Inside and Outside
Inside and Outside
By Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky
My parents were those parents who started sending me letters at camp two weeks before I left for camp (“Dear Avi, you’re sitting downstairs in the basement watching TV while I write you this note”). Granted, mail to camp was slower then, or at least it seemed to be. My parents wanted to ensure that even on my first day of camp I had mail waiting for me. Not a day of summer camp went by without the same routine: mail call, the announcing of “Olitzky,” followed by the collective groan of my peers “again?!” I loved it each time.
There was one piece of mail, however, that didn’t elicit the same collective groans. I remember it like it was yesterday: it was just before the end of July 1994. My parents sent me a clipping from the New York Times from about 10 days earlier: “Keenan Abruptly Quits a Month After Cup Victory.”
Just before the summer began, the New York Rangers had won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. I wore my championship hat (hologram carefully left intact) and rangers apparel nearly every day that summer. That piece of mail arrived and I was heartbroken—and then it was as if my bunk became the ESPN briefing desk. Our world had been turned upside down.
I can almost remember the entire article—958 words. We poured over each and every word, again and again and again. What would this mean? How did it happen? What would the future hold? There it was in front of us: a one-way portal to the outside world that we never had.
Overnight camp is a bizarre place for kids—even in the age of WiFi and internet. It is a vacuum isolated from the outside world. Many campers refer to post-camp as “getting back to reality” or “returning to civilization.” Some even start sentences referring to home as “in real world” or “in real life.” And of course, there is always an end of summer “catch up” with friends about what was missed: movies, songs, tv shows, break-ups, hook-ups, etc.
The world 25 years ago was indeed a different place. Today, especially for our teens, the world comes at them, full steam, from every angle, at every second. It can be stressful. It can be painful. It can be harrowing. And it can be terrifying. This is one of the reasons that camp—and Jewish summer camp for that matter—is so important. At least for me, Jewish summer camp shut out all the white noise, the distractions. It became an opportunity for me to develop independence and decision making (Jewishly and secularly) without my parents.
Jewish summer camp became the great equalizer—it didn’t matter what synagogue you went to (if any), what your observance was, how much money your family had or didn’t, what health or behavior challenges awaited you at home.
What mattered was that you were not afraid “to sway like a palm tree” during Israeli folk dancing, or that you were fine when your voice cracked during what likely was your first ever solo in your age-group’s play. What mattered was that you knew to wear white on Shabbat, or not to touch the food before HaMotzi, or that every night was an opportunity to make a blessing over a shooting star you would never be able to catch at home. What mattered was that during Havdalah (a service of separation) you swayed to the soft melody feeling the difference between camp life and “real life,” or that on Tisha B’Av your crying snuck up on you, or that something as simple as an outfit you might never be caught dead wearing in the “real world” allowed you to become the purest version of yourself.
When you felt the choices were your own, you were able to return to them more honestly and consistently in the “real world.” Even flagpoles became statements of decorum and respect.
Those of my friends who did not go to camp didn’t “get it.” My hope for them is that one day they choose camp for their children. Because their children – more than when we were children – really do need this in their life. Their children need a safe space to be their truest self, to try things and take risks that may seem too overwhelming in the “real world.” And then my friends (and their children) will truly appreciate that magical Jewish place where things on the outside stop mattering, even but for a little while.
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, is no stranger to Jewish overnight camp, having spent time in some form or another at: Nah-Jee-Wah, Cedar Lake Camp, URJ (then called UAHC) Kutz Camp, Camp Tel Yehudah, B’nai Brith Perlman Camp, Camp Ramah in the Poconos, Herzl Camp, JCC Camp Chi, Camp Interlaken JCC, and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin—just to name a few.