The Magic Hour

campers arrivingBy Jessica Downey

It’s the final session of the summer. Counselors jump up and down with lagging enthusiasm. They have smiles on their faces that don’t quite reach their eyes. Teens and young adults are approaching their eighth, ninth or even tenth week of the summer. Campers are tired. The staff is burnt out. But if you look closer, you may find this is the most magical time to be at camp.

At first glance, the camp is wilted. The mighty trees seem to sigh. Water bottles of varying sizes litter the benches and tables. A rainbow of colorful towels hangs by the pool, sagging from the weight of weeks of swimming sessions. Siddurim are stacked haphazardly in prayer spaces, and it’s a wonder that the posters on the dining hall walls describing weeks-old activities and birthdays haven’t been taken down. And that’s all before you see the people; walking at a snail’s pace from activity to activity, muttering, “We did that already …”

Then the song leader starts to play, and arms immediately wrap around the person next to them unprompted. A Frisbee is pulled from someone’s backpack, and instantly seven campers rush to join in the game with expert throws and catches. On Shabbat, prayers are chanted with understanding, not simply rote memorization from Hebrew school classes. When a camper gets sick (either physically or for home), the counselors’ tactics to cheer them up have been refined and rehearsed, and it’s only a matter of time before the camper feels better. Even the teens that have been here all summer, now feeling the gravitational pull of the outside world, put their cell phones away for programs and activities.

And then the bus of new campers ambles slowly through the gate.

Right away, everyone is reminded that today is someone’s first day of camp. The welcome song everyone knows so well has a new energy as campers are serenaded upon entering their temporary home. Shabbat is special, and Shabbat greetings are genuine. Those who have been here for weeks are instantly reminded of their first song session, Israeli dance lesson, ultimate Frisbee game, and friendship bracelet. Teens continue to role model for younger campers; younger campers continue to mimic teens, all of them in awe of the bonds that exist when one has been here all summer.

They reflect on their experiences, not in a superficial way, but rather to take lessons and values with them when they return to school or work. Knowing their time in this place is coming to an end, they linger when they hug, trying to soak up every last moment and connection.

At this point, the novelty of camp has worn off a bit, and the true identities of campers and staff emerge. Are they the individuals who need the early summer excitement to get them pumped, or can they push through the end-of-summer burn out? Do they subscribe to the philosophy of, “I already did this,” or do they continue to see the magic of camp for what it is and value their remaining days? From which do they gain their strength?

I observe the ones who continue to honor this sacred space after weeks of programming, who get up each morning with a desire to learn something new about their cabin mates. I see those who continue to be patient and thoughtful, who are mindful of other people’s camp experience. They are the ones who embody the true leadership that Dan Nichols described so aptly in “Cool vs. Excellent Counselor.” These are the heirs of that tradition.

When I shared with people that I’d be attending the final session of camp, I got warnings, caveats and stipulations that influenced my thoughts and feelings as I drove through the gate. I was fearful and apprehensive, and it took me a little while to get into my groove. But now after having been here for just a few days, I know that this is the time I want to be here. At the end of our Torah we call out, “Chazak Chazak V’Nitchazeik” (Be strong, be strong and we will be strengthened). As I pass through the gates one final time this week, I know these will be my words, too.

Jessica Downey is the Director of Jewish Education at University Synagogue in Los Angeles, CA. She is spending her final weeks of summer on faculty at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA.