Reflections on Alumni Shabbat 2010

Last night, I went to my annual Alumni Shabbat at camp. No pictures this time (you can look at last year’s pictures here)—the camp infrastructure hasn’t changed that dramatically, save for the introduction of a sibling menorah to CHK up on the hill at the chapel. This is not to say that their weren’t changes; there were, just more subtle.

Now that the Alumni Shabbat have been going on a few years, they’ve got the process down pat (steadily building from what I saw at the first one back in 2006). Get the alumni together. Sweep in front of the cabins then off to the chapel for services. Dinner (chicken, starch, steamed veggies, apple popovers). Zmirot. Dancing. That was all the same, all good, all high energy.

What I notice first as I go through the evening are the changes, the evolution. The new freestanding metal menorah at Hilltop is an example of this. When Hilltop first started, there seemed to be a conscious effort to distance itself from its sibling camp. It had its own traditions. It did a different Birkot (Kramer only did the really short version). Cabins were numbered, not named. Slowly, over time, there has been convergence. So, arguably, the menorah is a reflection of that: emphasizing in a physical, permanant way that these two camps are siblings, and that Hilltop is the younger smaller sibling (for the newer menorah, due to wind exposure, is shorter and squatter). Alternatively, it could symbolize that Hilltop has reached adulthood: it is no longer a “Pioneer” camp, but an adult camp in its own ramp.

This year there was also a new resident director: Andrea Cohen, and unlike with last year’s resident director (Erin), I could detect subtle changes. Back in the days of Gersh, I detected a stronger Israeli vibe. I can’t put my finger on it: perhap it was in how Hebrew was used, perhaps it was in how things were emphasized. But this year I felt a subtle shift back to positive American Judaism (which to me, at least, is a good thing). But as I said, it was subtle. The Hebrew was still there; the words hadn’t changed. Perhaps it was in the tone of the Shabbat service: there were more camper contributions (like the old days), and a new prayerbook (based on Mishkon Tephilo) that gave a modern Reform emphasis. There also seemed to be a bit more of a sense of connection with the camp history.

As I’ve noted before, some old traditions are gone. Have the kids changed? Is this a reflection of society? I can’t answer that. I do know that our Zmirot song sessions, which were in the dining hall, at the table, with the songleaders up front (and often on a piano), with a reasonable volume level, have been replaced by a full-volume, on-your-feet, in-your-face aerobic singing festival in the pavillion, with lyrics projected. The songs written at camp in my era (such as “Cherish the Torah”), the shabbat songs we thought would never die (Mi Pi Ayl, Al Teeria, Or Zarua) and the Debbie Friedman repertoire have been replaced by the modern rock of folks like Rick Recht and the artists of the Ruach albums. Chuck’s music (Justice Justice, Sanctification, Sim Shalom) has disappeared without a trace. There were some songs in English—the old standby “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler, Twist and Shout, and a version of Louie, Louie called Pharoah, Pharoah (Whoa, Baby, Let My People Go).

Dancing has also changed. In my day (ahem, whippersnapper), the emphasis was on Israeli dance, which was (not surprisingly) what you tended to see from the 1960s and 1970s. Horas. Lots of accordions. Debkas. Doubles and triple dancing. There were a few of those, but there was much more Israeli modern rock dancing. The session also seemed shorter, but that could be because I was caught up in a conversion with another Alumni.

These changes don’t bother me. Camps must evolve to survive. The American Jewish camp has evolved into the American Jewish camp. The emphasis can’t stay in the past to please the parents; it must evolve to serve the changes in Judaism and the changes in today’s youth. Traditions evolve and grow, and bring people back to camp. There is still the strong love of the campers for camp; the strong friendships that are created; the sense of camp is a place that is home and safe and an accepting family that loves you. That’s what makes this a special place. Over the years, the love of people for the place is absorbed into the fabric of the infrastructure, until it reaches the point where it just envelops you as you start up the hill.

That is why I jump at the chance to go to camp whenever I can. Be it a visit to Hess Kramer or a visit to Hilltop. They offer (at a reasonable price) and I’ll be there. The place is part of my spirit; it regrounds and recenters me whenever I visit. I thank the leaders at the Wilshire Blvd Temple Camps for the opportunities they provide to visit, and for the hard work it takes to keep the place alive.

Lastly, as you can tell by my posts on camp over the years, this place is a very important piece of my life. It was my safe summer home for 10 years, from 1969 through 1979. It shaped my Judaism, it shaped my sense of self, it shaped my sense of what I could accomplish in the world, it shaped my need to do good and right. But it was my experience. What were your youthful shaping experiences? What did you do, growing up, that had the most impact on who you are today?