When I drove through the gates of Camp Simcha Special for the first time five years ago, counselors and other staff members immediately surrounded my car, clapping and yelling my name. I had never received such an energetic and cheerful greeting. Camp Simcha Special, a project of Chai Lifeline, is a camp for Jewish girls with chronic illnesses and physical disabilities, although they also run a session for boys with physical disabilities and sessions for boys and girls fighting cancer. Chai Lifeline gives hundreds of campers an all-expenses-paid summer of a lifetime, providing one-on-one counselors, a fully staffed infirmary, and themed activities. As I drove my wheelchair into the crowd of excited volunteers that first year, I had no idea that my life was about to change forever.
For two weeks for the past five years, I got to live in a community where no one judged anybody else and differences were embraced and celebrated. Every camper has a unique story, yet we all empathize and relate to each other’s challenges. I made some of my best friends in camp, amazing girls who live all over the country and the world. While our diagnoses varied, we had one thing in common: our Judaism. I learned more about Judaism during camp than I could have ever expected. While I have always considered myself a Reform Jew, I appreciated being around girls of different levels of observance. My more observant friends never hesitated to explain their practices, and they asked me questions about mine in return. This shared learning experience was valuable in the formation of my Jewish identity.
Not only did I learn about being Jewish, but I also learned about myself. Camp Simcha Special pushed me to do activities I never thought I could do, like zip-lining, riding a motorcycle, and dancing in front of a large crowd. My counselor and friends encouraged me to try new things without letting fear hold me back. I participated in a variety of exciting workshops in camp, such as pottery, candle-making, painting, and baking. We also had special activities, ranging from adventures like going on a speedboat and helicopter to cool shows like an illusionist and acrobats. One of my favorite days each year was Tour de Simcha, a fundraising event in which hundreds of supporters of Chai Lifeline bike 75 miles to the finish line at the front of camp. Then, we danced, which also happened at every meal when the camp DJ started blasting Hebrew tunes. Every day was different and there were always plenty of surprises.
Even though there were lots of planned activities, some of my favorite moments in camp were the unplanned ones. I stargazed on a chilly summer night, relaxed in the library, made my friends laugh while preparing for the camp play, and stayed up late on the hammocks. Saturdays were full of relaxation because camp observed Shabbat. Last year, I had hoped to use that time to catch up on sleep. When I woke up earlier than most of my bunk on both Shabbats, I went to the boardwalk by the lake and read by myself, enjoying the beautiful scenery and reflecting on how lucky I was to be in this camp. At the end of Shabbat, we had a beautiful Havdalah service. I will never forget the sense of belonging I felt as I sang in unison with my fellow campers. This past summer, Shabbat meant even more to me because it was my last year in camp. I was turning eighteen, which meant it was time to graduate.
l am incredibly grateful to have spent five summers in Camp Simcha Special. While I wish I had more time at camp, I know it has changed me for the better. Now, I have a constant craving for Dipsy Doodles, my favorite kosher snack from the camp canteen. My Spotify playlist has the song “B’yachad” by Mordechai Shapiro alongside my favorite English songs. I am so lucky to have made such amazing friends at camp who make me laugh, inspire me, and support me. The memories, confidence, and friendships that I gained from camp will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Naomi Hess is a student at Princeton University.