All I really need to know, I learned at camp (to borrow a phrase from Robert Fulghum). This may be a slight over-simplification, but it is greatly accurate, to say the least. Just as I did last year, I am writing my current column from Faculty Housing at URJ’s Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, MA. I arrived a few days ago, though it already feels like I’ve been here for weeks. Immediately, you get sucked into camp culture, you add a bit more pep into your step, and you see the possibilities for fun in everything you do. As this is now my third summer on faculty here at CLC, I know more and more of the culture, and I recognize lots of the campers. It feels like my summer home, as it surely does for the campers who return for year after year.
I’m especially aware this year of the fundamental life lessons that one learns during summer camp. And I’ve been wondering why the rest of life isn’t more like my weeks at camp. These life lessons, while certainly available to us the rest of the year, are even more obvious and present during these precious weeks. Those who treasure camp as much as I do will identify with these ideas, and those who haven’t yet experienced the joys of Jewish camp will hopefully take some of these lessons into their lives.
1) Be open to new experiences. As adults, we easily get set in our routines, our comfort zones, and our identities. “I’m not a morning person.” “I’m not the kind of person who feels comfortable doing that.” “I’m really not very athletic.” It’s sad to hear people lock themselves down, or limit themselves from potential interests or talents. At camp, the kids get to try all sorts of new activities and electives, which helps them evolve their own identities and interests in a safe, loving, supportive environment. If only we felt this sense of openness as grown-ups!
2) We aware of God’s presence. By infusing our days with Jewishness, we experience the holiness of every single moment. We bless our meals, both before and after we eat. We appreciate the beauty and gift of nature. We build fires, swim across the lake, and dry our towels in the wind – all of which are possible thanks to the elements. God is around us all the time here at camp, and thanks to the rabbis, cantors, and educators who visit as staff and faculty, our campers have a chance to enjoy thinking about God. God is not only at temple, in the sanctuary, but on the soccer field, in the outdoor Beit K’nesset, in the dining hall, and in your bunk.
3) Be joyful. Eh, life gets tough. Due to obligations, homework, and stress, we can easily go a day without a deep, hearty laugh. Or even a giggle. At camp, we see everything through a lens of fun. We rejoice in the most mundane events – even washing our hands has a special song to go along with it. And why can’t I speak with a funny accent to get my point across? Or make a funny face to make someone laugh? Or talk about the hilarious movie that just came out? Life should be more fun, playful, and spontaneous. We have enough to worry about through the majority of our days – find the silliness in between!
4) Be affectionate. In our fast-paced, hyper-professional culture, we shy away from affection. We rarely tell people what they mean to us, and we are scared that a hug will be taken the wrong way. Rabbi Emma Gottlieb noticed that a camper from her congregation will be somewhat quiet around her during the year, but, at camp, will always hug her and play with her hair. For some reason, we feel okay expressing affection through safe physicality at camp, and we feel the warmth of human interaction. Boys openly hug other boys, and we all love holding hands. Why can’t we do more of this in our daily lives?
5) Be artistic. As someone who likes singing, and wishes life were more like a Broadway musical, I might be a bit biased here. Nonetheless, life is more fun with the arts. How many of us doodle on our meeting agendas? Listen to music as we work? Boogie a bit down the hall? At camp, we are free to express ourselves artistically, as music is a part of everything we do. We interpret prayer and text through visual arts, we dance as midrash, we identify ourselves through rousing cheers. As far as I’m concerned, a guitar should always be close at hand.
6) Be cooperative. In a cabin filled with 10 or more other campers, you learn to cooperate. You are sharing space, so everything you do affects someone else. Too many people are oblivious to how their behavior impacts those around – I’m sure you’ve had plenty of subway rides or lines at the grocery store that exhibit this teaching. Keep your voice down, watch where your belongings go, and be mindful of those near you. Just because you want to listen to music at the highest setting doesn’t mean everyone else wants to, as well. Be respectful of others and their right to personal space and comfort.
7) Be accepting of all. We come across all sorts of people in our lives, many of whom are very different than we are. They come from a different place, sound different, look different, and think differently. At camp, we meet campers and staff from all over the world. We hear many accents, and even more viewpoints. We can see past our differences and enjoy meeting fellow human beings, regardless of their labels. If only we could ALL do this as easily.
I’m sure that there are plenty of messages that you would add to this list, and I’d love to hear them. What do you take with you from your camp days? Anything that your children have taught you from their time at camp? What would life look like if it were more like camp?