By Doron Krakow
Coming Home to Camp
As August begins, we find ourselves approaching the end of another camp season. Another season of friendships, stories, and memories. A season of Jewish pride and purpose, of Jewish identity and traditions, of newfound ties to Israel and Israelis. A season of wonder and magic that we’ve made possible for more than 100,000 campers and staff across the JCC Movement and what’s unfolded throughout the landscape of Jewish camping—at Ramah, the URJ, at Morasha, and Young Judaea, at BBYO, Habonim, and so many others.
For most, it starts that first day back home. The countdown to next year when it all begins anew. For others, the 2023 camp season is the last, and for them, camp’s place in their lives becomes something else. A chapter, an experience, both formative and profound; the place where aspects of the people they’ve become first developed and incubated. Where they first felt a sense of independence and became a part of a community of peers. Moments in which they were tested, stretched, and discovered they are capable of more than they’d thought or believed. Opportunities to build self-confidence and to lead.
Though occupying only a few weeks on the calendar each year, camp—with its intensive and immersive reality—gave those weeks an outsized influence and often played an enormous part in shaping the adults the campers become. Of perhaps even greater consequence, camp, as a shared experience, means every encounter with someone with whom it was shared provides more than wistful nostalgia. Somehow, seeing these people becomes a continuation of that wondrous time. In their company, the magic returns and a little of that pixie dust seems to do its thing all over again.
Once in a while, we have a chance to actually go back to camp—to drop off our own kids when their time comes or to attend a reunion or special anniversary event. Now and then, it’s something else entirely. No matter the reason, as the road approaches camp and you pass through the gate for the first time after so many years, there’s that feeling. It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve experienced it yourself, you know what I mean.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of being part of one of those moments. It wasn’t my moment per se, and it wasn’t at Camp Tel Yehudah where I spent my summers a long time ago. But I wasn’t all that far from there when I arrived at NJY Camps in Milford, Pennsylvania, the largest Jewish overnight camp in North America, where I was to take part in hosting two camp alumni making their first visits back to camp in over 40 years. A brother and sister from a small town in central New Jersey, they’d first come to NJY in the mid-1970s, and this visit was more than 18 months in the making. They’d come from some distance and the visit was put together with meticulous care and attention to every detail. After all, it isn’t every day that the second gentleman of the United States of America and his sister come home to camp.
Over the course of several hours, Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris; his sister, Jamie; and a retinue of staff, including White House Liaison to the Jewish Community Shelley Greenspan, herself a product of Camp Ramah Darom, toured the grounds and spent time speaking with small groups of campers and staff. Then Emhoff sat with NJY Camps CEO Michael Schlank before the entire camp, in conversation about what it’s like to be second gentleman.
With the lakefront at their backs and hundreds of campers and staff arrayed before them on the side of a hill, Emhoff talked about his pride at having been voted “Most Athletic in Reuben Division” in 1978. He talked about how he found out who he was as a young Jew and about what it has meant to have shared the experience with his sister and with so many friends. He talked about learning to swim here and how this is the place where he developed his signature jump shot. He talked about Shabbat. He said that coming to camp was “one of the best things that had ever happened to me.” And he urged the many hundreds of assembled campers and staff to “be who you are…to be open, joyful, and proud.”
Of course, there were informal moments, too.
He couldn’t believe kids now shower in their bunks and not in the common shower house of his day. He was struck to learn there are multiple swimming pools on the site and that everyone doesn’t swim only in the lake like when he was a camper. He mentioned that at his wedding to Kamala Harris, his mother had embarrassed him when she read aloud a letter she’d been saving that he’d written to her from camp.
Doug Emhoff spoke with enormous pride about how his work as second gentleman has, to a significant degree, been informed by the experiences he and his sister had at camp—experiences that played an important part in preparing him to be a Jewish leader at this unique juncture in his life. He proudly described the Biden administration’s commitment to battling antisemitism and how much it means to him to host a Passover seder each year in the vice president’s official residence, a home adorned with mezuzot, a Hanukkah menorah, and countless other Jewish images and symbols—the first time in history the vice president’s official residence has been so decorated. He shared his realization that there’s little point in “holding the microphone, if you don’t do something with it,” and he’s determined, he said, to provide outspoken Jewish leadership from his extraordinary perch.
I watched his lakeside interaction with the entire camp—and swelled with pride as campers screamed his name and showcased their ruach (spirit) with cheers and delight. The obvious way in which they warmed his heart, warmed mine, and those of the small collection of camp and Jewish community leaders privileged to have been there. Perhaps the moment that best captured the entire experience came when a little girl sitting in the front row asked what his favorite moment was at Cedar Lake Camp. (NJY Camps is five camps and various other programs on two physical properties.) He paused, his face softening ever more, his smile even wider, and answered: “This one.”
He’d come home.
It was a day likely to be long remembered by all who were there, perhaps most especially by the second gentleman of the United States of America.
Shabbat Shalom | שבת שלום
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America