There are certain experiences you don’t forget from childhood- experiences that leave a particular impression on you, whether it’s because it was something so new or so ingrained, it happened so quickly or took so long. One such experience (that I am certain took months to complete when I think back on it) was labeling my clothes for Ranch Camp each summer. I remember staying up to help my mom iron my name onto every single sock I owned into the wee hours of the morning before the first day of camp. Those little Gold Toe socks were so important. I remember the whirlwind that was meeting my counselors at the J on the first day and getting on the bus in the blink of an eye. I remember how much extra time it felt like I had in the morning when I was in the “freebie” spot on the chore chart once a week. I remember searching through my bag, too big for 19 days of camp, for the awesome blue and white dress with a palm tree on it that I had picked out special for Shabbat.
What I remember most though was this feeling of awe on my first Friday night. We were singing tunes and reciting prayers that I knew from home… at camp Shabbat services! How could everyone at camp, all the way in Elbert, Colorado, possibly know the same prayers and tunes that I knew? Even more so, why did it feel so much more magical to be singing surrounded by people I had only just met? I mean, the horses running behind the Pavilions as we prayed certainly didn’t hurt the ambiance, but it was more than the beauty of the Black Forest. My first Ranch Camp Shabbat service in July of 2001 was one of the first times I really felt connected to something bigger than myself, which we can agree is no small feat for a sixth grader. It was my “ah-ha” moment.
Nearly two decades later, I still actively seek out and find myself in communities that energize me in the same way. Towards the end of this most recent summer I posted a photo at camp on Instagram with the hashtag #onemoreweek. My friend from camp, David, immediately commented, “You can’t say it’s only ‘one more week’ when we all know you haven’t really left Ranch Camp in the last, like, 17 years.” And David isn’t wrong. I found a space at camp that has excited, energized, and invigorated me. It makes me question what Judaism means to me, what it means to be a citizen of this world, and how to be the best version of myself. And I’m not looking to leave a community like this any time soon.
Now I’m on the other end of this experience in many ways, working to create opportunities for our campers to have their “ah-ha” moments. Noah, Ryan, and I often find ourselves in late night deep conversations about camp all year long. How do we give our campers the opportunity to live the middot, or values, that we hold as a community? How do we help them learn about Judaism in a way that touches their soul? Most of all, how do we help them hold on to the socks that their parents have meticulously labeled? That last one is a question for the ages.
This past summer we tapped into something new. Our campers walked away feeling a stronger appreciation for the celebration of Shabbat, the pause at the end of our non-stop week. They felt like they were giving back to the community in a meaningful way, whether it was in camp or on a trip, truly embodying the value of tikkun olam, changing the world. They felt like they were learning about and participating in Jewish rituals at camp to new levels. But most of all, and nearest and dearest to my heart, our campers left camp feeling like they were a part of something bigger, something greater than themselves.
Our summer survey results helped us understand that how we incorporated Judaism and education this summer resonated with our campers. We saw a sizable jump in “spiritual, cultural, and religious life” at camp. These results have helped us identify the path that we will continue along next summer: Offering campers different opportunities to lead rituals and services and incorporating Judaism and Jewish values into all areas of camp whether it’s Teva Farm, Ropes Course, or Rikkud (Israeli dance). Hopefully what they experience and learn will continue to translate back to life at home. We hope that each camper, staff, and guest who passes through the Ranch Camp gates will look at the world with more awe. They will see their connection to the greater world, leaving with some moment that made them say “ah-ha!” Whether it’s realizing that they know the same tunes at services or that there is a community of people with their names also ironed on to every sock they own, they are a part of something bigger than themselves. I am confident that there was an 11-year-old at camp with us this summer that will also find themselves still at camp twenty years from now.
And in case any of you were wondering, I still have my hiking socks from Teen Village, and they still have my name ironed on the bottom of them.
Carly Coons | JCC Ranch Camp Assistant Director