This one time at Jewish overnight camp . . . I realized what the world had to offer.
I have lived in the same house for my entire life. Yes, my family has taken vacations to Florida and Arizona, and now that I’m older we have ventured outside of the country. However, up until I was about eight or nine, I really had no idea the world expanded outside of my small rural hometown of Rock Island, Illinois.
I hailed from a small Jewish community; my Sunday school class numbered about six students and that was considered big in my town. At eight years old, my parents offered me a life-changing opportunity: four weeks of overnight summer camp. I had no idea what I was in for, but my journey began in the Waupaca woods of Wisconsin.
I remember going to camp and thinking, “Wow, I never knew there was this many Jewish people”. That was my first realization in the world; little did I know there would be many more to come.
After that summer, I grew up living the ten others months of the year waiting for the other two. Starting at Camp Young Judaea Midwest and then in high school transitioning to Tel Yehuda in New York, I learned more at summer camp than I did sitting at my school desk.
Author and camp friends at Camp Tel Yehudah in New York
Camp teaches you a lot. When you’re stuck in the woods with a bunch of Jewish adolescents with no cell phone service and your only guidance is counselors who still pretend to be Jewish adolescents, you figure out a lot on your own and with your peers. You flourish with a Jewish community.
I will never forget the summer that I transitioned from my quaint Midwestern camp to the big dogs in upstate New York. It was quite the ordeal. Unpacking my clothes and putting them away I heard a girl in my cabin talking about Israel and what her views were. I was only a teenager – I didn’t have political views unless you counted what I heard from my parents. Whenever politics or Israel came up in conversation during group activities, I would pick at the grass around me, wondering if it was swim time yet. I had never truly paid attention to the news or my Israeli friends’ Facebook statuses.
I eventually became best friends with that girl in my cabin. She taught me about the terrors facing Israel and showed me that if advocated for what I believed in, I could make an impact in this world. That was when I learned there was more to life than frugal gossip.
And she was just one example. That summer I met kids from Texas who were into indie rock music; Californian kids who advocated for gay rights; Israeli kids who competitively mountain-biked. Any type of personality, I guarantee I met them, and I sharing in a camp experience with so many different Jewish peers was the best education money could buy. (Thanks for sending me to a giant educational sleepover Mom and Dad!)
At age 15 I could tell you what advocacy, Zionism, pluralism and secularism were; at age 16 I lobbied against domestic violence in Washington D.C.; at age 17, I was a reflective practitioner on issues in society; and at age 18, I was well prepared to bid a farewell to my parents as I departed to the University of Illinois, ready to begin my adult career.
Don’t get me wrong – I believe school is important, but I think camp teaches you to look at the world differently. I wasn’t learning about Israel from my textbook, but from my peers, which is much more powerful. Camp has no desks, no textbooks; it allows you to take a different perspective on the world and it allows you to see it from a different light. Camp inspired me, my values and my education and continues to every day of my life.
Author and camp friends at Camp Young Judaea Midwest in Wisconsin
Mia Kavensky is currently a marketing/design intern for Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. She will be a junior at the University of Illinois this fall, where she wears the yellow tea rose proudly as a member of the Sigma Delta Tau sorority. She wishes she could go back to camp every day of her life.