|Rabbi Evan Schultz and I with our campers and counselors|
There I was – 14 years old, standing on the dock of the lake, or the agam, as we called it, at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire.
Friday afternoon, the cool breeze of the afternoon swimming across the lake.
I looked around, my bunkmates all standing there, peering towards the water which, even on the hottest day, always seemed freezing to us.
Our counselor, David, brought us out to the lake before Shabbat try something wholly new to many of us, to take a dunk in the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath.
Many Jews, to symbolically cleanse themselves before Shabbat arrives, jump into this body of fresh water, to ready themselves for the Sabbath.
David, who was kind of a hippy Orthodox Jew, with his scraggly beard, sidelocks, and big yarmulke, asked our bunk if we wanted to jump into the lake before Shabbat, and of course we replied with an enthusiastic, “heck yea!”
That’s what’s great about camp – everyone is up for a new adventure, there’s a willingness to try something new, because your bunkmates are there by your side, and your counselor wants to share with you something special about the world that you may not have the opportunity to experience at home.
I remember that sound of our bare feet walking along the metal dock on the lake, walking toward the water, David attempting to teach us the blessing that one says upon dunking in the water.
We were excited – while the rest of camp was off showering and getting ready for Shabbat, we were going to the lake.
I stood there for a moment, everyone around me quieted down, and then we jumped – one orchestrated huge splash – the water was as cold as I thought it’d be – but something was different about it.
It wasn’t the same water from our morning swim lessons or afternoon free swim – there was a different peacefulness to it – as I went underwater I felt this surge of what I can only think was God, surrounding me in that moment, energizing my spirit and my body , cleansing me with Jewish Clorox, I felt happiness, I felt like I was in a holy space, with my closest friends, like I was at home in that lake, I still remember it so vividly.
From that Friday onwards, our bunk had a tradition of jumping in our lake mikveh every Friday afternoon before Shabbat – nobody ever missed it – it became our group ritual, our unique way of bringing in Shabbat – and that memory has stuck with me ever since.
We each learn so much at camp, about ourselves, what we’re capable of, we are fully immersed – it’s like a mikveh – just as I was surrounded by the water – I was surrounded by friends, counselors, staff, all kinds of people all the time who helped to create this unbelievably transformative space.
I recently read an article in Tablet magazine entitled, “Camp Puts Jewish Values to the Test—That’s Why Camp Friendships Endure” The author of the article, Marjorie Ingall, talks about this immersive nature of camp, she writes,
“Because overnight camp is an immersive, shared experience, it feels hyper-real and intense. You’re with your friends 24/seven. You see them in multiple contexts: You see what they’re good at and what they struggle with; you gain insight into your own accomplishments and struggles. You and your bunkmates fight and you make up, because the intimacy of camp means you can’t (and don’t want to) fight indefinitely. “An hour in camp is like a month in the outside world,”
Camp is a beautiful mikveh – you jump in and just can’t anticipate all the feelings and emotions and rushes that you’ll feel, but you know something special and transformative is going to happen.
So with that, I want to call up all of our campers for a special blessing as you are about to make this journey:
We offer a prayer for this children going to camp this summer
As they jump into this mikveh, this immersive experience
May they be surrounded by amazing friends
Counselors who will open their eyes to new possibilities
Senior staff who ensures their safety and well-being
May each of them discover their unique talents
Gain insights into their own special core
And look around each morning
and every night to see the spark of the divine
Give them energy to be present in each activity and program
The will to be open to new people
and new ways of seeing the world
Please make sure they rememberto take a shower every once in a while
And of course it would be great for them to return home
with at least some of the stuff they brought with them
May they each return with a story, a memory, that makes them smile
Friendships that last way beyond those two months of summer
And may that dirt of camp never fully wash off.