I still go to summer camp. It sounds weird to say. I am a senior in high school. I could be spending the summer with friends, on a road trip, or getting a head start on school, but I choose, year after year, to go to summer camp. The camp I’ve been going to for the past eight years of my life, my favorite place on the face of this earth is Camp Ramah Darom.
If I had not been forced to go to camp eight years ago, I would be a radically different person. I wouldn’t be outgoing. I wouldn’t be able to talk in front of a crowd. I wouldn’t be nearly as good at gaga as I am now. I wouldn’t play instruments. I wouldn’t have made lifelong friends. And perhaps weirdest of all, I probably wouldn’t be going to synagogue.
Judaism has always been an integral part of my life but after my Bar Mitzvah, I would have been missing something, and it’s that paramount sense of community or kehillah that I found at Camp Ramah Darom.
Nowhere have I met so many people who know what it’s like growing up Jewish in the South. Whether it was an issue with anti-Semitism or just a shared interest in bagels and lox, I have a community that is ever present. My kehillah, filled with kids my age, who are always there for me, not only for two months out of the year but, for life, has been absolutely a pivotal part in my Jewish development. Camp has been a place where I could eat kosher and go to services daily and not be made fun of for my religion. At camp, I found a community that bolstered my confidence when feeling vulnerable and one that bestowed upon me tenacity and vigor when I needed it the most. Camp provides one of the rare places in the south I can feel comfortable and learn freely as a Jew, and over the past eight years has given me the tools to maintain it and bring what I’ve learned back to my home community.
This year, with my summer camp, I went to Poland for ten days, and then Israel for six weeks, with my best friends from camp, and what I learned was that Camp is home at Ramah Darom in Clayton Georgia, (where “Deliverance” was filmed). That feeling of “Home” can take place on late-night phone calls with camp friends, and it can take place on the plane to Warsaw, as long as there is that kehillah of people you know and love, people you wouldn’t have ever gotten the opportunity to have met, if not for this summer camp, of all places.
Now, going to Poland, especially with my camp kehillah, was far and away the most profound and life-changing experience of my entire life. I arrived in Poland, my first time out of the country, with a lot of questions. Half of my family was from Poland. Little did I know I would walk the streets they walked, daven where they davened, and bring life back to the once thriving Jewish communities in Poland with my own camp community. We danced at Havdalah in the streets of Tykochin and did Kabbalat Shabbat in the town square of Krakow while thousands of onlookers watched. We went to the underground synagogue in Lodz, with one of the actual holocaust survivors that helped build it, and the entire time–whether it was going through Auschwitz, or coming out of the Warsaw ghetto, I felt a veritable indebtedness to the kehillot who persevered, so that ours may this day survive.
Every time I eat a bagel, every time I’m asked to help out in services, every time I choose to take off for the high holidays, any time I have to defend my religion or Israel, every time I go to synagogue, I do so without hesitation, because as I have learned, my camp kehilla, and this Nashville Kehilla, are pivotal in my life and so many people have passed, that weren’t given the opportunity to do just that, so it’s our job to seize it.
I went straight from Poland to Israel for the first time in my life and got to witness firsthand the pulchritude and significance of Israel; its worldly contributions, its political climate, and its food all while having the best summer of my life with my best friends. All with Ramah Darom.
The classification of summer camp doesn’t do Ramah Darom justice. It is not just a camp; it is a part of the very fiber of my being. It is eight years of my life. It is a commonality between myself and hundreds of other kids, and the closest word that can describe it, is, really, a kehilla. Ramah Darom is a place that every Jewish kid in the south can be a part of a kehilla, one where they can feel comfortable while being Jewish and meet other Jews their age. Camp, is a place filled with enthusiasm and appreciation for Jewish learning, and campers bring what they learned back to their home communities when the summer is over.
My name is Jake Bengelsdorf, I am 17, and I have had the privilege of going to “Summer Camp,” of all places, for the past eight years, and the honor of being a part of the Ramah Kehilla for the entirety of my life.
About the Author
Gesher ’17, Poland-Israel Seminar ’18, Ramah Kehilla for Life!