An oasis in the middle of a pandemic

On the final night of summer 2021

A place where kids could just be kids again

As the final night of summer 2021 winds to a close here in Barryville I find myself wishing everyone could see camp through my eyes. As an alum, a staff member and for the past two years as a parent I see camp from a very different perspective. Fifteen months ago when COVID cancelled Summer 2020, I knew 2021 would be the most difficult year of my camp life and I also knew that I had to be a part of it.  

Every year I marvel at the energy of the nineteen year olds and twenty somethings, many of whom are second generation Judaeans, who make this place come alive. Every year they come and reinvent this place and make it something new. The alum in me recognizes that this is not the camp I grew up in. It’s not better or worse, it’s part of the magic of this place. What makes Tel Yehudah so special is that year after year it is the individuals who choose to share this space that create it.  

Now as a parent, I also get to see the echoes of past generations in the campers of today. There is the unmistakable mannerisms of a Greenberg or the casual amble of a Newberger or the leadership of a Preuss on display every day. As a staff member, I get to jump in from time to time, but for the most part I stay behind the scenes and I watch this new generation of Judaeans talk about gender identity and antisemitism under the same apple trees where their parents once argued about whether or not Jews and Arabs could negotiate with each other. Joined by new faces that have no past connection to this place, together they push a new conversation and dream about making the world a better place that only a teenager can see. In this world where the adults stay in the background, the kids, be they fifteen year old campers or nineteen year old staff members, they are free to create a space without the negativity of society. Adults can provide the “wisdom” of experience, but it is the kids when they are free to explore who can provide untainted possibilities. As a staff member, it is my job to say “yes” to help them create this amazing place. This has been a most amazing summer to be a part of this group of boundless energy. I wish my friends of long ago could be a part of what I get to experience every day.

As a parent, I get to do something that most of us don’t get to do. I get to watch my kid just be a kid again. After a year and a half of COVID with an uncertain fall ahead of us, these past six weeks have been a blessing for her and for me. She finally got to be 15. She got to be her best self, surrounded by friends, also getting to finally be teenagers in a place they love.

As a veteran staff member, I know that this does not “just” happen. Margaret Mead famously said to “never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Well, she was wrong. There is nothing small about the group of committed individuals who have changed my daughter’s world – from the kids who cut the vegetables in the kitchen to the nurses who handle the endless sick calls to the people in the office who field all the calls year-round to the nineteen year olds who live in the bunks and plan the activities while managing the disparate personalities of the fifteen campers in their care, usually on little to no sleep. It takes all of these people and more to create this world. If you could see what I see, you would love to be a part of this world, from the ear-shattering ruach of Friday night shira whether it was in block 1 with 450 people singing in unison or in block 3 with the 150 committed kids who just reveled in being together. If you could see what I see you’d see the kids figuring out a larger world and the staff just a few years older lighting the way. This truly was the most difficult summer of my camping “career” but it was easily the most rewarding. For six weeks, we not only created an oasis in the middle of this pandemic for the kids in our care but we created a place where they could just be kids again. It was an honor to be a part of it, and I am eternally grateful to the 120 other staff members who dug deeper and gave more than they ever thought they could so that my daughter and 323 of her now closest friends could just be kids again even if just for a few weeks.

Stu Stein is the longtime food service director (started in the late 1980’s) at Camp Tel Yehudah. His daughter Gabriella joined him at TY as a camper in 2019, and his son Max is at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake.

This piece is a part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s summer blog series. 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.