My earliest memories of prayer at camp aren’t exactly what the Union for Reform Judaism probably had in mind. Because when I was a 10-year-old first-time camper at OSRUI in 2003, I spent most of the two week session crying behind the bath house in the cabin area, praying that I would be allowed to go home. I cornered the market on homesickness. The summer was filled with counselors trying to console me, with leadership at camp trying to figure out a way to trick me into having fun. It wasn’t until Shabbat right before the end of the session that I finally decided that I wasn’t going to get to go home any earlier, so I might as well try to have a good time.
If only I could go back in time and talk to that version of myself now. I would tell him about the 12 summers and three camps yet to come. I’d tell him about the wife I’m going to meet at a summer camp, and the groomsman who I’ll bond with there. I’d tell him about the camp wedding I’d have, surrounded by my favorite people in my favorite place. I’d tell him about the version of myself that I got to know because camp showed me who I could be.
Here we are, 20 years later, and I’m crying at camp again, homesick. The difference is, this year, I’m crying because I have to leave. My wife, Dori, is the Assistant Director at GUCI, and is 36 weeks pregnant. Our doctor agreed that being two hours from home (Cincinnati) was probably not a great idea at this point in the process, so despite three weeks left in the summer, it is time to pack up and head back. Back to air conditioning, to home-cooked meals, to clean laundry. And we couldn’t be less excited to go.
I have found preparing to be a dad a highly reflective experience. And there are few places rifer for reflection than camp, where every minute is filled with meaning and intention. What other place invites young people to jump and shout and sing their way through prayers asking God to bestow peace unto the world, or declaring what a blessing it is to get to live and study together? What other place centers learning as the focus of programming, let alone with teenagers writing and producing those programs for the children in their charge?
Which is why I’m sitting in the back of services, watching the Garin campers sneak to the back to cry. It’s not uncommon that services are the part of the day when homesickness strikes the hardest. It’s only the fourth day of camp. This is their first extended time away from home. Of all people, I get it. But I also know that ten years from now, these homesick campers will have fallen as in love with this place as I have. They will be staff members hoping to give back to the community some of what they got from it. And they’re going to do it as counselors to my daughter, the one waiting patiently to be born. If she’s anything like her mother, she’s going to do her crying on the last day when we force her to come home.
Every year, my wife reads a letter, written by Michael Brandwein titled, “Letter to My Child’s Staff Person.” She uses it as a chance to inspire, to remind, to invite. The letter begins, “How strange it is that I’ve never met you and in a few days you will become the most important person in my life.” But I have met you. In some ways, I met you before you met you. I believed in you because of this place, even before you believed in this place. And I can’t wait for home to grow and change and adapt, until one day home is this place, perhaps more than any other.
-Rabbi Austin Zoot