By Ben Diamond
Back in 2003, I went away to GUCI for a two-week session, in what I thought would be my only camp experience. Today, those two weeks have turned into twenty-eight weeks, and I’ve gone from a young camper to a staff member. When I first came to camp, I had no idea how important that place would eventually become to me, or that people I met there would become some of the best friends I had ever had. GUCI is a huge part of my life, and put simply, it all started ten years ago with a pamphlet.
I think the idea came up one day at Sunday school, after my temple had just gotten the latest camp brochure in the mail. At the advice of some parents in our congregation whose kids had gone before, my parents took one home to take a look. They loved the idea of my sister and I getting some fresh air and meeting other Jews our age, especially since our congregation is so small. I was just afraid to leave home for two weeks. My all-time record of being on my own was two days, and even then I was with school friends. By the time opening day rolled around, I was sick with apprehension. Upon our arrival, I went through all the opening day procedures: I got a sticker with my name and cabin number, had my lice check, and met my new counselors. I was in Cabin 11, in the unit Garin, which is the youngest on camp. After my big sister and I were all moved in, the dreaded time came for my parents to leave. When I watched the screen door screech close behind them as they walked down the front steps and out of site, I didn’t immediately start crying. Seeing this as the first good omen of the day, I turned back to my counselors and new cabin mates as they started an ice-breaking activity.
The crying came later, at dinner. I was so distraught that I didn’t even listen to my counselors trying to console me, or to the food that was being passed down the table. I just tried to grapple with the fact that I would be on my own with these strangers for twelve days. It may as well have been twelve years; either would have seemed equally long. That meal, all I did was sob and look up at a Hebrew Scooby-Doo poster, while my fellow cabin mates politely tried to pretend I wasn’t making the meal incredibly awkward.
Services weren’t much better either. I sat with my sister, who was actually doing really well. She was even laughing and joking around with girls she had barely met an hour ago as though they were old friends, which astounded me. Nothing felt right. But then it was time for our evening programs, when the units get together for one last hour of fun before bedtime. That night, Garin’s program was acting out a funny scene about food poisoning over and over in different funny voices. (Yes, the bean skit.) As soon as I wailed my hilariously outlandish croaks and fell to the ground in a spectacular display of acting prowess, I had everyone cracking up. For the first time in a very stressful day, I was laughing my head off and actually having a good time. Although my homesickness would inevitably resurface now and then, I really got into the swing of things from then on. I learned the Hebrew names of all the buildings, made some new friends, and came to know the schedule by memory. The daily custom of crossing off days on a little paper calendar in my luggage was promptly forgotten. I sang along with the songleaders as they belted out beautiful Jewish music I had never heard before, and experienced my first GUCI Shabbat. As the session progressed, I quickly realized that twelve days was not very long at all. Before I knew it, the camp was full of cars and I was hugging my parents. After dropping off a copy of the new Harry Potter book for my sister, who still had another two weeks, we set off down Moore Road and back home.
Even though I had a good time, the feelings of homesickness were what stuck out in my memory after I was back, and as a result I didn’t feel the need to return the next summer. I wouldn’t come back to camp for another three years, until the summer on 2006 at the suggestion of my parents – this time for a whole month. Admittedly, I was still nervous going in. I didn’t eat much food before going over on opening day, but I was just nervous – not scared, like last time. I went through the same routine upon arrival: Got the lice check, got the nametag, and met my new counselors of Cabin 13. I was also in the middle unit Geza, no longer Garin. Although I felt small pangs of anxiety after my parents left, dinner on the first night was completely different. I chatted with my new cabin mates, ate until I was full, and had a good laugh when an Avodahnik dressed as a ninja instructed the camp on correct meal procedure.
That session made a much deeper impact on me. For the first time, I really got a hint of the “magic of GUCI.” I became much closer to the friends I made, really got swept up in the spirit of the place, and my experience wasn’t impeded by upsetting bouts of homesickness. I was happy to be back home by the end of it, but it wasn’t the same feeling of utter relief I felt last time. Life at home, with school and all the responsibilities of normal life, just seemed so much duller than I had remembered. Compared to camp, the world looked grey, and I was amazed when I actually started missing GUCI. Just in case that faded, I made a mental note for my future self: “Go back. I know you might feel different later, but trust me, go back.”
And that’s what I did. Three years later, I found myself asking to return voluntarily. When I got there, I was reunited with old friends from Geza, but this time we were in Cabin 18 and part of Anaf – the oldest unit. That summer, I had an absolute blast. The time I spent in Cabin 18 was one of the best summers of my life, and I spent it with an amazing group of people. Before Anaf, I never thought I would be able to feel the strong connection to GUCI everyone else seemed to have. All of a sudden, it finally clicked. Even though it was one of the happiest realizations I had ever experienced, it made leaving for the last time even more painful; next summer, I would be too old to return as a camper. Before I knew it, the session was over, and GUCI was full of parents coming to reclaim their kids. Tears were shed, hugs were given, phone numbers were exchanged, and cars were waved at as they disappeared down the gravel road and out of sight.
From the moment I stepped into my house, I wanted to go back. I missed camp terribly. I constantly told my school friends stories from the summer, even if they all ended in, “Sorry, you just had to be there.” I would spend hours on Facebook reconnecting with everyone, and going back to school was nearly unbearable. One night at the movies, someone a few rows ahead of me vaguely resembled a GUCI staff member, and for a moment I wildly thought it was them. When it wasn’t, I was devastated.
When I asked my parents if I could apply for camp’s 11th grade work program, Avodah, two years later, I could hardly believe the words coming out of my mouth. Avodah was just so unlike me. After Anaf, I had thought sure that my GUCI days were over. I had already gone through the torment of camp-sickness and made peace with the fact that I wouldn’t be coming back. But GUCI seems to have that effect on a lot of people. Soon enough, the summer of 2011 rolled around, and I was off for a longer, completely new experience at camp. I won’t go on about the summer itself – that would take way too long – but I will say this: Avodah sealed GUCI as a permanent part of my life.
It’s hard to imagine who I would be if not for camp. I almost certainly would have lost interest in Judaism a long time ago. Camp has given me access to a community of incredible people, and it’s why I’m proud to be a Jew. It’s helped me grow as an individual, and has taught me to be a stronger, more genuine person. That’s why I came back as a staff member last year, and why I’m planning to come back again. It’s also why I’ve begun to learn Hebrew, and why I wear a Star of David around my neck. Without a doubt, camp has made a profound impact on who I am, and for that I am incredibly grateful. Sometimes I wish I could go back ten years and sit down next to that sobbing kid at the first dinner of Kallah Aleph 2003, scared and surrounded by strangers. He has no idea what that place will eventually mean to him. I’d say, “it’s okay, kid. I know it’s hard, but trust me – it’s going to be just fine.”