By Doron Krakow
The buses began rolling in around 9:20 a.m. They came from as far away as Philadelphia and the Jersey shore. More than 40 of them. They arrive at the parking area at the JCC Camps at Medford over the course of 25 minutes or so, systematically and methodically delivering some 1,300 campers to the largest day camp in the JCC Movement—the day camp of the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Another 200 or so kids are part of the JCC’s travel camp, and many of the youngest campers spend the day at the JCC itself—a 20-minute drive away. All in all, more than 1,600 kids are part of the JCC Camps at Medford each day throughout the summer.
Sara Sideman, Medford’s remarkable camp director, like so many members of her year-round and seasonal staff, grew up at this camp. So, too, did the chair of the Katz JCC board, Andy Levin, and the JCC Camps at Medford incoming chair, Ellen Lowenberger. At the camp office, I met Pam Parker, the camp registrar, who is in her 27th summer as a member of the staff—having watched her children and now her grandchildren grow up there.
Not all the people connected to camp have stories like these—but a lot of them do. Leaders in the field of Jewish camping and the broader Jewish community—lay, professional, supporters and partners—often trace a lifetime of commitment to Jewish life, Israel, and the wider Jewish world to their time at camp. A time in which that wider world stood still, while the special world we were privileged to be a part of—for a few weeks at a time each summer—was a universe unto itself. A place of fun and play, of music and art, a place with a language and traditions all its own. A place of spirit. Of adventure. Of heroes. A place of friendships that so often formed a community of fellow travelers who shared the journey, not only through those irreplaceable years, but into the years beyond, and across a lifetime.
As kids, it sometimes felt like camp was a whole world made just for us, but it was more than that. In Medford, the summer staff numbers nearly 600, and while they’re there to ensure the world of the campers is just right, these mostly older teens and early 20-somethings have a similarly remarkable experience, and for those of us who see through a wider lens, they are the other critical audience. Some grew up at camp and revel in the opportunity to provide the same kind of experience for the kids who followed—while staying in the moment a bit longer themselves. Others are getting a taste of camp for the first time. For them, the same things hold true. A first taste of a unique world of play, music, friendship, and love. A world in which the community we make—the community we share—is the most important thing of all.
The people at camp—the kids and the staff—come in every shape and size, from places of every description, all types of families. Different backgrounds and abilities, speaking different languages at home. Differences that often set us apart when we’re anywhere else fade into the background at camp, where the things we share simply matter more.
Sights and sounds create a backdrop of Hebrew words and Jewish traditions. The flags of Israel and the United States or Canada are raised each morning, side by side, and the anthems sung. Throughout the day, campers participate in activities of every description. Sara told me that Medford offers more than 80 chugim, program options, each of which contributes to and benefits from the incredible Jewish setting, where sometimes experiential learning is an obvious component but more often is a function of the immersive environment that surrounds and embraces everyone and everything.
The JCC Camps at Medford make it possible for 1,600 kids to share in these experiences five days a week throughout the summer—and each camper and member of the staff brings them home at the end of every day, where the magic rubs off on parents and siblings, neighbors and friends.
That’s how it is—every day of every week, every week of every summer. Camp people and camp families wait all year for it—and it always goes by too quickly. When summer comes to its inevitable conclusion, we return—from that magical world, from those special people, bunkmates, friends, and role models—to the regular day-to-day of home and school and work. But camp somehow stays with us as we start the countdown—from that first day at home until the day we go back next year.
This year across the JCC Movement, more than 100,000 young people will take part in the largest network of Jewish day camps in North America—more than 150 of them from coast to coast—and the largest network of overnight camps as well. A hundred thousand campers and staff—part of the most dynamic, voluntary, intensive, immersive, repeating, Jewish community-building experience there is. These days, and these years, are the critical, formative ones for campers and staff alike. Who we are. What we share. Our connections to all that came before—and to all that will yet be. Magic.
Every time I visit one of our camps, that old feeling comes back. Camp is where I met my wife. That same camp is where we sent our sons as campers, year after year—until each of them chose to return as staff. Our friends from camp—and theirs—are among our closest companions on life’s continuing journey. Fellow travelers who share a proud and passionate commitment to the Jewish world. Like magic, a few hours at Medford brought it all back.
Am Yisrael Chai | עם ישראל חי
Shabbat shalom | שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America
JCC Maccabi Games in Israel: Watch the Opening Ceremony Live This Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET
Watch as thousands of Jewish teens representing 10 countries—including Ukraine and the largest-ever delegation from Israel—enter the stadium, marking JCC Maccabi’s return to Israel for the first time since 2011 and the athletes’ participation in the greatest Jewish peoplehood project of our time!
Co-hosted by JCC Association of North America and Maccabi World Union, partners for more than four decades, this year’s Games will feature the JCC Movement on a global stage—a proud part of our continuing celebration of Israel’s 75th anniversary.