Summer Camp 2020: A different kind of summer

Shabbat services under the shade of the outdoor sanctuary, Saturday cookouts on the main lawn, the fizz of the twisted candle as it enters the kiddush cup and 300 campers screaming “One more time!” during the chorus of “Shavua Tov (May You Have a Good Week)” – these are all staples of my summer Shabbats from the past decade that I won’t get to experience this summer.

This summer would have been my eleventh and, quite possibly, my final summer spent at URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, the current pandemic has forced camp directors across the country to think critically about whether a summer together on campus could be safe for campers, staff and faculty. Ultimately, many camps have decided to close for the summer, including Crane Lake, leaving campers and staff to reimagine what this summer will look like. 

It’s impossible to fully explain what summer camp has meant to me for the past decade, but through a series of articles looking at summer camps in the Berkshires and their impact on the camp community and the towns surrounding them, I hope to be able to provide a glimpse into that world. 

I first started attending Crane Lake Camp as a soon-to-be fourth grade student. I still remember walking onto the baseball field during that perfect, sunny morning in June of 2010 and standing in line waiting to get my head checked for lice. I had no idea that the girl in the white sneakers standing in line behind me would become one of the best friends I made at camp and that we would share a bunk-bed that summer. I had no idea that the strangers surrounding me would become my family, that nine years later I would commit to a college that’s only a 45-minute drive from camp and that eleven years later I would be writing about how camp had become my home.

Through the years, I’ve gone from being a camper to a Color War captain to a C.I.T. to a counselor. I’ve seen five changes of assistant directors, the construction of a new dining hall and the addition of a water trampoline at the lake. I’ve been taken care of and learned lessons from at least a dozen incredible camp counselors, watched my campers learn and grow into amazing human beings, met my best friends and made memories that will last a lifetime. 

Camp gave me a place to take risks, make mistakes and grow into the person I am today. It made me passionate about Judaism and helped me realize what my religion means to me. I never felt seriously connected to Judaism during my many years of Hebrew school or even at my high school, which had a fairly high percentage of Jewish students, but camp gave me the community that I needed to discover the parts of my religion that are so important to me. 

I learned and memorized Jewish prayers from Hebrew school starting at age five, but it wasn’t until my first summer at Crane Lake that I was asked the question of why we pray in the first place, and who we pray to. I still remember being nine years old and confronting these questions one summer afternoon during limud (Jewish learning period). Did I believe in G-d? What did prayer mean to me? I didn’t quite know yet, but going to camp summer after summer helped give me the materials I needed to start thinking.

Camp made me and my friends excited to be Jewish. Every Friday evening, we would dress up, often borrowing outfits and lending clothes to each other, and wait on the bunk porch for the Shabbat walk, led by the camp songleaders, to pass our bunk and take us to the dining hall for Shabbat dinner. We put our arms around each other as we sang the prayers for Kabbalat Shabbat, danced when appropriate and reflected on our weeks during the silent prayer. We sweat during the evening Israeli dance session until our nice outfits were drenched and smelly, and then we stood in a bunk circle with our arms around each other, singing the Hashkiveinu and the Shema. And our sweat got on each other and then the whole camp smelled of it, but it didn’t matter.

Though Crane Lake Camp has changed in many ways since my first summer in 2010, it brings me comfort to know that there are some traditions that will remain for as long as camp exists. Havdalah, the separation of Shabbat from the new week on Saturday evenings, has been and probably always will be the same at camp; even if years go by and all the bunks get rebuilt and new generations of campers grace Crane Lake Camp, the weeks will always begin with Havdalah and end with Shabbat. We will always listen for the fizz of the twisted candle when it is dunked in wine, and we will always scream “One more time!” between choruses of “Shavua Tov (May You Have a Good Week).”

The culture of kindness that Crane Lake Camp works so hard to cultivate summer after summer and the Jewish values that we hear about everyday at morning t’filah (song and prayer session) such as kehillah (community), bitachon (confidence), hakarat hatov (gratitude) and ahavah (love) help guide me through my everyday life – so much so that I even wrote my college essay about how I internalize these values and apply them to difficult situations in my life. 

And when I find myself missing camp – being “campsick,” as we like to say – I remember that I will always have this kehillah even if I’m far away from the people in it. As my mom likes to say, it doesn’t matter if your community is far away; what matters is that you have one. 

I still keep in touch with the counselors who watched me grow up, and I’m sure they will continue to be a part of my life, for they were not just my counselors; they were, and still are, my role models. During my C.I.T. summer in 2018, when I was making the transition from camper to counselor, I called my former counselors on the phone when I had no idea what I was doing and felt like I could never live up to the kind of counselors that they were. They assured me that they didn’t always know what they were doing either, even if it seemed like they always had all the answers. 

As I sit in my room in New York City writing this article, I am listening to a playlist of songs I learned from camp and wishing I could be packing and getting ready to leave for staff week, but the summer of 2020 now looks very different than I had planned.

When the Crane Lake Camp directors informed staff and campers on April 30 that all URJ camps would be closed for the summer of 2020, I was in shock. Of course I knew that camp would look different this summer but I didn’t dare to think that I would never even make it to West Stockbridge at all. While I am thankful that the URJ made the right decision for everyone’s health and safety, my heart still sinks every time I think that the summer of 2019 could have been my last summer at camp. When I left camp after last summer, I thought my goodbyes meant “see you next summer.” 

In a way, I have been able to see my co-counselors and campers already this summer. Even though the first session of camp doesn’t usually start until the end of June, the directors have already provided staff and campers with online activities to keep the camp community connected. Crane Lake Camp isn’t the only summer camp that’s adapting this summer to take place primarily over Zoom; its twin camps URJ Eisner Camp and URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy have also provided a schedule of Zoom events, including unit time for campers, song sessions and Shabbat and Havdalah services. 

On June 17, URJ Crane Lake and Eisner camps released a sign-up form for staff to lead activities in a full virtual program from June 29 through July 17 including events such as daily challenges, bunk time, electives, intensive workshops, all camp snack, family/unit game night and Shabbat song sessions and services. 

Seeing my campers’ faces on Zoom and leading virtual Pictionary has been a highlight of my past few months at home, and I am looking forward to being involved in future virtual camp activities. While I wish that I could be in West Stockbridge singing at t’filah with my campers in the morning and stargazing with my friends at night, writing a killer Fight Song and getting hyped for Color War, I know that those things can’t happen, at least for this summer, and that I will have to stay connected to camp through my computer screen and in other ways from home. 

My heart goes out to the campers for whom this summer would have been their last summer as campers, the campers and staff who were excited to go to camp for the first time and everyone in between. I cannot deny that there is a gaping hole in all of our lives right now, but I know that the future will have more camp in store for all of us in some way or another.

I know that while my time at camp may very well be over, the impact that it has had on me and the Jewish values that I learned from it will continue to shape who I am as a person forever. I am looking forward to the next time I can see my campers on Zoom and the day I can step foot on camp either as a returning staff member or as a visiting alumnus, and I hope that I can stay connected to camp as well as connect others to camp by continuing to cover the summer camp world in the Berkshires throughout this summer.

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