided on a tried-and-true program for these 10th graders: a discussion about Jewish values. They debated whether things like supporting Israel, continuing the Jewish lineage, or believing in God was what made us Jews. But surprisingly, these CITs had few doubts in their Jewish identities, and they breezed through the activity. So I climbed off the bunk bed and joined them in a circle on the floor of the cabin, improvising a new program.

“What do you know in your heart is right and true that you haven’t done because you’re afraid of the consequences?” I asked them, a question I had learned verbatim from the old camp rabbi, Tayto.

They went around the circle. One talked about feeling too confined by her parents’ expectations, one talked about wanting to reinvent himself, one talked about grieving over the death of a loved one.

It was the kind of conversation that always seemed easier to have among camp friends. And those kinds of conversations, had year after year, are what made camp friendships different than any other.

I left their cabin for the Cheder for lunch smiling. I thought about all the other conversations I’d had that felt just like that one—at the bench in the Galil, on the dock at night, around the campfire after friendship circle.

And I continued to revel in all the ways I was reliving my camp memories—like sneaking into the kitchen to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was never a fan of the usual Saturday options of tuna salad or egg salad. I sat down with my delicacy and chatted with my friends about what they’ve been up to for the past year. As Tank told me about his plans for law school, I saw one of the campers turn on the keyboard and start pounding away.

I looked at Bounce, alarmed. We’re a pluralistic camp, but the rule had always been that we keep Shabbat in public spaces, i.e., the Cheder, and the outdoors. “No taking pictures, no writing, no tearing, no thrashing wheat, no tanning leather,” was the joke our old camp rabbi used to make. And no playing musical instruments.

Bounce shrugged. “The first couple of weeks, we”—she motioned to the people sitting at the table; the staff members my age—“tried to keep campers from breaking Shabbat. But it doesn’t really seem to be something they wanted to continue,” she said, referring to the higher-ups in charge.

I took in her words and tried to keep an open mind. Maybe keeping Shabbat was hindering camp, and not helping it. The people we try to recruit are generally not religious. It could be scaring off potential campers.

Like most everyone else at camp, anywhere else, I never keep Shabbat. But I always had here. And even as a testy camper who hated feeling controlled, I never minded the rule. It was a gift, not a burden; a detox from the real world. So I didn’t consider for a second whether I would keep Shabbat this weekend. I just did.

My cell phone sat in my cabin, untouched, as we headed down to the waterfront for all-camp swim. Again, I was reliving my old camp memories, splashing campers and dunking them underwater. And I snuck off to the staff dock to gossip with Old Man and Yoyo—another tradition.

The end of the afternoon culminated in my favorite camp pastime, a nap. Sleeping during the day only ever seemed possible while curled up in a sleeping bag on those creaky metal bunk beds.

But that’s where the usual Saturday schedule ended. It was the last night of the whole summer, which meant instead of sub sandwiches for dinner, we would be having the banquet. Back at the Cheder, I piled my plate with deviled eggs, meatballs, and carved turkey.

I sat down with the older staff members and chowed down. They had even gotten ahold of fancy Trader Joe’s coffee, which, compared to camp’s usual coffee, was a real treat.

Panda’s coffee looked especially good. Too good.

“Why’s yours lighter?” I asked, confused.

“Oh, well, it’s not like I used milk for my coffee at a meat meal,” he replied, smirking.

His brazen disregard for camp policies—keeping kosher—left me speechless. It was one thing to break Shabbat. Doing so didn’t affect another person who was trying to keep it. But keeping kosher is different. Yeah, okay, he was drinking out of a plastic cup and not of the kitchen’s dishes, but it still felt sacrilegious to bring that into the Cheder during a meat meal.

I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. Panda is one of the many alumni H hired to work at camp this summer. These adults, who attended CBF in a different era, resented being told what to do, and also were less than pleased at how religious camp had become.

His response left a bad taste in my mouth. I tried to swallow it down, as I sat through the rest of the evening. There was a staff production, the Saturday night hilarious skits put on by counselors. But Me and Old Man sat off to the side, silent. All of the inside jokes from the summer went over our heads.

Normally, we’d have havdalah afterward, and then head to the waterfront for a giant bonfire. But there was a new plan this year. We were headed down to the waterfront first, presumably to have havdalah down there.

“I don’t understand!” one of the staff members complained as we walked down to the lake. “Why’s it so hard to do havdalah first? This isn’t right!”

We walked down the hill, as Old Man and I made sure we fell back far enough behind everyone so no one would hear her rant. But I didn’t disagree with her.

We came into the opening of the waterfront and were relieved to find that no fire had been lit yet. Some things were still sacred.

Closing ceremony was always that—sacred. The fire, the stars, the singing, the crying. It was when you realized that you had to return to the real world, to school, to work, to a place where every night wasn’t a sleepover with your best friends. You wouldn’t be spending every moment with them—it might even be a year before you see them again.

I wrapped my arms around my friends as we swayed and sang “Hamavdil Ben Kodesh Lechol.” The havdalah candle was put out, and the wood carefully constructed in the center of the beach was lit. The camp grounds had instructed us to make a campfire instead of a bonfire this year, but it was still pretty big.

We stood in a semicircle around the flames. H walked towards the fire and faced the camp.

“Some of you may have only met me this year,” he said, “But I’ve actually been going to Camp Ben Frankel for many, many years. I came when I was a little boy, with my brother, Joel, who you guys know as The Dude.” I winced a little at hearing his real name. “And this is the place where I grew up. I loved camp because it was where I could be myself. My cabin mates, Randy, Andrew…” He held out his arm towards the alumni. Again with the real names. “They’re going to be standing beside me at my wedding. So camp friendships really do last.”

At closing ceremony, after the director speaks, campers would normally come down and share a favorite memory from their cabin. But H had another plan.

“This year, we’re starting a new tradition. It’s called the 10-Year Friendship Circle.”

Kernel showed everyone a wooden board. “10-Year Friendship Circle” was painted at the top, and below, wooden squares spray painted gold each listed a different name, with the years that person had come to camp.

“This is going to become a permanent staple of the Cheder. Hopefully, you’ll keep coming back, year after year, and you too can be inducted into the Ten Year Friendship Circle. At every closing ceremony, we’re going to have the new inductees come down and share with everyone what camp means to them. And it just so happens that we have many of the first inductees here tonight. So they’re all going to come forward and talk now. Who wants to go first?”

There was an uncomfortable silence. No one seemed to ready to give remarks or to know what to say. “I’ll go first!” Yoyo said, always ready to step up.

I was sweating, and it wasn’t just because the bonfire was getting uncomfortably hot. What was I going to say? It shouldn’t have been so hard. Campers always loved going up and sharing a funny or meaningful moment from the past year. I looked around for inspiration and noticed that they looked utterly bored. One boy was even asleep. I’m not sure how he managed to do it. Between the wet ground, mosquitoes nipping our ankles, and the heat from the blazing fire, I was pretty uncomfortable. But it was also pretty late.

“Salsa!” Kernel yelled, going through the list of 10-Year Friendship Circle initiates.

I stood up and took my place next to the bonfire. All eyes were on me.

“It was so amazing coming here and feeling so welcomed by everyone,” I said, improvising. “I feel connected to every person at this camp, whether you were my co-counselor, camper, you were in my activity, or I’ve just gotten to know you from being at camp. Even the new campers I haven’t met yet—I know that we would be friends because we have camp in common. I love you all and I’m so glad I got to visit.”

I sat down afterward uneasy, feeling like I’d just given a thank you speech at an award show. Why were we going up and talking about ourselves? The campers could never pay attention to something this long, and besides—this ceremony was supposed to be about them, not us.

Eventually, it was over, and we carried on with the regular program. The fire had died down a little, we stood up, moved in closer, and embraced each other again. And then we started my favorite part of closing ceremony: singing.

“All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go. I’m standing here outside your door. I hate to wake you up to say goodbye. But the dawn is breaking, it’s early morn. The taxi’s waiting, he’s blowing his horn. Already I’m so lonesome I could cry… ‘Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again. Oh, babe, I hate to go.”

I’d always prided myself on not crying during closing ceremony. But for some reason, this year, when I hadn’t even spent the summer at camp, I was a goner. I really was leaving on a jet plane that next morning, to return to New York City. And I didn’t know when I’d be back.

“Bless this house for we are all together. Bless us all, we may not meet again. Think of all the happiness we found here. Take it home and share it with our friends. Come along, sing a song, and we’ll never say goodbye. And you’ll see, and agree, friendships won need never die.”

Faces of people from years past popped up in my head. I remembered people who shaped who I am today, whether it was through challenging each other, growing together, or loving one another. Some of these faces I hadn’t seen in forever. Some were right beside me.

Lema’an achai vereai, lema’an achai vereai. Adabra nah, adabra nah, shalom bah… To all of my brothers and friends, to all of my sisters and friends, please let me ask, please let me say—peace to you.”

I closed my eyes and took in the moment. The waves crashed on the beach, the fire crackled, and our voices joined as one. It was the kind of moment where everything stops, and you get this sense of clarity.

The alumni loved to talk about their experiences at camp decades ago and how things were different, but the campers, who have only lived about a decade themselves, didn’t care. They didn’t want to talk about camp as it was then, they were only interested in camp as it was now. And though I was only a year out, I wasn’t any different than the alumni. I couldn’t hold onto the place that I knew camp to be. It had to change, to evolve, to improve, to grow the same as the people who attended it.

True as this is, I hope camp preserves some of the traditions that shaped me into who I am. It’s hard when you’re trying to raise money and you’re trying to recruit campers. It’s the same issue that all Jewish organizations seem to be grappling with today. How do you appeal to Jews that are now almost entirely assimilated into American culture, while preserving the practices that set us apart from everyone else?

There needs to be a balance. Yes, some things should change. But we need to hold onto some of the antiquities, too. It’s what makes us who we are. It’s like that old quote: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” Camp Ben Frankel kept optional Saturday breakfast, an instrument-free Shabbat, a kosher Cheder. And it’s what made us a camp.

I don’t have the power anymore to make these decisions. My time at camp is over. But even though I’m no longer be a part of camp, camp will never not be a part of me. And because of that, it will forever live on.

The cliched thought made me laugh. It was so revelatory, but it was the same thing we sang every night at camp, around the campfire.

“In the heart of our loved country stands the best camp in the land. (In the land!) It is known as Camp Ben Frankel and we think it’s mighty grand. (Mighty grand!) Good friendship, fun, excitement, in each long lasting da-a-ay. We know we’ll always love you.

“In our hearts, you’ll ever stay.”

Sophie Aroesty is an editorial intern at Tablet.