“Operation Bagel” Backfires
How my Jewish-camp friendship nearly landed me in the hospital
by Amy Cohen
The summer following my high school graduation, I was offered a job as a camp counselor at an overnight Jewish camp. This was a pivotal Jewish experience I never got to experience as a child. As a kid growing up in Chicago, my friends and I played little league, swam at the community pool, and went to each other’s houses to escape the scorching heat. Camp wasn’t something the Jewish kids in my neighborhood did. So, at 17, I was ready to embark on this adventure.
Well, I had my worries: Was I going to be expected to speak Hebrew? More importantly, was I ready for this? I had never been away from home for any significant length of time, and now I was heading all the way to Connecticut. What if I didn’t like anybody, or more importantly, what if nobody liked me? It seems funny now to have had these worries at 17, when most Jews had them as young campers.
I quickly learned at camp that it was true what they say: eight weeks flies by like eight seconds, and friendships made at camp are intense. Since time is so limited, bonds are formed almost instantaneously and often last a lifetime. I had been a quiet kid up to that point, not having come out of my shell yet, and had just a few close friends at home. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have predicted sharing a close friendship with someone in mere days.
When I met Michelle, a fellow counselor, something clicked. We started cracking sarcastic jokes and quickly realized we shared the same obnoxious sense of humor (our jokes made us giggle hysterically while irritating everyone around us). We gathered so many inside jokes within weeks that it felt we’d known each other our whole lives. Like several of my campers, we became inseparable. What we wanted was to spend a few days ignoring the responsibilities of watching the kids so we could just hang out and crack jokes and tell stories. There was just never enough free time. (I know, I know, we were being paid to do a job. But in our minds, the job kept getting in the way of our friendship.) Back then we couldn’t call or text each other with a funny story; to share a quick laugh, we had to run to each other’s bunks in those small windows of time between scheduled activities.
But then an opportunity arose.
Midway through that summer, a nasty flu swept through camp. It seemed as if half the campers got sick; it got so bad, the heads of the camp set up empty bunks as makeshift infirmaries. Each day, more kids went down, and the bunks kept shrinking. Then, the unthinkable happened; Michelle got sick. I couldn’t believe it. How on earth was I supposed to get through a day without her? She was my confidante, my sounding board, my bestie. Now she was laid up in the infirmary, delirious with fever. Every chance I got, I snuck over to her sick bed to check her status. After a few days, the separation anxiety reached a critical level.
Then came my flash of brilliance: That next Sunday at breakfast, I snagged a bagel and headed to the infirmary. I would have Michelle take a bite, and then I’d bite into the exact spot where she had just eaten. Clearly, I would get sick and end up in the same infirmary. Together again!! What didn’t occur to me was how sick I might get, or that our timing might be off. Indeed, I did get ill and felt near death. As Michelle grew healthy and was sent back to the land of the living, I became so sick that I was banished to a bunk at the furthest reaches of the campgrounds. I had a high fever for more than a week, serious enough that I was taken to a local hospital; there was even talk of sending me home. Epic fail!
Thankfully, the fever finally broke, and I returned to the ranks of the healthy. Michelle and I quickly returned to sneaking off to tell each other stories and cracking jokes. When I think back to that summer (and the three others I spent at the camp during the subsequent years), this is the moment that most speaks to how unique and intense the friendships are that we make at summer camp. I might have missed out on the Jewish-camp friendships as a kid, but no one can say I missed out on them altogether.
About the Author
Amy Cohen is a longtime resident of Burlington, Vermont. She drives a taxi four days a week in 12 hour shifts and then cherishes the solitude of her free time. She loves to read, take long walks, and has recently taken up learning to cook from the Food Network.
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