A memory came up on Facebook the other day: a picture of a note from our youngest child three years ago after he arrived on the bus for his first experience as a camper at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. It was brief, but it made my heart melt: “I’m having so much fun! Toby.”

Summer camp is a multigenerational through line in my family history. My grandfather went to Camp Tonkawa with the Boy Scouts in Minnesota a century ago. My parents met while working on staff at Camp Tamarack in southeastern Michigan. I went to Camp Ramah in Canada, Interlochen Arts Camp, and Wright’s Lake Scout Camp as a kid. And beginning when our first-born was old enough to attend as a camper, Natalie and/or I have sung for our supper by working on the staff at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin–and our older kids have gone on to be counselors there too. Camp is a basic fact of life for us.

So this week marked something of our annual celebration, as the kids went off to camp again.

The report from our middle child, serving his first full summer on staff, is that the initial couple of days were hard–storming, norming, forming, as the old saying goes–but that his cabin is coming together. Because, of course, there is so much that goes into creating this community every year. Every camper and every staff member arrives at camp with a world of expectations, hopes, fears, joys, and anxieties, and they ultimately have to find a way to live together.

And what we witness year after year is that eventually, most of the time, they do. With patience, openness, honesty, care, love–and with shared projects to work on, shared songs to sing, shared dances to dance together, shared natural beauty to bask in–a disparate group of hundreds of young people becomes a community. For so many people, camp is a place where, as much as anywhere on earth, they experience not just community, but an awareness of the shechina, the divine presence.

There’s a short passage in Parashat Behaalotcha that has always fascinated me, Numbers 9:15-23. In poetic and, for the Torah, repetitious language, it describes how the attunement between the Israelites and the divine presence. It could be summarized simply by verse 18: “At YHVH’s command the Israelites broke camp, and at YHVH’s command they made camp: they remained encamped as long as the cloud dwelled over the mishkan.” 

Among the many meaningful elements of this short passage is the repeated use of the words yachanu, “they camped,” and yishkon, “God dwelled.” By my count, camping is referenced six times (and mirrored by linsoa, journeying–the opposite of camping) while dwelling is mentioned ten times, including the mentions of the mishkan itself, the place of divine indwelling. Given that the Torah is normally quite economical in its prose, an efflorescence like this is an invitation to interpret.

Perhaps an interpretation can be found in another phrase that recurs in this passage over and over: “al pi YHVH,” by the word of the Ineffable One. During their time in the wilderness, the Israelites would break camp and make camp repeatedly. And according to this passage, each time they made camp, the divine presence would come to rest in their midst–until the divine gestured to them that it was time to move again. What the passage describes is a profound attunement–between the collective, its constituent individuals, and the divine presence.

It is, perhaps, an ideal (notably, the first time the root SH-K-N is used in the Torah comes in Genesis 3:24: “the Divine stationed [vayashken] two cherubs east of Eden” after human beings were sent out from the Garden of Eden). And it may feel particularly far away these days, this vision of sacred attunement on not only a personal, but a collective level.

Yet I think there’s a reason why so many Jews keep coming back to camp year after year. It isn’t only because, as my young son wrote, camp is so much fun. As anyone who has been to camp knows, camp isn’t always fun. But the process of making a community, of living in greater harmony with the rhythms of nature and the rhythms of Jewish life, of singing and praying and studying and dancing together, of negotiating relationships and learning how to live peacefully in community with one another–in all of that messy and beautiful work of making camp, we make a space to recognize the divine presence. For many people, camp is a place where we experience the attunement that is always possible–but that is uniquely available under the trees, by the lake, and around the campfire.

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