“Camp friends are the best friends.” You may have seen this phrase pop up on social media or heard people say it in your presence, particularly during the summer as parents across the country send their children off to summer camp. For me, that statement has dual meaning, one as a parent, and one as a former camper and counselor myself. I’ve been fortunate in my life to come of age, discover myself, and crystalize my Jewish identity through a remarkable Jewish camp. The relationships and friendships I made through camp are the most genuine and long-lasting of my life, outside of my own family. And my husband and I have been able to give our children the same gift – this summer will be their 6th summer at URJ Camp Harlam.
I began my summer camp journey very young when my father was a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR. My parents decided to spend a summer at a B’nai B’rith family camp in Pennsylvania, with my dad serving on faculty. I was too young to really have memories of that experience, but that summer embedded a love of Jewish summer camp in my parents that led them to send me to camp on my own as soon as I was old enough. I’m sure people thought my parents were crazy for sending an eight-year-old to sleepaway camp for almost four weeks. And I was definitely homesick that first summer. But it was special, and their decision changed my life. I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana where there was a small Jewish community, and very few Jews my own age. At camp, I was surrounded by a community of young, energetic Jewish people. I was exposed to worship infused with joyful Jewish music and engaged in Jewish learning that left me wanting more. Shabbat was magical in a way I had never known. I still find worship in an outdoor setting transports me back to camp’s beit t’fillah in the woods. And when I need calm and peace, I hear my camp community singing the Shechechianu in harmony, multiple songleaders playing guitar in the background.
I spent my first two summers at URJ’s Olin Sang Ruby in Wisconsin, but my formative camp experiences were at URJ’s Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Indiana (commonly called GUCI). I was a camper at GUCI for 4 summers, followed by a summer in the Avodah program where we served as the maintenance for camp for the summer. Yes, I voluntarily cleaned toilets, washed dishes, worked in the camp office, and collected trash around camp for 9 weeks and loved it. Then I worked as a counselor for three summers, finally seeing the “other side” of how camp magic is made.
My camp friends are truly my best friends. No matter how long it’s been or how far we live from one another, we pick up exactly where we left off. With my camp friends, I laugh with my whole body, smile constantly, and know I can share anything with them – good or difficult. At GUCI, we have another saying, “wherever you go, there’s always someone GUCI.” And how true this is. Wherever I go, I seem to encounter someone who is connected to GUCI. That bond is strong – all from spending a few short weeks together as youth.
When our children were nearing the appropriate age, I was excited about the idea that they would have the same positive experiences I had at camp. But then my parental feelings also started to kick in. Were they too young to be away from home? They’d never even slept at a friend’s house before, let alone at camp with a bunk of strangers for 3 ½ weeks. I started having anxiety about how much I would miss them and worry about whether they would be homesick or if they would make new friends easily. So we went to visit URJ Camp Harlam for ourselves. We arrived at Camp Harlam to staff saying “Welcome Home!” By the end of the tour, our daughters wanted to know why they couldn’t just stay. The decision was made, and it’s been an incredible six years so far.
This summer will be our twin daughters’ final summer as campers at Camp Harlam. For three of their six summers at camp they’ve chosen to go both sessions, spending 7 weeks at their summer home. They spend 10 months of the year dreaming about and counting down the days until they get to spend two months at camp. Another saying, “10 for 2.” They’ve made friends that will last a lifetime, and they have solidified their Jewish identities in the most positive, encouraging, and supportive environment. In 2023, our girls will go with Camp Harlam to Israel, a summer they’ve been talking about for years.
This year, I was asked by Camp Harlam to serve on their Camp Council. The Camp Council is a group of lay leaders tasked with serving as ambassadors for camp and supporting the professional staff. In many ways, it’s the perfect next step for me. I have loved camp my whole life, and I was able to share that with my own family. Now, I can share it with you as well. Our Temple Sinai community has a close bond with URJ Camp Harlam, and I look forward to strengthening that important relationship. So if you are considering sending your children to camp, I’d love to talk with you. I can’t wait to welcome home more of our Sinai families at Camp Harlam.
Debbie M. Rappaport