“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for You are with me.”
Names have been changed.
Nestled in the Conservative Jewish part of northeastern Pennsylvania, Camp R in the Poconos is a place many of us who have passed through its wooden bunks call home. I began my tenure as a camper in 2016, age 10.5, and outside of a brief hiatus when camp closed due to COVID, I have continued going and growing there for the past six years.
The previous summer, in 2021, had been the first where I felt like I had made deep, serious connections with other people, not just at camp, but for the first time in my life. That summer, when you are between 15 and 16, is called Shoafim, meaning those who strive or work out of a want for something greater, and I ended it seemingly lacking nothing. I had friends, I had meaning, I had happiness. But I never kept it up.
I was afraid of these connections, of the vulnerability that they created in me, and despite their wondrousness, I never maintained them. Looking back, I think this was out of fear of being hurt. I fell out of contact with my friends at camp, and just kept my head down in schoolwork.
It had been a depressing, empty year.
Now it was 2022, the summer before my junior year of high school, my final summer as a camper under our system. Called Gesher, from the Hebrew word for bridge, implying a transition to adulthood, the final summer is relentlessly hyped up. In the years preceding, you’re told about how it will be the best summer of your life, how there are specific, secretive traditions you’ll get to be a part of, how you gain a large degree of freedom along with increased responsibilities.
For me, however, the return was not, as it was for many others, a blissful homecoming, a calling like the shepherd to the sheep, but a terrible, haunting question: would I still have those friendships, those all-important relationships, when I reached camp, or had I let them lapse and die, hanging on the vine?
Mah Tovu Ohalecha (How Lovely Are Your Sanctuaries…)
I always arrive at camp in awe of the place, imagining myself kissing the ground. When the buses and cars arrive on opening day, they throw up a haze of dust from the dirt roads, making everything look like it comes out of an old, half-scratched photograph.
That summer, like every other, my friends and I greeted each other with ecstatic expressions and hugs. Steve, an amateur bodybuilder with a soft heart, loving nature, and penchant for manga, finally returned a book I had lent him at the end of last summer; Will, a five-and-a-half-foot young psychologist who is “always high on life,” greeted me with a few vertical leaps; Jed, a South-Central Philly native who loves country music and expresses his love for people in wildly out of pocket jokes, met me with a short yet tight hug; Maccabee, a legitimate mensch who, if he ever thought anything unkind about anyone, has never once expressed it, welcomed me with a blessing; and all 21 other banim (boys or men) in our edah (age group) greeted each other in their own particular ways.
But it still felt strange to be there. I felt disconnected from them despite all the emotion in our greetings. I had barely spoken to these best friends of mine in a full year’s time. They might have greeted me warmly, but I could barely reciprocate, my mind dominated by anxiety. It was a poor first week.
L’Dor V’Dor (From Generation to Generation)
There’s a secret tradition on the first Friday of Gesher summer. You and your edah are brought to one of the camp’s many firepits, anticipating a bishul (cookout) for breakfast, but none of the staff members with you start the fire and the cooking. Wood, lighters, food, and campers all simply sit there, waiting. “Sam,” one of us said to the counselor, “where the hell are the wilderness people to do the bishul? Did camp screw up again!?” Sam just sat there, smiling, with a lighter on the table nearby.
It took us, as a group, two hours to realize we were supposed to do it ourselves, light the fire and begin cooking, and though we started by sitting there in increasingly annoyed confusion, eventually we took action, began, and saw breakfast through. Apparently, in the decades-long tradition of Gesher bishul, we, Gesher 2022, took the longest time of any recorded group: nearly three hours.
The counselors never directly explained what this interesting social experiment meant, but it seemed obvious: take charge, take responsibility for your summer, for your life, for who you are, and don’t rely solely on others to do it for you. Lead yourself on the righteous path and restore your soul; don’t expect it to be done for you.
That night was our first Kiddish of the summer, a late Friday night tradition named after the customary Jewish blessing on wine. It is passed down by counselors, former campers themselves, from generation to generation. After the many hours of singing and dancing to bring in the Sabbath, each banim, along with their counselors, goes to their own self-designated spot, sits down in a circle, often in a traditional order (I’m fourth in mine), and goes around, each person getting their own turn to share a few thoughts, talk about their week, their feelings, whatever it is they might be going through, or simply something on their mind, finishing off as a group with a blessing and the drinking of grape juice.
It is a ritual designed to promote vulnerability and honest, open conversation amongst young men (girls have their own traditions), something dishearteningly rare in everyday life, yet desperately needed.
It had been a rough week, the previous few days. I had had no real conversations with any of my friends. I had spent most of my time by myself, I was concerned I had lost my friendships, I even considered going home early from this heaven. I was locked inside my mind, doing nothing but thinking, ruminating. I felt as though I had descended into a dark valley by coming up to camp, like a shadow was cloaking me, woven from the mistake I had made of barely talking to my friends, of caring more about schoolwork, of all things.
And so I took a leap of faith. I said exactly that, out loud, to a group of 25 fellows, all of whom, it seemed, had been having the time of their lives these past few days, and they all seemed to understand. They sympathized. I remember Maccabee telling me afterwards that he didn’t even think of it as a problem, Will that the idea I was losing touch with my friends never concerned him, that he never even thought of it.
I spoke what I felt, and was received. My feelings were relieved, camp improved instantaneously, and I felt no wrong, for my friends were with me.
Aleinu Leshabei`ach (We Rise to Our Duty…)
Kiddish ended up working this way for others, too, who used the space as a way to bring up feelings of exclusion they otherwise might not have discussed.
Our final Kiddish, the last in our time as campers, lasted from 11:00 Friday night to 3:30 the next morning. Many of us, including myself, prepared short speeches to read, summations of our camp experiences, and our love for one another. I went through a few drafts, was so nervous I had Asher proofread it, and settled on a six page address. I still have the original copy in my desk drawer, crossed out paragraphs and all.
“Camp is just a place in the woods,” I said to our group of 26. “Obviously we all value it, we believe it to be good, we keep coming back here year after year, crying when we leave. But what are we missing? Not the place itself, although it is a beautiful looking place, but the people. No longer campers, we now have the responsibility to uphold our relationships with one another. Being with one another is what we value, and so we must all personally work to continue that beyond camp.
Maybe it’s in occasional visits or trips. Maybe it’s in nightly FaceTime calls. Maybe it’s regular texting, or the occasional catch-ups, just to keep in touch in-between the times you really get to see one another.
But even if it’s nothing, even if you go for so long without speaking, the connections remain.
Before leaving on Sunday, two days after the final Kiddish, I wrote in Sharpie on the wall of a tucked away place in my bunk: “this is the house of the Lord, and you shall dwell in it for many long years.”
I haven’t been back there in too long a time, but I have no fear, for my friends are with me.
Josh Lancman is a high school senior from New Jersey. He intends to be a scientific journalist and educator. A professional napper, Josh’s favorite place in the world is Fair Harbor, NY.