The Path Less Travelled

Melissa The Path Less Travelled - 614 eZine Vol 7, Issue 4

I learned the hard way that Jewish camp isn’t the only path to a strong Jewish identity.

by Melissa Wolfish

When I was six years old, a family friend gave me a collection of her daughter’s old T-shirts, the majority of which were paper-thin with designs peeling off. However, hidden in the collection was a white crewneck sweatshirt with black Hebrew letters. My parents explained that it was the name of a nearby Jewish sleepaway camp. I had attended a traditional secular day camp, but I fantasized that this place was a factory of sorts where young, brilliant students were molded into rabbis and cantors. A few years later, my parents thought I had reached an appropriate age to have a sleepaway camp experience. My family identified the particular camp advertised on my sweatshirt as an appropriate fit, given its affiliation with the Conservative movement and relative proximity to our home (approximately two hours away). As my mother and I packed for my week away from home, I told her that I wanted to bring my vintage camp sweatshirt with me. I couldn’t help but feel a little smug on the first night of camp as I wore my vintage threads during icebreakers.

I was so caught up in the organized chaos of the week that I made little use of the three foil-wrapped, disposable cameras my mom had packed for me. However, after camp ended, I vividly remember the car ride home during which I rattled off for my parents the names of colors and body parts that I had learned in Hebrew, as well as how many cannonballs I had done off the high dive at the swimming pool (just to freak them out a little). My parents looked at each other and beamed. I recognized that they weren’t just thrilled because I had a wonderful experience, but particularly because I had a Jewish experience.

The following summer, I returned, this time for three weeks. Due to my veteran status, my mom offered to buy me a new version of the camp’s sweatshirt; I settled on a heather gray, hooded sweatshirt with the name of the camp in English. When it arrived in the mail, I was disappointed. The fabric was heavy, and the high collar felt suffocating. I feigned enthusiasm and told my parents that it would be perfect for evening activities.

The sweatshirt was an apt metaphor for that summer. The triple-digit temperatures, which I had found to be novel the prior summer, now felt oppressive. Worse, the short length of the session I had attended the year before gave campers little time to form factions. Now, while my peers weren’t openly hostile to one another, it was evident by the different ways the counselors addressed us that some campers were cooler than others. Attending a Jewish day school and/or bringing a hair-straightening iron seemed to help. I felt paranoid and perpetually at risk of being regarded as an outcast if I made one wrong move.

I was also grappling with the displacement I felt during some “Jewish” activities. During our daily limmud (learning) sections, in which we were divided by our Hebrew language abilities, I began to feel hopeless about ever becoming proficient; I spent the entire session learning the Hebrew words for circus animals.

I also felt conflicted about the amount of time we spent praying each day. I felt somewhat foolish reciting the Hebrew prayers I had learned so diligently in my Hebrew school without having any idea what I was saying. I had raised this issue a few times with my mom during my childhood. “That’s why there’s an English translation,” she said somewhat unsympathetically. However, I didn’t find this answer sufficient, and my camp experiences further frustrated me. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, the gap between the siddur’s translation and my own interpretation of the original text was maddening.

Nevertheless, I knew that attending this camp was expensive; I tried to show gratitude to my parents, which unfortunately resulted in my return to camp the following summer for an entire month. The same problems were further magnified. The counselors were more hostile to those campers not deemed “adorable.” I was increasingly jealous of the campers who had fluency in Hebrew, and there was the added pressure of needing validation by the opposite sex. I quietly rebelled during those four weeks by making plastic lanyards in the shape of fish, which uncannily resembled those representing Jesus that I had seen on the backs of cars.

My rate of response to my family’s letters tapered off; I found that lying about having fun was exhausting. When camp finally ended and my mother picked me up, she was visibly disappointed but remained tight-lipped until we arrived home. She then confessed that she was upset I hadn’t written home every day, unlike Leah Halperin, the daughter of a family friend, who had attended the same camp session and had apparently done just that. I started crying, which escalated into sobs. I finally acknowledged how unhappy I had felt at camp the past two summers. My mom immediately softened as I shared my experiences between tearful hiccups, and she gave me a hug. I knew I wouldn’t be returning.

Many of my friends describe their Jewish camp days as an entry point for developing a strong Jewish identity, and I’m envious of their experiences. Jewish camp is frequently depicted as the place where one comes to value being part of a Jewish community. So, while I didn’t get kicked out of camp for unruly behavior or smuggling unkosher candy in my luggage, I felt like I had flunked Jewish sleepaway camp and, in turn, Judaism as a whole. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that for some people, certainly for me, embracing Jewish traditions was difficult while in the throes of puberty. Amidst dealing with a constantly changing physical body and social circle, I had trouble accepting my camp’s “one size fits all” approach to Judaism. Fortunately, I’ve had other opportunities to explore my identity, such as taking Jewish history courses in college and working for Jewish organizations. I can now appreciate that I wasn’t a Jewish failure. Rather, it was a matter of timing.

About the Author

Melissa Wolfish - 614 eZineMelissa Wolfish is a Los Angeles-based arts education advocate. She received her master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she studied arts education theory and policy. She is also an alumna of Oberlin College. In her free time, she can be found learning how to throw pottery on the wheel and admiring the squirrels in her neighborhood.


  1. Rivkah Kleinfeld July 25, 2013 Reply

    You definitely went to the wrong Jewish camp.

  2. So many true details. Obviously they had way too much boring prayer, but also I remember being totally mystified by all the straightening irons the cool girls had brought… and don’t forget the soffe shorts!

  3. Naomi Graetz July 29, 2013 Reply

    Naomi Graetz, “Prayer is a Foreign Language: An Open Letter to the Ramah Community,” The Melton Journal, (Spring, 1987): 24.


    Dear Friends,
    I would like to share with you my feelings on the subject of tefillah in Camp Ramah. I came to Ramah with expectations of being exposed to a model of davening to which I could relate and use for my own and other people’s edification.
    I began my initiation into prayer in Camp Ramah by being assigned to the magshimim edah (pre-teen division), The people who lead this division in prayer are top-notch serious Jews. One is an expert (male) baal koreh who is finishing rabbinical school, Another is a female rabbinical student who wears a tallit and tefillin. Both, with great patience, explain the significance of selected items to these pre-teens. Though one of their major concerns is discipline, the tefillah takes place in an atmosphere of ruach; there are nigunim (melodies) to get the campers into the mood of participatory prayer with a good mix of song and recitation. Song is occasionally accompanied by hand movements as well; almost in a hassidic mode. Although many of the campers felt uncomfortable with this form of prayer (initially), they seem to have accepted it after steady exposure. There is some experimentation; after a couple of weeks there was explanation of the structure of prayer and hopefully, as time goes by, more will be done.
    But there lies my problem: “What is our goal?” I do not think that it is to have 100 campers sit quietly every morning, some resentfully, through a service of mind and heart that they do not understand, mouthing the meaningless words only when they recognize the melody. Some of them cannot read from the Siddur. Some of them stare vacantly into space or try to talk to their neighbors. One girl who sat next to me on a Tuesday morning had a major concern: “Are they reading the Torah today?” When I told her no, she was relieved, either despite or because of the fact that I had been the Torah reader on the two previous occasions. In the class, where I occasionally use the Siddur as a text, the students react violently to its presence at a time when they don’t expect to see it. Other teachers have confirmed this—even those who have day school kids.
    I might have accepted this behavior as the norm here, had I not had a spiritually uplifting experience with the Amitzim division on the first Shabbat—an experience which made me question what is happening in, and to, our tefillot. And I use “our” in the sense of “our Conservative world” both in Camps Ramah and in Israel. The big difference is that in Israel, although we are uncomfortable with the forms of prayer, we understand the Hebrew language.
    The Amitzim division is a special edah in Camp Ramah. Amitzim is the name used in Camp Ramah in New England for the campers in the Tikvah Program. Offshoots of this, the original Tikvah Program, exist in the Ramah camps in Wisconsin and California. All the campers have various degrees of learning disabilities, syndromes and/or levels of retardation. There are also some graduates of this program who are working as counselors and being paid for their work. The group is both sheltered from, and integrated into, the total camp program. It is a model of how a carefully thought out program can affect the entire camp population. Campers of all ages are aware of and are sensitized to children who are different from themselves. The Amitzim are divided into various sub-groups depending on their ability to function independently, but many of the activities, such as prayer services, are on the division level.
    It was my privilege to participate in their first Shabbat tefillot. When one of the counselors asked me to read Torah for this edah, I agreed without fully appreciating that it was the Amitzim.
    I walked into their beit tefillah to find what appeared to be total chaos. All that was missing, it seemed to me, was people climbing up the walls. I wondered how I would survive the two hours I was to spend with them in tefillah and how I could ever concentrate on reading the Torah correctly. Would they even care, and what was the point of it all if they couldn’t understand? This was my introduction to a new world.
    How was order restored to this apparent chaos? The counselor in charge distributed cards with the name of a tefillah on it and asked for volunteers to lead the particular prayer. Amazingly, most of the volunteers were accommodated. What struck me immediately was how interested they were in the service and in what was going on; some of the campers volunteered for more than one card. The card seemed to have intrinsic value and some, upon coming to their turn to “lead” the service, simply handed in their card to the leader, creating in my mind associations of “teruma,” “ma’aser” and “korbanot.”
    I was observing and learning at the same time. They had their own “siddur” in loose-leaf folders which consisted of 1) Hebrew, 2) transliteration and 3) English translation with each prayer separately bordered off from the other. The graphic aspect had clearly been thought out, and although much was abridged, the prayers followed the order of the traditional service—including the amidah, Torah reading and musaf.
    What made this service so memorable were the explanations, questions and answers and the participation of invited guests. The maintenance man, Jerry, a high- powered labor lawyer in real life, talked to them about how he can help fix things, how they can help him and how we can help God to preserve the world He created. Danny Margolis (a former Ramah director) told two charming stories, one about two stones and another, a midrash about Noah by Marc Gellman called ‘The First Hamburger” from Moment Magazine, which I think should be told to all thinking people. Barbara Greenberg gave a d’ var torah which she adapted on the spot for the kids whose attention was rapidly waning.
    When my turn came to read Torah my previous nervousness was dispelled. I read it as well as I usually do, but I read it deliberately and slowly, trying to force understanding by emphasizing each word. I don’t think they understood a word, but I hope that some of my feeling conveyed itself to them. It was a special moment for me. Throughout, I felt that this service could serve as a model for the entire community. Obviously the needs of the “normal” population are different, but the fact remains that a group with special problems is having its needs catered to. The 60% of the campers who do not attend day schools could also benefit from some special attention.
    Instead of trying to mold the entire camp into davening in a monolithic manner, why not create a service which caters to those who cannot understand and/or read Hebrew? I understand the goal of the Camp and personally feel very comfortable with what is being done here. A genuine sense of kavanah permeates the tefillah for me. This is brought about in part by the introduction of niggunim. I most definitely feel an atmosphere of prayer, until I look around. Honesty compels me to feel for Anne, a camper in my class who constantly irritates me by disrupting my shiur and who hysterically expressed her negative feelings about Shabbat, which she saw as an encroachment on her space, seeing it as the culmination of the entire horrible first week of camp. I must add that I failed her in not understanding how far away from her world is the world we, the Ramah leadership and I, inhabit.
    The big, big question is, “Can and should we fashion a service for the Annes of the camp?” Those who know her, including me, would probably react with an honest “Who are you kidding?” I certainly don’t know how to go about it. I am throwing this question into the laps of those who are more experienced than I. I am after all an outsider; this was my very first year in Ramah.
    The solution as I see it is not a facile cosmetic one. While Ramah can accommodate different kinds of minyanim in camp, it is my sense that the problem it of a much deeper nature.
    The majority of campers and counselors are illiterate worshippers. Although most can read, reading prayers is not praying. I’m not thinking about kavanah, because it is a later stage, not consistently reached even by those who know how to pray. I’m talking about simple understanding of words, concepts, the structure of the prayer, the whys, the history of prayer—the need to pray, the relationship of prayer to God, the difference between Jewish forms of prayer and Moslem, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist forms of prayer, and the roots of prayer in the biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic sources.
    In my discussions with several teachers of Judaica I have become convinced that we must actively teach prayer. I know that material exists. What is needed is an integrative approach. This means that Judaic studies, Hebrew language instruction, life in the camp and teflllah must impinge actively upon one another. I have seen some starts in this direction, particularly in the Nivonim edah (the C.I.T.s). Nothing can be in isolation; the teachers and counselors need to study, too. The mishlahat from Israel especially needs such a course. If it is important to us, prayer must be put back on the agenda. We have to immerse ourselves totally in its study and observance; otherwise the message that prayer is something that must be endured silently is loud and clear.
    The children in Amitzim are very friendly. They are very social human beings, practicing their good manners whenever they can. They also like each other and are exceedingly supportive of each other in their group interaction. They applauded enthusiastically when one of them answered correctly. It was as if the respondent was answering for each and every one of them—which brings me full circle back to my feelings of understanding what it is to be in a really religious situation. The words of affirmation which were uttered by the people of Israel, “Amen,” at various times seemed to be very appropriate in this setting. These verbally inarticulate people are affirming their faith and confidence in each other in a more positive manner than most of us do for each other in a life time. Yishar Kocham—and may we learn from them.

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