By Rachel Retter
When discussing the infamous complexity of the post-seminary transition, one typically refers to the experience of returning after a year in Israel to one’s childhood friends, family, and community, as well as the even more daunting prospect of starting – gasp! – college in America. But often overlooked is the unique experience of returning, sometimes a mere few days after collapsing off the El-Al flight, to sleepaway camp.
I come from a big camp family. My father, having gone to camp himself before he could read or write, thought it prudent to call up the Camp Chedva office when I was just five years old and ask when the deadline for the camper application was. (He was informed by a thoroughly taken aback camp director that no such bunk existed for that age.) But ever since the slightly more appropriate age of eight, I have been in sleepaway camp every summer, and loved every minute. After several years as a camper, I continued to return as a counselor to Camp Kaylie, a camp which has bunks comprised of typical campers, as well as campers that have special needs.
During my seminary year, as I began to consider my options for the summer, my first instinct was to sign right up to return for a third year as a Kaylie counselor. But as I heard my peers discussing their plans, I started to reconsider. Maybe I should get a head start in career-related and academic opportunities. Maybe I should have some time at home to relax before starting college. Maybe I was “past that stage,” and should be moving on to camps more densely populated by post-seminary girls, such as camps that cater exclusively to a special needs population.
After thinking about it, however, I realized I couldn’t picture myself not spending at least part of my summer in my childhood camp. I emailed the camp director, accepting the job as a counselor, and requested that I be put in charge of a bunk in the oldest division: high school-age girls. Although I had worked with younger ages in the past, I felt that, coming out of seminary, this would be the most meaningful experience for me. I remembered the impact that my older counselors had on me when I was that age, and wanted the opportunity to do the same for other girls.
When I met my campers, I was a little nervous. Yes, it was my third year as a counselor here, but I felt like having a teen bunk was a whole new ballgame. Luckily, we got along well right away. “You’re post-sem?” one of my campers exclaimed excitedly, giving me a look like I was a cute, innocent puppy. “You’re probably all…spiritual and stuff!”
As I got to know them better, their impression of a typical post-seminary girl became clear. “Are you flipped out?” they would ask me eagerly. They would also ask me questions about everything ranging from tznius (modesty), to secular music; from tefilla (prayer), to how we should relate to God. When they saw I had a lesson-a-day shmirat halashon (laws regarding speech) book, they asked if I could learn it with them every night. Deeply impressed, I agreed, and together as a bunk, we discussed lashon hara, and positive relationships. “Do you never speak lashon hara (derogatory speech)?” they asked me, sounding overwhelmed. “How is that even possible?”
I knew, at those moments, I had an important balance to strike. Yes, I wanted to inspire them with the positive changes I had made in my life after a year immersed in Torah. Yes, I wanted to show them that it is important to always be working on yourself, and to try to be the best Jew that you can possibly be. But I also wanted to be honest, and normal, because, as I remembered from my high school years, the most inspiring thing to a teenage girl is someone who is relatable and real.
I wanted to show them that growing in seminary does not by any means mean that you become a perfect person; that you can come out of seminary proud of your accomplishments, while still being open about the fact that you have plenty left to work on, because what person doesn’t?
I also wanted to show them that you can work on yourself, and your relationship with God, without taking yourself too seriously. That you can keep learning with your chavrusas (Torah study partners), and still get up on a bench and positively scream out the words to the camp song. That you can gently guide the conversation away from lashon hara, and still quote Jim from The Office like normal people quote Winston Churchill. You can be fun and engaged in the world, while still being strong in your convictions and beliefs.
In seminary, I looked to my teachers for guidance and mentorship, soaking up as much I could from them. As a camp counselor, I had the chance to transition from actively seeking out role models to actively being a role model. In my opinion, there is no better or more meaningful way to internalize what you have learned than to use it to make a difference in someone else’s life.
Additionally, while I may have formally stepped into the “role model” position in camp, I continued to learn a great amount from the people around me. The other staff in camp, with their tremendous patience and love for every single person, served as an inspiration for my personal growth. But the people from whom I learned the most, by far, were my campers. I have never met such a mature, growth-oriented, and sincere group of fifteen-year-old girls before in my life. They asked such deep and insightful questions, not just to provoke, but because they genuinely wanted to grow in their knowledge and understanding. They treated me, and each other, with kindness and respect, and always looked out for one another. Being a counselor was not always easy, but they made every ounce of work worth it.
A few people have asked me: so, was it worth it to go back to camp? Even if it meant you had less time to relax at home? This summer offered me the unique opportunity to learn and grow together with an outstanding group of girls. And while not always relaxing, camp is, in some way, home.