A year or two into dating my now-husband, we were invited to spend July 4th at his fraternity brother’s farm, along with dozens of other enthusiastic alumni. We packed up tents and drove up to Bellaire, Michigan. A then-vegetarian, I caught an odd look from the frat bro’s mother when I asked to put my Morningstar veggie burgers in the freezer – just as the family was placing a freshly slaughtered pig on a spit.
The next day, we drove to a nearby river to canoe. My husband climbed into the back of the canoe, as all the other men had. I looked at him from shore.
“Have you ever steered a canoe?”
I kindly shooed him to the front of the boat as I took responsibility for the stern and all associated navigational responsibilities.
The start of the river was a bit fast with some tree trunks jutting out into the water. One by one, every canoe capsized.
Every canoe, except one. We maneuvered through the debris and gathered the gear our friends had lost overboard in the freshwater chaos. Afterwards, Jeff asked me how I had learned to canoe like that.
“I thought you played tennis and stuff like that?” (It is possible “stuff” was not the word he used).
“I can’t play tennis.”
After that, my wilderness skills became the stuff of legend. On a subsequent camping trip, three of his best friends struggled to start a fire. Eventually, I grabbed one match and had a blazing fire going in five minutes. Because you only need one match to start a fire. I planned backcountry hiking and canoe trips, serving as quartermaster and orienteer.
Time and again, I proved adept at all the skills my years at Tamarack taught me.
Among my friends, this earned me a most auspicious nickname.
As in “Jew Camp, we can’t get the fire started. Come help!” Or “Jew Camp – how do we pitch this tent?”
Offensive? Arguably. Awkward when overheard by other hikers? Presumably. Do I love it and hope to keep it always as a term of endearment that harkens back to a time when I was resourceful and could sleep on the ground? Definitely.
Jewish camp was the formation of my own Jewish identity. It is where I discovered my desire to know Hebrew and prayers. It is where I forged my own deep-seated theism.
Camp is where I first felt God’s presence.
Conveying my love of camp to my husband was difficult. He was thrilled at my outdoor skills, which have greatly enhanced our love of nature travel. Then I told him I first went to camp the summer between second and third grade – for 21 days. He could not be dissuaded from the idea that Jewish parents send their children away because they don’t really like them.
When it came time to send our own children to camp, it was a hard sell. He could not imagine letting the kids go away for 21 or 28 days as I had.
“I like our children. Why would I send them away?”
In addition to the lack of shared cultural understanding of camp, we had to grapple with the appropriate religious environment.
In my mind, there were four possible types of camp: Jewish camps like Tamarack and Ramah, which had Jewish content; camps which weren’t technically Jewish but most of the kids were Jewish; camps affiliated with a different religion; camps that were unaffiliated and secular in their content and population.
Which type was right for our interfaith family? Much less certain than who should steer the canoe.
After years of negotiation, we chose a non-Jewish camp that ascribes to faith in a general sense, but not teaching any specific notion of God or prayer.
The camp has the rusticness that I crave for my children. My son’s first year, his greatest accomplishment was receiving a special award for fishing. My daughter’s favorite activity is called Reading with a View, where she finds a good book and a perch on a dune overlooking Lake Michigan. My son likes to track how many times he and his friends can race up and down their favorite dune during free time.
Dropping them off this week – her third and his fourth year after a forced hiatus in 2020 – they had the smiles on their faces marking their return to their most sacred place.
For our family, camp exemplifies the strange brew of culture and religion that comes with Jewish peoplehood. Camp is not an explicitly Jewish activity; yet in my Jewish world, practically everyone I knew went to camp. In my husband’s non-Jewish world, no one went to camp.
In the assumptions we made for life and child-rearing, we would never have placed camp on the list of discussion points before marriage like “would our son have a bris” and “would our daughter have a bat mitzvah.” But camp was one of our bigger struggles – existing in the amorphous space that both is and is not religion.
My children will never end a camp meal with a rousing addition of birkat hamazon, nor will they learn Hebrew songs or Israeli dance like I did. But in going to camp, they are still embarking on a ritual – living in community, convening with nature, growing into the people they are meant to become – that reinforces their Jewish values and, yes, identity.