Making Shabbat Our Own

A group of kids shouting

Summer camp happily surprised me by being the exact opposite of Hebrew school.

by Michelle Cove

I had major reservations about going to a Jewish sleepaway camp. I’d been in Hebrew school for years, and rather than instilling a healthy respect and fondness for my religion, my time served made me feel disconnected from Judaism and bored out of my gourd. My childhood friends can speak to the same discontent, as well as to how our Hebrew school teachers entirely missed the mark on engaging with youth. So I was skeptical at the idea of going to a summer camp with more Jewish authority. However, a few of my close friends were going, so at least we’d have each other. We’d suffer through Friday night Shabbats and Jewish sing-alongs together—tuning out as we had learned to do in Hebrew school.

What I didn’t know, could never have predicted, was that I’d find being part of a Jewish community cool (yes, cool). I remember before the camp’s first Shabbat dinner in the mess hall, the 10-year-old return campers in my bunk showered and donned dresses, spraying fruit-smelling body spray on themselves and picking out necklaces with a Star of David. When I asked them why they were dressing up, they responded matter of factly, “It’s Shabbat.” I followed their lead because my only mission was to fit in. I put on my best denim skirt, beaded top, and wished for the first time that I, too, owned a Jewish necklace.

At the mess hall, there was silence as the counselors said prayers over the candles, wine—“bug juice” in this case—and challah. The actual meal that followed was nothing special, but then we strolled across the grounds to the covered chuppah and took our places on wooden benches facing a stage. Uh-oh, I thought, was there going to be a Jewish play or, worse, Israeli folk dances? I braced myself as counselors began handing out stapled sheets of paper. Meanwhile, an excited buzz filled the air from the returning campers. When I looked at my sheets, I noted that they were filled with lyrics from temple songs I knew, such as “L’cha Dodi” and “Adon Olam.”

But when we started singing, upon the lead counselor’s cue, it was clear that this singing was the exact opposite of how we kids sang at temple. It was raucous and loud and filled with our voices, and there were all sorts of riffs and goofy lyrics to make the songs our own. For example, after singing the words “nod’dot” (which sounded like “no they don’t,” if you had a head cold) in “Bashna Hab’a,” all the returning campers knew to yell at the top of their lungs, “Yes, they do!” I checked to see if the older camp girls—the beautiful, popular ones—were eye-rolling, but, no, they were the ones singing loudest of all. I quickly tried to learn the customized lyrics so I’d be ready for the following Friday night. I wanted to be one of them.

Oh so quickly, I WAS one of them—well, not a beautiful, older girl, but one of the kids who knew the insider lingo and felt I belonged. These were, in fact, my people. After years of coveting Christmas trees and Easter egg hunts, I had my own insider traditions and religious pride. And THAT is the magic of Jewish summer camp.

About the Author

Michelle CoveMichelle Cove is the editor of 614. Additionally, she is the author of I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms (Seal Press, 2012) and I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate Hate You: A new understanding of mother-daughter conflict (Viking, 2012), as well as the filmmaker of “Seeking Happily Ever After”. Visit michellecove.com.

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