My first day summer at camp, I arrived with no friends, lots of awkwardness, and a Walkman. And apparently, that's all I needed to be set up for a great summer. As parents drove away in their minivans, the two Bunk 6 counselors told each of us which bunk-bed was ours and began an icebreaker. We went around in a circle, with empty shelves and bags still packed, and shared our name and our favorite song. One of my new bunk-mates answered, "I'm Alex. My favorite song is Killing Me Softly by the Fugees." I knew I was in luck: it just so happened that I had that song on a cassette (diligently recorded straight from radio, snippet of commercial afterwards included). As we began to unpack, I invited Alex to share my headphones and we listened together to his favorite song. Our Hebrew teacher that summer wisely capitalized on our love of the song, and we spent two weeks translating it into Hebrew. The last week of camp, in a memory still vivid in my mind, our Hebrew group led the entire cafeteria in Killing Me Softly in Hebrew. We had done it: made friends and found a home at camp.
For the next several summers, Alex and I grew up together. Our last night as campers, years later, Alex and I stood next to each other as our whole group sang havdallah for a final time. It was the perfect bookend for what in the moment seemed like a complete and full camp life. My heart was content. What more could I ask for? Only, a funny thing happened - we continued to grow up! Alex was at my wedding years later; we spent two harrowing weeks in Egypt on break from college; he stayed on my couch for a week when a hurricane knocked out power in his downtown apartment; most recently, our trips to Israel overlapped this past August and we walked and chatted on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv together one night.
Camp changes lives. I have been privileged to watch friendships like this sprout at the JCC Day Camps, both in our building here and in my summers up at Pearl River.
I watched over the course of one summer as a 10 year old befriended a 5 year old. Their relationship began because they shared a bus stop; they wound up sitting next to each other on the bus most days. The elder of the pair would seek out the younger towards the end of the camp day, and they would walk, arm in arm, towards the bus. I watched one summer as a 6 year old, who had until the week before been anxious and afraid of swimming himself, gently and lovingly coaxed his bunkmate into the pool: “C’mon, look, even I can get in! Let’s go in together.” I watched once as two 5 year old girls, who had met at Pearl River that summer and became fast friends, introduced their parents to each other at Family Night at the end of the summer. The girls could not have been more proud to share their new friend with their family. I ran into two families at the Sunday market on Columbus Ave earlier this year, with older elementary children. The two daughters of one family had met the two sons of the other family at Pearl River several summer prior, and here they were, out for a stroll together in the middle of the school year.
Camp is a powerful place. It is a magical place. Watch out: you never know what moment might ignite a lifelong friendship.