G iven the slow pace of this time of year, I decided to write about something safe and innocuous, you know, nothing that will make anyone get up out of their deck chair or off the bungalow porch. Bland stuff, I don’t know, like, say, weather patterns, or women in chareidi society.

Lol. Kidding.

Last month we took a stab at creating our own most-influential list, the power brokers of the frum community, and highlighted the beloved younger brother of the chassan, calling out under the chuppah. I want to add another to the list, a regular feature of any bein hazmanim trip, a familiar figure in the picnic area near Six Flags and the parking lot at Niagara Falls.

The Minchah-minyan arranger.

I don’t know what he does all year. He might be a rebbi or accountant or maybe he imports sweatpants from China, but this is when he shines. From early afternoon, he’s got that look in his eyes, a sense of purpose invested in his every step. “Minchah? Minchah? Minchah?” It’s his one-word mantra as he locks eyes with fellow park-goers and zoo visitors. He confidently identifies the guy in Yankees cap, sunglasses, and jeans as “unzere” and switches to Yiddish when he makes his pitch to chassidim.

And when the setting sun shines its light on the little assemblage, he is as exuberant as a junior salesman who just closed a million-dollar deal.

Now, maybe it looks like we sometimes try to shrink away when we see him approaching, but truth be told, we love him for his passion, his determination — and for the minyan itself. Because even if people join somewhat grudgingly, as if they’re really only taking part as a public service, truth is they really love to daven in makeshift, cobbled-together minyanim.

Deep down, we’re all aware of our shared destiny, that the family thing is really true, that for Klal Yisrael to thrive, we need to expand our reach beyond those who dress/look/think like us and find common language.

These minyanim make us happy — if it’s Chol Hamoed and there are shtreimlach there to complement kippot serugot, wives will be snapping pictures (does anyone say “snapping” pictures anymore?) — because they force us into achdus. We enjoy it because we know how badly we need these opportunities. Look at the smiles as these little minyanim disperse, how happy everyone is to have experienced it, the Vayidabers and Rabi Chananya ben Akashyas and Vayitzmach Purkeneis.

We want to be close, but we don’t always know how to do it. Thanks to the fortitude and persistence of our friend, we get that chance. Mr. Minyan Arranger, we salute you.


Our Realest Selves

It always amazes me how children have the courage to leave home and go to sleepaway camp for the first time. Boys and girls accustomed to the comfort and safety of home pretend they’re not terrified and even accept public kisses from parents who don’t try to pretend that they’re not scared. Then they bravely board buses that will take them to another planet.

On Visiting Day I asked my son — now comfortably ensconced in camp, despite never before having left home for more than a night, and knowing virtually no one in camp — how he had the guts to walk, alone, up the hill, once we dropped him off.

He described those initial moments, thinking he’d never learn his way around the grounds, never feel the confidence of the other kids who seemed to be at home.

Then, his stoic walk took him past the basketball court, where some boys were shooting around.

Maybe one of them caught the look on my son’s face. “Hey, you wanna join the game?” the nameless tzaddik asked. And just like that, with the bounce of a Spalding ball on blacktop, the tension seeped out and, in his words, he played until he felt okay.

Be gebentsht, little boy, whoever you are.

That one sentence — Hey, you wanna join? — says so much about what makes camp special. I wonder if that little hero’s parents would believe their son is capable of that kind of greatness. Perhaps he’s always like that, but there’s a good chance that it’s camp itself that spawned it.

In the recent serial, Summer Job, protagonist Chaim Reimer makes a speech at the grand sing, telling the boys that “in camp, there are no parents… you are who you are.” In letters and on discussion boards, readers took issue with the message — that parents are figures to be escaped from, that camp is beneficial because children are free of them.

In his first letter home, my son told us how he ate chicken. At home, the closest he’s ever come to a chicken is a live one, when it’s being swung around his head. But it was food and he was hungry and it was there and most of all, there was no one to sigh and say okay, and make him grilled cheese in the frying pan, like at home.

The best parents are sometimes incapable of realizing what their children are capable of, because they can’t see past the desire to take care of them. Kids say things like, “Hey, you want to join?” when they feel free to be great, when their parents aren’t there to decide “Nah, my son is the shy type, he won’t initiate, he’s too quiet.” In camp, kids aren’t free of their parents’ mistreatment (chas v’shalom) — they’re free of their parents’ protection, free of the limitations we impose on them, the “oh, no, my child will never…” that we express with such confidence.

One of the most respected camp mechanchim asked Rav Yisroel Belsky, who served as rav in Camp Agudah for decades, why it is that campers cry at the color war Grand Sing. Sure, it’s a charged event, heavy on emotion and feeling, but even older boys tend to tear up.

Rav Belsky nodded. “Of course they cry,” he said. “Because they know that they’re soon going back into their cages for another year.”

I don’t think he (only) meant the cages of yeshivah, the schedules and restrictions of school. It could be that he meant us parents, who know our kids through and through and really know nothing at all.

And maybe that’s why balding middle-aged men are capable of singing complete theme songs without notes, on the spur of the moment, and why grandmothers look 20 years younger when they reminisce about who slept where in the bunk.

Camp lives on in the soul, because it’s where we were our realest selves. And that’s the real magic of camp.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 672. Yisroel Besser may be contacted directly at besser@mishpacha.com