It’s pretty accurate to say that when I began seventh grade, my life changed. Navigating a new student body, and then spending three weeks at Herzl Camp in nearby Webster, Wis., gave me the tools to begin carving out my Jewish identity, and many decades later, I’m still whittling away at it.
In elementary school, my brother Murray and I, along with Lenny and Scott Kaufman, were the only four Jewish kids during all my years at Randolph Heights. (Insert audible gasp heard from across Pikesville.) It honestly didn’t faze me, though I was conscious of it. I definitely came from a Jewish home, but for my closest neighborhood friends, ours was the only Jewish family they knew.
But just a neighborhood away, at Highland Park Junior High where I entered seventh grade, that scenario changed. Highland Park was, and still is, the heart of the St. Paul, Minn., Jewish community, so at my new school I was suddenly plunged into a huge pool of Jewish teens. I had begun Temple of Aaron Talmud Torah Hebrew School a couple of years earlier so I knew some Jewish kids, but seeing them for just two hours twice a week after school wasn’t quite the same exposure as when I stepped full-on across the threshold into junior high.
Once there, I was entertained by the school hall antics of classmates with names like Ricky Bloomfield and Steve Gottlieb; I hung out at my best friend Cheryl Kloner’s locker and skipped class with Layni Katz to watch “All My Children.”
It was from this new crowd that I started to hear about a place called Herzl Camp. In addition to receiving bar and bat mitzvah invitations and learning the cool clothes to wear (I still remember getting my first pair of real Levi corduroys — baby blue, red tag on the pocket) I was also regaled with endless stories about the fun times my classmates shared at camp each summer.
Up to then, my siblings and I (I have another older brother and an older sister) were sent to a nearby secular day camp during most summers. According to my mom, it was so we’d quit whining to her that there was nothing to do and also for the proximity (a short bus ride away) and the affordable cost. But as the post-seventh grade summer of 1976 drew near, I lobbied my mom to send me to Herzl Camp for the three-week overnight session. She applied for and received a scholarship through the St. Paul Jewish Community Center, so off I went.
I had a blast that summer as a Machaneh Herzl camper in Cabin 3. We prayed three times at day on the mirkaz overlooking Devil’s Lake, recited the hamotzie before and sang the birkat hamazon after every meal and learned an endless amount of Hebrew songs and Israeli dances that filled the camp with ruach from dawn to dusk. I met dear friends, some of which I’m still in touch with to this day. But the rituals, melodies and prayers also remain ingrained in my mind and my heart. It turned out, by happy accident, I had signed up for Get-Your-Jewish-Identity-On boot camp. And it worked.
To be clear, (I can hear my mother now!) I do not discount my home life for its impact on my Jewishness. In fact, I know it was the bedrock and that I felt a connection to Judaism well before camp, thanks to a culturally and religious (lite) Jewish upbringing. But I think camp, for the first time, provided me with more building blocks and a space in which I could construct what Jewish identity meant for me.
Several years after college, I moved to Portland, Or., — a beautiful and inspiring place to live, though at the time Jews were still a bit of an anomaly. I kid you not — I walked into a shop in December, and the clerk, wearing a very puzzled expression, asked me what a hannakan candle was when she heard my request. I walked out thinking, my God, where did I move?
About seven years ago a job brought me to Baltimore, and honestly, after a decade in Oregon it almost felt like coming back to Jewish boot camp. I remember being astonished to find Chanukah candles for sale at Target, right out in the open, in an end cap display! And just imagine my excitement about access to real deli.
Even more than the cultural aspects of Judaism, I’ve benefited from programs like Dor Tikvah, the Jewish Women’s Giving Foundation, the DFI institute and even Torah study classes at Chabad Center of Maryland, all of which have provided me, once again, with more building blocks.
Now, a couple of states and many years later, my connection to Judaism remains strong, but I’ll admit I’m still building the toolkit, in search of what shape that identity might take. It may require a lifetime to hone, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.