I grew up in Florida and my mother spoke often about the summer she spent at Camp Laurelwood. Mom was raised in 1930s New Haven, the second child of a family deeply affected by the Great Depression. One year, she received a scholarship to go to camp. I don’t know if the gift came from Laurelwood directly, New Haven’s Jewish Federation or its JCC, but no one ever appreciated this largesse as much as my mother.
Her fond memories of the fun she had that one and only summer away from home fueled her desire to have me go, and she made it happen in the summer of 1967, the year my father decided to move us back to the Northeast. I was ten and a half years old, an only child and extremely shy. Mom thought it would be good for me to be away while they set up our new home in New York.
In those days, camp began around the Fourth of July and ended in late August, a full eight weeks. I arrived that first day with one trunk and two duffle bags, absolutely terrified. I didn’t know anyone and I was clearly different from the other girls: they’d already been at camp for a few years; they were mostly from area communities; they had nicer clothes and wore makeup! I was THE NEW GIRL.
My parents always remembered the sentence with which my first letter began: “If you could get your money back!!” Apparently, I was unhappy and ready to leave, but aware that our family of modest means couldn’t afford to be frivolous (I think camp cost $100 a week back then). Somehow, over the next three weeks, the magic of camp transformed me and, on the final day, I joined the chorus of sad campers. My mother and father were astonished as they watched me tearfully hug my counselors, Irma, the head counselor, Belle Schiffman, and other adults and kids. On our way out of camp, I pronounced with certainty, “Next year, I’m going for two months!”
I came to camp three more summers, each for the full session, and they are melded in my mind into a glorious panorama of milestone events. One in particular stands out: the summer of 1969, when on the afternoon of July 21st, campers and staff crowded into the dining hall, gathering around a very small black and white television set to watch the first man walk on the moon. We all remember important national moments; for me, a key one is where I was when I first heard, “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”
Then there was the year we lost elderly Mr. Gordon, the long-time director who lived with his wife in a cottage and daily drove a golf cart to survey our activities. He’d been involved at the camp since my mother’s days. I didn’t really understand at the time, but there was a palpable deep sadness for days amongst the staff that I remember with respect.
Less dramatic but equally special times over four summers included:
• Becoming a star on the trampoline which for this nonathletic girl was a definite sport. Decades later, I shared a trampoline moment on Cape Cod with my young daughter, who laughed as I painfully tried to recreate my moves;
• Arts and crafts on the afternoons of socials, when girls were allowed to publicly wear their hair in rollers. Ours were often empty orange juice cans, four placed strategically atop our heads resembling helicopter blades;
• A first kiss at that social;
• The rainy days in the library;
• Color war, remembering the lyrics we sang to “Somewhere” (There’s a place for us, Laurelwood’s the place for us…);
• The joy of discovering that Wonder Bread, which I didn’t get at home, made a great mayonnaise, tomato and lettuce sandwich on days I didn’t like the menu.
When my daughter was of age, I chose to send her to the same camp in northern New England her school friends attended…with the same duffle bags I had used 30 years earlier. She went for five years but never loved camp as much as I did and, in hindsight, I wish I had let her take the chance on Laurelwood. I wonder if it was that initial need to make it my own that brought me so much satisfaction.
The Jewish experience of Camp Laurelwood has remained with me the most, instilled in a way that still sustains me. I believe it also affected my mother because while she didn’t have much of a Jewish life at home, being at Laurelwood made her appreciate her Jewish heritage. She instinctively knew I would benefit by going to Hebrew school, Israel, and of course, Jewish camp. I will always remember the wonderful Friday night dinners with amazing challah and everyone dressed in our best whites. We would be singing together but I especially loved when Belle lit the candles and sometimes sang the Yiddish song, Bei Mir Bistu Shein (To Me You’re Beautiful). She was my favorite “elder” at camp. The Jewish girl in me will be forever grateful for those summers when Jewish song, ceremony and values were infused into our days and nights. That first summer, 1967, began one month after the Six Day War and looking back, I suspect a sense of pride permeated everything we did.
My one sadness is that I didn’t keep in touch with camp friends and I envy today’s campers with email, Skype and Facebook. When I went to college in Boston, I did meet some, including my cute waiter I’d had a crush on for years!
Today, I work in my Jewish community, surrounded by young children and their parents. While day schools nourish our next generation during the school year, how lucky we are to have Jewish camps continue this sacred work throughout the summer. Like my mother before me, I will never forget what Camp Laurelwood did for me.
A version of this post appears in the CLW 75th anniversary tribute book, Fun, Friends, Forever, published by Camp Laurelwood, 2012. Camp Laurelwood is the only Jewish camp in Connecticut. For info, www.camplaurelwood.org. Please give the gift of a summer at Jewish camp to the next generation.
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