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Written by Lauren Sharp Bernstein

Did you know that attending Shabbat services could change your life, forever? Yes, I am serious, spending an evening at synagogue could change your life. Here’s how it changed mine.

When I was 13, My mom and I were at Shabbat services in Hudson, Ohio. My Rabbi was fresh off the GUCI train, and was giving a sermon about her 2 weeks there. She passed around pictures, while talking about the community at camp, and for once, I actually listened intently. It was in that moment that something clicked in my brain. I wanted to go to camp. Not just any camp, a Jewish camp.

You may not think this was such a big deal, but I lived in a small town where I was the “Jewish Girl”. Up until then, I really didn’t like being Jewish. When you’re 13, you want to fit in so badly and just be like everyone else. And being Jewish made me different and unrelatable to other 13 year olds. To me, Judaism wasn’t important and wasn’t something I really wanted to get involved in. But that night, something my Rabbi said changed everything. I just knew I needed to go GUCI. So I leaned over and said to my mom, “I want to go there”.

At first, she thought I was joking, but I kept talking about it. I even told my little brother all about it and, who to her surprise, also wanted to go. The Summer of 2003, we were both going to GUCI. I was excited, but also nervous. So nervous, that I even begged my mom to not make me go, the week before camp. I sat crying in her room telling her I had made a huge mistake. Obviously, she didn’t cave.

That summer was just the first of many summers at GUCI for me and my brother. It became a place that I felt safe and accepted. I was no longer the “Jewish Girl”, which is all my 13 year old self wanted in life. Well that, and an iPod

I went on to be in Avodah 2007, a Counselor and then, finally, on Top Deck. The summers I worked for camp were some of the best summer’s of my life. I learned such valuable leadership skills, and I learned a lot about myself. I learned to work with so many different people to plan a program, to be silly, and to let myself become so immersed in Judaism that it became a part of who I am. Camp even led me to pursue a job in the Jewish community. I currently work as a Youth Engagement Coordinator at Temple Emanu-El, in Toronto. I work with teens to build their own Jewish learning and experiences, and that all stems from GUCI.

My story doesn’t end there. I know, I know, how could camp have changed anything else about my life? Well, I not only found my Jewish identity at camp, I found love.

My husband, Kyle, and I were campers all those years, and it wasn’t until Avodah that we became friends. Kyle might not admit it now, but he totally doesn’t remember me as a camper.

Our story is just like many other camp love stories, but ours contains two countries and lots of plane rides. We started dating our Machon Summer and then I broke up with him, because I was convinced that long distance wasn’t for me.

Only a few months later, Kyle and I decided we really did want to be together. So we braved long distance for almost 4 years. When we both graduated college, we spent one last Summer at camp together, on Top Deck. It was almost like we were saying goodbye to our childhood. I then made the move from Aurora, Ohio to Toronto, Ontario. I have been in Toronto with Kyle for almost 7 years now. We have been married for close to 5 years and have a 1 year old daughter, that I am very excited to send to GUCI in a few years.

I had never really understood how much camp had given me until 7 years later, when we attended the 60th reunion. That weekend let me do a lot of reflecting on what GUCI had done for me, and how big of an impact it had left on my life. There were so many emotions during those 3 days, but the biggest thing I felt was gratitude. I realized my motivation to change Jewish teen lives by educating them, and showing them how amazing being a part of a Jewish community can be comes, from a deep passion which I trace directly back to camp. My own personal life wouldn’t be what it is without GUCI, either. I wouldn’t have my wonderful family, and I also wouldn’t have some of my best friends.

Camp is the greatest gift my parents ever gave me. I believe it’s up to us to keep giving that gift, because camp does amazing things for everyone who drives through those gates.

I truly wouldn’t be the person I am today without GUCI. And all of that happened because I went to Friday night Shabbat services. It’s crazy that one choice, even at 12 years old, can change your life forever.