Friday, September 24 was a gorgeous night in the Ojai Valley wilderness; perfectly straddling the heat of summer and the cool, oncoming fall. Camp Ramah was our home for the weekend; coming from Los Angeles, the absence of traffic noise, light pollution, and the ambient smell of exhaust was noticeable and welcome. I huddled under a canopy with Rabbi Adam Allenberg and my new friend Jeremy. They heard I had a guitar, and it was true. They asked if I wanted to participate in the Shabbat service. I didn’t really know how to react. Until last year, I had never participated in Jewish rituals.
My relationship to Judaism started to evolve through my creative work, but my basic assumption is—was?—that ritual life is for other people. I am solitary. I am private. I do not gather in large groups in general, let alone with other Jews for religious or cultural reasons. I usually feel I don’t have much to say about my Jewish identity. I have lived and worked in Virginia, Missouri, Alabama, Texas, and New Mexico. I am used to being one of, if not the only, Jew in the room. It wasn’t clear to me what I was supposed to gain by having a peer group of Jews, nor did I know how I was supposed to interact with them. Do I sit around talking about Jewish stuff all the time? Jewish interconnection was a mystery to me, shrouded in shame and fear and also, to my surprise, longing.
Yet there I was, at a Jewish camp for adults, being asked to get on stage and strum along with some traditional tunes. I was humbled, I was frightened; half of me didn’t want to get anywhere near a stage, the other half knew I’d brought my guitar to force myself to perform. Rabbi and Jeremy assured me I would pick up the songs quickly, as neither the chords nor the changes were too complicated. They were right. The chords were simple enough, a B minor, a D major, an E major, and lo and behold, I was actually doing something additive: I had thrown my weight into a Shabbat service, and it had gone well.
Signing up for the Trybal Gatherings SoCal camp was my wife, Carrie’s, idea. We’re both working at our home just outside of Burbank, and Carrie thought it was essential we find a way to get out of the house. Trybal’s COVID-19 regulations were stringent, so that appealed to us. But I wasn’t sure what to expect from a four-day Jewish summer camp, let alone a camp for adults, aged 21 to 41. Would it be mostly booze? Would it be fratty and awful? What kind of depth of connection can you actually make over a long weekend in the woods? Would anything I do at this camp have any impact on me after the initial four-day burst of energy? I was excited but skeptical that it would produce lasting memories or meaning.
The Friday night service ended after an hour or so, and I packed my guitar away as quickly as possible. I didn’t have time to process what just happened. I rushed off to dinner along with 111 of my fellow campmates, where we gorged on challah and salads and trays of kosher meats. Later, it occurred to me that I’d just played my first gig in a year, with people I didn’t know, at an overtly Jewish camp that I wasn’t sure I belonged at, and yet I’d been in a flow state the whole time I was on stage.
Trybal Gatherings founder Carine Warsawski specializes in making meaningful moments. One of the guideposts that she uses is a text called The Power of Moments, by Chip and Dan Heath. The Heath’s theorize each of us experiences moments of “punctuation,” which they define as, peaks and valleys and transitions in our lives. Their examples include bar/bat mitzvahs, proms, first-days-on-the-job, big moments that bring us together with family and friends, and ultimately outline the linear chronology of our lives. The writers take things a step further by arguing these big life moments can be built. We can design experiences that induce connection and community through the use of emotional and tactile techniques. Sometimes it’s food. Sometimes it’s picking up a guitar and playing Shabbat music. Whatever the activity, their philosophy inspires Trybal Gatherings. Warsawski described her job as “trying to spark Jewish joy.” These efforts to create impactful moments began in 2016, the first camps were held in the summer of 2017, and have since spawned multi-day events on both coasts as well as single-day camps in Atlanta and Chicago.
From arriving in the afternoon Thursday, until the end of camp on midday Sunday, the Trybal calendar is packed.
Thursday—the check-in day—begins with a thorough tutorial on how Trybal operates. How, where, and, when to sign up for activities, how meals work (large trays of food are brought to the table) and so on. By dinnertime, mixers are actively mixing, and conversations start themselves. Night one ended with a silent disco party, thanks to Bluetooth-connected over-ear headphones and our own resident camper DJ.
You quickly learn there will be a mad scramble to sign up for the daytime activities. My wife and I did a fair amount of studying the schedule and then tactical marker grabbing to make sure we got our most sought after activities.
Friday is jam-packed until Shabbat begins. There’s a ropes course. There’s archery. There’s early morning yoga and midday meditation. There’s multiple cooking classes—one each for challah, babka and kreplach. (The results are delicious and served to the campers. The challah was torn apart at our giant Shabbat meal; the nutella chocolate chip babka got devoured later.) There’s a class on pickling and a class on making espresso art. My wife and I took an hour-long salsa lesson. I partook in a game called human foosball, where human players entered an inflated ring, held on to a set of ropes and played something resembling mini-soccer
Saturday is reserved for the all day, camp-wide Colour War. Campers are split into four colour-based teams and compete in everything from tug-of-war, a team crossword puzzle, volleyball, three-on-three basketball and more. The day culminates with an epic relay race that features a three-legged walk uphill, a downhill dive on a slip-n-slide, an egg-and-spoon race, a competition to see who can chill the hardest under the canopy, orchestrated dances and cheers, and still so much more.
If the days sound packed, it’s because they are. Counselors work from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. They make sure the right props are at the right stations, and produce a daily camp newsletter (the Trybal Tribune is full of terrible puns and inside jokes. It took me right back to my days as editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper). The counselors decorate the table settings with greetings that can only be seen under UV light, then place little UV flashlights under each person’s seat, to be discovered during dinner. This is what they mean by little surprises, little acts that make 30-somethings yelp with delight. I had been given the chance to again experience a childlike sense of play.
“A lot of our campers have been on Birthright but it was more than a decade ago. A lot haven’t had immersive Jewish experiences. Bar nights and happy hours are all fun but it’s only a few hours, it’s not long enough for a transformation. Overnight camps bring in a group where you can really mix in the salad bowl . . . people can go as deep or shallow as they want, they can try something outside their comfort zone. Most of our people are looking to find community. They’re looking to plant roots.”
The educational element of camp seemed to me the trickiest component to get right. For each person who arrived with little Jewish education, there were many who had come to Camp Ramah as children (Camp Ramah is itself a network of camps affiliated with the conservative movement). And there were those who kept kosher or kosher style. Balancing the needs and wants from such differing backgrounds is a challenge.
“We lead with the social,” Warsawski said. “There’s Jewish meaning everywhere if you’re open to it.”
In my everyday life, I’ve taken up weekly Torah study, so I knew I wanted to incorporate some kind of learning while I was there. I made a point of doing some text study with Jessica Jacobs, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, who taught a class called Sex in the Text. I spent an hour seated in the woods with a hevruta (study partner), as we debated sexual morality vis-à-vis portions of Talmud. It wasn’t the core activity of my day, but it was fascinating. I am an intensely guarded person, yet there I was, sitting in a circle with a group of newly minted Jewish peers, openly discussing Jewish perspectives and teachings on a topic as sensitive as sex. I couldn’t believe I was doing it, and enjoying it, and I realized that when camp was over, I was going to seriously miss having Jewish peers in my life to talk about these weighty subjects from a cultural perspective that is generally shared, even if the specifics can be wildly divergent person to person.
We wrapped up on Sunday with various group activities, some small break-out circles and some larger ones where we reflected on what we had gotten from camp and what we wanted to take back with us to our normal lives. There were friendship bracelets. Phone numbers were exchanged fast and furiously. Then Carrie and I left our maskless bubble and returned to our Los Angeles suburb.
Over the next week, we both felt a bit of post-camp depression kick in. We’ve spent the last year working from home at the same kitchen table. I was surprised at how affected I was by leaving the high of camp and settling back into a home-work routine that would have felt alien in 2019. When Carrie and I left, we both felt a real urgency to make sure these phone numbers and brief, but deep, flashes of human contact became more than incidental. We met one of our camp friends for ice cream the next weekend, and dinner the Monday after that, and we’ve done Shabbat with a small circle, too. These connections are real.
Los Angeles is an atomized city, and the pandemic has made it easier to be atomic, scattered, and remote from each other. Even if it was just four days, camp broke that wall down, just a bit. Trybal will be back next year, and I’m sure we’ll have our tie-dye shirts and team-colour appropriate gear ready to go.
Header image photo courtesy of Alex Yalen and Carrie Murphy .
Alex Yalen is a University of Missouri-trained journalist and a University of Texas, Austin-trained screenwriter. Now based in Los Angeles, Alex is now working on his first book. When not writing, he can be found playing either guitar or bass on local stages.