By Robby Sandler
I think it’s entirely fair to say that I don’t know what my life would be without Jewish day camp, specifically camp Gan Israel at the Chabad of Coconut Grove, Florida. In 1995, my single Jewish mother needed to work, and she had two children. A friend suggested the camp her kids attended, but it cost more than she could readily spend. Then we met Rabbi Ephraim Simon. Rabbi Simon spoke, as many rabbis do, of Ahavas Yisrael, love for a fellow Jew. Though we were not particularly religious, he saw it as a mitzvah to accept us and provide for us in whatever way he could. He allowed my brother and me to spend multiple summers at Gan Israel.
I remember, even now, the pride and luck I felt in knowing that I was part of a special group of people who took care of one another. After growing up in Alabama before moving to Florida, this was my first experience with Jewish community, and it was one of unconditional support. The counselors came from New York, and I couldn’t believe they lived somewhere with enough Jewish people that they went to a Jewish school; I never had Judaism in common with people before.
I remember that Rabbi Simon asked me for my Hebrew name, Shimon. He called me Shimon until I learned to listen for it. He took a name I’d only heard ceremonially and made it part of my life, a name fellow kids knew. During the year, I was Robby, but every summer, I was Shimon, and I had never been prouder to be Jewish. Quietly, and not in so many words, he gave me permission to have a Jewish identity, and I’ve held on to that permission for years. I have vivid, candy-colored memories of braiding challah with forty other kids, screaming across tables that our “bunk” had way more ruach, or spirit, and competing to see who could do the most of the birkas hamazon after lunch in a single breath. We loved our counselors so much that we called them at home after they flew back to tell them how much we missed them.
None of the kids at that camp knew me as Robby, so none of them could find me on Facebook if they tried. This was before social media and camera phones. All I have from those summers is a great big pile of warm memories and ancient prayers.
As for Rabbi Simon, I googled him! Turns out, he was prepared to donate a kidney, and when it wasn’t required, he found another Jewish recipient for his kidney because he was already prepared to make that sacrifice. How’s that for Ahavas Yisrael?
I’m currently writing a musical about Jewish kids the same age I was when I first encountered Gan Israel, and few things have come more easily to me as a writer than the joy of a Jewish child who feels safe and happy within their culture. I moved to Washington Heights, a largely Jewish neighborhood in New York City with its very own Chabad. I see kids at the local Gan Israel every summer as I walk by their day camp on the way to work, listening to their songs from outside, because they’ve still got ruach. We all do. And every once in a while, I hear the name Shimon on the street, and I look up, smiling, because that’s my name, and I’m so glad I learned to listen for it.
Robby Sandler is a writer/lyricist/librettist/poet based in New York City. He is currently writing the book and lyrics for Hereville, an all-girl Jewish musical based on the graphic novels written by Barry Deutsch.
This piece is a part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s summer blog series “Because of Jewish Camp.” Each week, we will be featuring personal reflections from camp parents, staff, and alumni exemplifying the ways that Jewish camp impacted their lives. Follow along all summer long, and share how Jewish camp impacted your life! Tell us your story in the comments, on Facebook, or tweet @JewishCamp using the hashtag #JewishCamp.