I suppose it was a first date. It started as just a walk – a continuation of a conversation we started hours earlier. I was surprised that someone I thought was so handsome could have such depth, let alone want to spend his free time talking to little old me. We found ourselves sitting with our backs to the barn, taking in a meteor shower that rained shooting stars down on us for hours while we talked. I felt that heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed anticipation that comes in the moments before a first kiss with a new person. I was 17. And I was in love with camp love.
What started as a walk at summer camp became a four-year relationship, and put someone into my life that I still consider chosen family. What I gained from my relationships at camp shaped who I am as a youth worker, a Jew and a person.
Buzzfeed recently published 24 Reasons Dating at Camp Is Better Than in the Real World, which got me thinking – like every stimulating Buzzfeed list – about the uniqueness of relationships at camp. In the “real world,” where dating sometimes feels like a social experiment (Can I get him to eat Ethiopian food with his hands? Is it too soon to wear my Star Trek T-shirt?) and at other times feels like torture (What does it say when the bartender with the excellent beard feels the need to give me love advice? How soon can I get home to my roommate and overanalyze over wine?), I’ve found myself missing the simplicity of camp love.
There’s something to be said for dates that require no more than the sounds of teva (nature) and a clear sky for stargazing. Without the distractions of technology, elaborate foodie menus, social lubricants and people-watching, there’s no choice but to focus on the conversation (and maybe a little K-I-S-S-I-N-G, likely in a tree). It’s why a month-long camp relationship feels like a year – you reach a greater depth faster when you spend all of your waking hours with your person. You find out the things that matter more quickly than in the real world: How do they handle stress? Are they a morning person? Are they willing to apologize after a fight? Do they put enough chocolate chips in your pancakes?
At camp you’re stripped down to the real you. It’s impossible to spend hours getting glammed up at summer camp, because there are 12 children (sometimes in a communal shower) asking you how long until dinner, when tryouts for the talent show are, and why you’re shaving your legs if it’s not Shabbat. The things we see as our flaws, the things we spend so much time putting makeup over or avoiding in conversation, become part of the whole package of ourselves. We allow ourselves to be loved even when we’re covered in acne, mud, tears and sweaty color wars face paint.
We think of summer camp as a place for children to learn and grow into independent people, but it has the same effect on the young people and adults that spend weeks at camp as counselors and mentors to them. Maybe it’s them following us around like ducklings watching our every move that helps us to be and accept our better selves. Maybe it’s the freedom of loose schedules and work disguised as play (or is it the opposite?) that allows us to let go of what we “should be” and be as joyful as our campers, soaking up every moment because camp is finite.
If we could pack that feeling into our duffels and bring it home with us, what would our relationships look like? I suspect if we could bring more of summer camp into real life, we could be our real selves – love ourselves as we are, play more often, and put less pressure on our online dating profiles.
The next time you meet up with a potential b’sheret from JDate, remember – be you. And order the bug juice.
Logan Zinman works as the Director of NFTY’s Chicago Area Region with the best teens a gal could ask for. She has spent more than a full year of her life at URJ Camp OSRUI watching for shooting stars and hoping someone makes her farm-fresh refet eggs for breakfast. If you miss summer camp and would rather be at a campfire than at work, tweet @loganzinman to let her know if you think baked potato bar is a meal or a side dish.