“No, I didn’t go to Jewish camp.”
I have said this over and over again throughout my life. I distinctly remember feeling left out of the collective Toronto Jewish experience when my Jewish peers returned from a summer filled with outdoor activities, first kisses, Shabbats around campfires, and a stronger sense of Jewish belonging.
When someone brought up Camp Ramah or Camp Shomria I had know idea what they were talking about. “Shom-what?” I would say in response.
Jewish sleepaway camp holds a powerful mythos and seems as if it’s a rite of passage for any young Jew in North America. I just couldn’t understand why. I went to secular day camps in Toronto, often for a few weeks at a time, but I never really enjoyed the experience. I found it difficult to make new friendships in such a short amount of time. I just wanted to be home, playing with my friends, and hitting up those delicious popsicles from the ice cream truck.
At least until I got to high school. Finally in the summer of Grade 10, I went to a sleepaway camp—the National Music Camp of Canada— for nine days. I surprisingly found it fun it was to be away from home, at least for a while, and be with peers who loved music, smores, and staying up late sharing silly anecdotes about dream dates with celebrity crushes. Everyone loved Ryan Gosling. I was more of a Hugh Jackman fan.
The camp was located on Lake Couchiching at Camp Wahanowin. The scenery was beautiful. The cabins were like what I had seen in the movies. I made new friends and finally understood the expression “camp years are like dog years” —we had formed relationships that felt five years long in only one week.
After this experience, my feelings of missing out on Jewish camp only intensified. Maybe I would have made lifelong friends. Maybe I would have felt more knowledgeable about Canadian Jewish culture. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt like such an outsider in my own community. Because at the time it felt like everyone went to Jewish camp.
Last year, for Niv, I wrote about Camp Kadimah, which is based in Atlantic Canada and was founded in 1943. When interviewing current and former campers, I was struck by their enduring love for the tight-knit community. It informed so many campers’ Jewish identities because it was and remains an accessible and enjoyable way to connect to Judaism, as opposed to synagogue or Jewish school.
Former campers discussed decades-long friendships, meeting their spouses, and the excitement of sending their kids to the same camp. The camp lived on through the next generation, and hopefully will do so again. That type of love for community is hard to find.
Yet I still couldn’t help thinking about what I missed out on. Except during this time of reflection, I asked myself, “Do I feel any less Jewish?”
And the answer is, of course not. Now, I cannot know what I’ll never experience. Maybe if I attended Jewish camp I would feel more Jewish today. Maybe. But what I do know is that I’ve found connection to the Jewish community in other ways.
I attended Hebrew school every Wednesday and Sunday growing up. Did I love Hebrew school at the time? No. More hours of school frankly sucked. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to appreciate and value my Jewish education because my public school barely offered any. In Hebrew school I was one of many Jewish kids, not just one Jewish kid in the whole grade. That counted for a lot.
I also have always loved celebrating all the major holidays with my family. Everytime I think of the High Holidays, I can’t wait to to spend time with treasured family and friends and bask in the glow and warmth of the festivities that bring us all together.
When I was 12, I had a Bat Mitzvah and learned to read from the Torah—a sacred and special time that is embossed in my memory.
And, I’ve co-founded a Jewish magazine in the hopes that all Jews can feel seen and heard in our community. If that’s not being Jewish enough, then I don’t know what is.
Sometimes it helps to be a little bit of an outsider and not follow the status-quo. It can allow people to realize that their connection to religion and culture is unique and individual. While being on the fringe can sometimes feel isolating, it can also be liberating.
So now, I say to myself, and others, “No, I didn’t go to Jewish camp. But that’s OK.” Camp doesn’t make a Jew, it’s about what you feel on the inside and what you choose to connect with. And I have found Jewish learning and connection in a different way. My way.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.