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How To Bring the Magic of Camp Into Your Adult Life

How To Bring the Magic of Camp Into Your Adult Life

Female rabbi in her twenties or thirties dressed in a prayer shawl and kippah while reading from a prayerbook outdoors

Lo b’shamayim hi,” it is not out in the heavens…

This is a piece of Torah that hangs in my office. It serves as a daily reminder that Jewish tradition and wisdom is not something to keep at a distance. It is to be a source of daily connection – a framework, a lifestyle. It’s also one of my favorites. It serves as a personal meditation and a professional reminder of what motivates my desire to work with the Jewish people.

I’m one of the lucky ones who, after finishing rabbinical school, nailed my dream job in a community that means something to me. When I saw my face on the cover of the Jewish Times with the tagline “A Rabbi Walks into A Bar,” I knew I had found my place to start my work as a rabbi. I went to happy hour – a lot – and found myself meeting lots of people in their twenties and thirties whom I started to refer to as having “dormant” or “hibernating” Jewish identities.

When I met up with a young adult for a conversation, I asked them what they loved – and didn’t love – about being Jewish. I asked them about the Jewish experiences they had in their youth and how they imagined being a part of the Jewish community now as adults. I started to notice the following pattern: When a person reflected on their childhood experience, it was often as if they were transported back to a time and place. Often, they reflected on their summers at Jewish camp or weekends spent with their youth group, and they could recall every smell, sound, and moment of a chapter in their lives as if it was frozen in time, clearly etched into their forever-memory.

And then, almost like clockwork, they snapped back from memory lane to the realization that they “haven’t done anything in years…and there’s not camp for adults.”

I founded and run a community initiative called Charm City Tribe in Baltimore, an organization for Jewish young adults looking to tap into Jewish life and culture in creative and meaningful ways. Part of the inspiration for the model was born out of a deep questioning about whether the Jewish models of our youth have an expiration date.

Obviously I can’t go to Reform Jewish summer camp for a month or two every summer anymore –  but why can’t we glean from the wisdom of what made camp so special and apply it to our adult Jewish journeys? After all, if adult life brings with it nikayon, or “cleaning time,” and the occasional cold shower, why can’t it also engage with the playfulness, joy, and sense of community that we recall so fondly from our youth?

Not only do I credit camp with laying the foundation for my Judaism, along with what it means to be a mensch, but I also credit camp with the ability to create an alternate universe in which we imagine the world as it ought to be, not just as it is. This, I believe, is a fundamental understanding of what it means to be part of the Jewish enterprise.

We recently observed the festival of Shavuot, when we celebrate the momentous occasion of the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. I imagine the community at camp: dressed in white, walking hand in hand up the mountain (or the hill), coming together with song and music, and then sharing in a beloved meal of fried chicken, soup, and challah – and afterwards, the most epic song session you’ve ever heard.

As Reform Jews, it can be difficult to create immersive Jewish moments – and camp spoiled many of us into thinking that the best of what that experience could look like is behind us. In the most unexpected moments, though, I realize that camp continues to inform who I am as a person, as a Jew, and as a rabbi. Camp also gave us the model and the tools to reimagine what that creation can look like as an adult.

It's summer now, and most of us are not packing our own bags to head to camp - but I encourage you to bring a moment of your camp past into your present life. Connect with some old camp friends for a nostalgic Shabbat dinner. Invite new friends over and recreate that Friday night experience to share some of your past with the people of your now. Read an article about something happening in the Jewish world or around Jewish identity… and end with that celebration of learning, a “Yay Shiur,” as I did at camp.

Ask yourself, “What is something that warmed my heart as a camper? And how can I bring it into this chapter of my life?” or “How can I more deeply connect or reconnect to a community that celebrates the way we did at camp?” We all know it will never be the same – but it could lead the way to a new now, allowing all that was good about camp to ooze into life as an adult.

Rabbi Jessy Gross spent the summers from 1992-2002 at URJ Camp Harlam, first as a camper and eventually as an assistant director. She is the founder and director of Charm City Tribe and the current director of Jewish life for the JCC of Greater Baltimore. She was honored by being included in The Forward’s 2016 list of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.”

Rabbi Jessy Gross
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