Don’t Yuck My Yum: Life Lessons from Summer Camp

Camp_5By Rabbi Karen Perolman

One of the most challenging parts of adulthood is the realization and acceptance that many of your friends, family members, and colleagues will make different decisions than you. From who to vote for, to where to live, to how they express their Judaism, to if and when they start a family, we are often more different than we think when it comes to how we want to live our lives.

This is especially hard in the contemporary social media age, where you can see an up-to-the-minute documentation of what other people are doing. It’s so easy to compare yourself to other people and think, “I should be doing this” or “I’m the only one not doing that!”

When I feel the judgmental emotions or FOMO (fear of missing out) rising inside of me, I remind myself of a lesson I first learned as a counselor at URJ Camp Harlam, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Kunkletown, PA: “Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.” In other words, if someone else likes doing something and it makes them happy, then let them enjoy it – no matter whether or not you like it.

I remember helping my campers learn this lesson during their first days at camp. As we sat around the lunch table in the chadar ochel (dining hall), one of them would inevitably begin concocting a crazy combination – a peanut butter with ketchup, mustard, and pickles, or fried chicken topped with grape jelly and chopped liver. Instead of letting the girls turn up their noses, mutter “ew” under the breath, or gossip about who was eating what, my coworkers and I tried to positively reinforce that every person had the right to eat whatever they wanted without worrying what other people would think.

At camp, this didn’t just apply around the meal table. Rather, it was a philosophy that influenced every part of our day. We gave our campers the freedom to be themselves, to express their thoughts and feelings fully, and to do so free from embarrassment or worry that they would be judged or bullied. It seems radical now, but we were simply giving them the social and emotional space to experiment and to explore their unfolding identities.

In the years since I last worked at camp, I have seen the way that the #DYMY philosophy has influenced the generations of campers to be their truest selves: to pursue the work that makes them the happiest, to choose the relationships and life partners whom they truly love, and to make the decisions which align with their truest selves. My first campers are adults now, and I am amazed at the way that they are pursuing their “yums,” whether that means traveling the world, getting married, studying to be rabbis, teachers, and vets, moving across the country, or returning to camp.

There is a phrase in the Midrash that says, “Every blade of grass has an angel that stands over it and whispers, ‘Grow! Grow!’” (Loosely translated from Bereshit Rabbah 10:6) For all of us camp alumni, be us former campers or counselors, we have said or heard these fateful words:“Grow! Be yourself! Don’t worry about other people’s yucks! Pursue your yum!”

Whether it’s been a few months or a few years since your own summers at camp – or even if you never had them! – I hope this lesson stands as true as it did since the last time you were back. Don’t yuck someone else’s yum, and don’t let other people yuck your yum. Be yourself. Do what makes you happy. And listen for that Angel whispering, “Grow! Grow!”

Rabbi Karen Perolman worked as a counselor, assistant unit head, and unit head at URJ Camp Harlam from 2000-2007. She is now the associate rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J. Find her on Twitter @rabbikrp.

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