I remember when... 4 true accounts
I don’t know if you remember me. But I will definitely always remember you, and the lesson you taught me.
You’re probably a little confused because I doubt you remember what happened. It was June. I was 11 or 12, and it was my first year in camp. I was shy and timid and petrified to meet 85 other kids my age who I didn’t know at all. The thought of being in a huge sleepaway camp where I didn’t know a single face scared me out of my wits. I was terrified of being so far from home, but I wanted so badly to be big and to go to camp. So I broke a sacred rule of being big and going to sleepaway camp — I brought a teddy bear along with me. Don’t laugh. I needed that teddy bear for moral support. He was a cute little bear, brown and fuzzy and a little smaller than the size of my hand. I brought him along with me and hid him under my pillow. At night, under the cover of darkness, when I was sure the whole bunk was asleep, I would reach under my pillow and pull him out. I would squeeze this little bear in my hand as homesickness overcame me. For the first week or so, I would cry to my little bear in the pitch-black bunkhouse almost every night. I hid him during the day, of course; I knew I was too big to have a teddy bear. But I needed the support so badly.
The first week or two of camp was hard. I was shy, I didn’t know anyone. It was hard to put myself out there and try to make friends. I was used to being together with my three closest friends, and now I was thrown into the deep end and told to swim. I was finding it hard to stay afloat. Homesickness and loneliness threatened to capsize my boat under the storm they created in my heart. I had wanted so badly to go to camp but now that I was there, I wasn’t sure this was where I wanted to be. And so, night after night I would cry to my little teddy bear. During the day, just the thought of him sitting there, waiting for me under my pillow, gave me strength to be brave and to make friends.
Slowly, as the days went by, I found myself enjoying camp more. I had become friendly with a few of the girls, I was starting to find my footing, and I no longer felt like an outsider anymore. Maybe camp isn’t so bad after all, I thought. I can do this, and I can have a great time. Life in camp was looking up, things were good.
Until that day.
The day that you saved my life.
We were all sitting around in a circle on one of those long, hot Shabbos afternoons. We were bored, so someone suggested a game of cards. You, Michal, agreed to the game and I did too. For some reason, I suggested we go up to my bed to play. So, all three of us climbed up to the rickety top bunk where I slept. We passed around the cards and were about to start the game when another girl poked her head up. “Hey, can I join?” she asked. We all agreed, so she climbed up the ladder to come join in the fun. Camp beds are short and narrow and with three girls already on it, we filled much of the tiny space that was my bed. With her feet still on the ladder and the upper half of her body leaning on the side of my bed, this other girl looked around for a place to sit. There was a small amount of space at the head of my bed and so she maneuvered her body there, brushing aside my pillow to make a little more room to sit. As she moved the pillow, my little brown teddy bear appeared.
The girl picked up my little bear. “What’s this?” Her voice was neutral but there was a slight tease there. I froze. I didn’t know what to say. I was friendly with these girls, but not that close, and I didn’t have the words to defend myself.
At that moment all my good feelings about camp popped like a balloon. I’m sunk, I’m done with camp forever. I’ll never have friends now. I’m never coming back to camp ever again.
But you, Michal, looked at my panic-stricken face and with your kind heart and keen understanding of people, you grasped what was going on in a second. And I’ll never forget what you did next. You looked at the other girl standing there holding my bear with a slight smirk on her face. Then, in one swoop, you playfully took the bear out of her hands. “Oh, haha this is… this is my bear…” Your voice trailed off as you thought fast and then you asserted confidently, “My sister gave it to me for my birthday during the first week of camp, yeah, well, then I gave him to Mimi for safekeeping.” You gave me a quick, barely noticeable nod and then you nimbly tucked the bear back under the covers and said to the other two girls, “Come on, I want to start the game so we can be finished before we have to go to Minchah.’’ And just like that, the conversation was over.
I was too shy to approach you to say thank you, so I stayed silent, but in my heart, gratitude overflowed each time I saw you.
Soon after that, camp was over. I left camp on a high and excitedly returned for the next five summers. During those years in camp, I stretched and I flourished. I pushed past myself and made some great friendships. I learned new things about myself and grew tremendously in my years in camp, yet I owe it all to you.
You came back too. A natural camper, you shone in camp and every time I saw you, something inside me would urge me, go over to Michal and say thank you, but I never did. We had different groups of friends, but I could have gone over to you. Yet something held me back. I had my group of friends, I was free and me and loving every moment. But I wasn’t ready to revisit that hard summer, my first year of camp. I wasn’t ready to admit how vulnerable I had been. That I had needed you and that you saved me. And so I never said what was in my heart.
Each time the memory of that summer comes to mind, a warm feeling spreads through me as I remember your kindness. Summer is coming now, and with these warm memories flooding my heart, there’s something I want to tell you. Something I should have told you long ago. You saved my life, and these words are long overdue. Michal, thank you.
Last summer was supposed to be the summer of my dreams.
For three years I had been attending the most amazing camp in the US. As an English girl, it was an extra thrill to be one of the only foreigners in an all-American camp.
I kept up with my camp friends over the years and was really looking forward to going back as a counselor for my fourth and probably last year. So last year, around Chanukah time, as soon as I was accepted as a counselor, I began to make plans. First, I had to book my ticket to fly from England to the States. But there was still time until the summer, so my parents decided to wait to book the ticket. So I waited and waited while reassuring my friends that I was definitely coming back! I was pretty desperate to book a ticket because that meant I was definitely going. But I understood it would be overly hasty to book in case something came up closer to summer.
Purim time rolled around, and my ticket still wasn’t booked. Then the virus hit. It started off in faraway China, as a foreign disease that had nothing to do with me and my life. Until it got closer, and from one day to the next, everything changed. We were studying in seminary, preparing for exams, and then the foreign girls were called home as the borders began to close. Overnight, the girls left in a rush, leaving their seminary lives behind, half their clothing still in their closets. Then the rest of us were sent home early for Pesach. It was a time of uncertainty and tears, as we said goodbye, not knowing what would be.
I called my camp friends in a moment of doubt. What would be? Yet they all brushed off my doubts; no camp was not an option!
So we sat at home and waited. We participated in classes over the phone. Got together while two meters (six feet) apart. We celebrated together from the comforts of our own homes.
Camp opening day drew closer. Slowly I started to accept that there would be no camp. But a month before its start, I received the news that camp would be opening! When I heard the news, my stomach dropped. I had come to terms with the fact that nobody was going to camp. But now I realized that, living abroad, it would be everyone going, except me. There was still a small chance I would go, but deep down I knew it would never happen.
I was extremely upset, but still remained hopeful. Then we started to work through the problems. First of all, I would be flying, so there was a big risk of being exposed to COVID while traveling. To that I said, too bad! After all, I could get corona anywhere. Next issue — what if the camp didn’t open in the end and I got stuck in the States? Again, no prob, I would just spend time with friends who I hadn’t seen in a year due to the distance between us. The main problem I faced was what to do about the two weeks of mandatory quarantine after I landed. But it was nearly impossible for me to think of dropping my plans for camp. It’s the highlight of my year! When things get tough during the school year, I literally dream of summer camp. Not going meant I wouldn’t be surrounded by those special camp friends who lived so far across the ocean and I would be losing out on my one chance to be a counselor. But there were so many problems to work through and ultimately one very big decision for me to make.
The worst part was that it was all up to me. For over two weeks I went back and forth: going, not going. One night I just couldn’t do it anymore, so I collapsed into bed in a bundle of nerves and tears. That night I made up my mind. I would travel to camp, putting my trust in Hashem to get me there safely. However, I made one condition: I would only go if the ticket was less than £600 (about $850).
The ticket was indeed less than £600, so we began the booking process. Suddenly, I could feel Hashem guiding me. I felt that He really wanted me to get to camp, and I smiled because I was slowly but surely on my way there.
But then my parents began to have second thoughts. Things were not working out as planned. The airport I wanted to fly into only offered crazy expensive flights. The family where I would be quarantining was getting nervous and suddenly, I made up my mind. “I’m just telling the camp no,” I said.
I. Was. Not. Going. To. Camp.
One by one, I called my friends and told them I was stuck at home. To be honest, I couldn’t stop smiling that night. I was so relieved to have made a decision after two weeks of uncertainty.
So I sat at home, all alone. My friends would be going to camp in less than a week. One friend told me I could still change my mind, but I shook my head. We continued talking and then she said something she thought was funny, a simple statement, but so hard to internalize. “Isn’t it funny how last year you said you wouldn’t be coming to camp and you ended up coming, but this year you were all ready and now it’s not happening?” I hung up the phone, processing her words. The year before I hadn’t received the job I wanted so I was put on a waiting list. I thought it wasn’t going to work out, but then I received a phone call that I had gotten a job as a counselor! Turned out that one girl’s sister had gotten engaged, and the wedding was taking place during the summer! Simply amazing! When I stepped on the bus to camp that year, I laughed about how three months ago I thought I would never get to camp. Now it was the opposite — I thought I’d definitely go, but it didn’t pan out.
I learned something precious, and it got me through those difficult times. For the first time, I truly understood that it’s not about me and my plans. It’s all about where Hashem wants me to go.
As I write this, I’m still thinking of that summer at home. Something inside is whispering that Hashem can get me to camp this year in a flash. I’m waiting and hoping. Last night when someone asked me what my summer plans are, I was more than happy to say I don’t know. After all, there is Someone up there who knows exactly where I’ll be going.
To My Dear Counselor,
As the mood in the room shifted ever so subtly, I raptly kept my attention on you, looking for cues on how to behave. Your face was all business as you made sure we all understood the directions. You directed us to a blackened egg and a stiff piece of sliced bread. We followed your lead and took a seat on the hard wood floor. The place in which we walk, today we sit. My eyes swept the room, acknowledging that the luckier ones chose a seat against the wall. I smiled inwardly, finding tonight’s array of footwear colors almost comical. The room quieted slightly as we all mechanically began to eat the food of mourners.
I looked around in such uncertainty, so unsure how to behave. There were those giggling in hushed whispers, while some silently sat waiting. My mind raced to match meaning to this night. From the disparaging looks toward those laughing, I concluded that silence was perhaps more appropriate. I desperately wanted to do the right thing, but more than that I wanted to grasp this intense feeling of the unknown. What this day held in history I had learned, but how to feel this day, I felt at a loss. Memories of this time last year were cloudy; I recalled performing the actions, but the feelings and emotions were stripped from memory. At such a young age, the depth of this day held nothing for me other than a feeling of apprehension.
I snuck a peek sideways to find you rifling through a crate of megillos. I saw as you selected the one you wanted with a look of relief on your face. I glimpsed the word ArtScroll before you walked away. As the crate came around the room, I wished I understood what made you take that specific megillah. I shuffled through the box, resigned to taking one of the soft-covered booklets identical to the hundreds inside. The simple binding and the smudged black and white print seemed appropriate for the occasion.
The jumble of stacked benches, chairs, and tables towered over us in our humble seats on the floor and blocked me from making eye contact with my friends on the opposite wall. But I could see you. I noticed that you sat apart, alone, without a wall to rest your back. You seemed lost in thought, your mind far away. I gazed downward, mimicking your solemn face. I understood clearly that this wasn’t the hour for jokes or shared smiles. I felt isolated though I was surrounded by hundreds of girls, so alone in my uncertainty, knowing this day will make me uncomfortable. Was anyone else’s mind screaming for direction, to find a meaning?
The usual loud rumble in the dining room was replaced by the sound of hushed whispers. Somehow the noise was ever as deafening. I wondered what was going through your head as I peeked again, finding you hunched over with your eyes closed, your forehead resting in your hands. There was an aura of sadness about you today. While usually your confidence led us with such spirit, today you looked defeated. My eyes widened when I saw the box of tissues beside you. I wished so deeply that I could read your mind. I was sure you were someone who knew how to do Tishah B’Av.
The sound in the room quieted until my thoughts were the loudest voice. I wanted to feel all that you were feeling. I wanted my face to reflect all the emotion that I saw on yours. I arranged my features into a serious expression though my mind was confused as ever. You glanced around, taking care that we were all settled. In that moment, our eyes met. I was ashamed, as though you would see the emptiness in my heart through the poker face I wore. Before my embarrassment made me look away, you gave me a small knowing nod. The unspoken validation flooded through me. With your nod, you handed me an understanding of this day. It was approval from you, it was acknowledgement of the moment, it was a joint appreciation for someone else searching for the right feelings. Your acknowledgement gave me a feeling of security, it told me if I followed you closely, one day I would find meaning in this day. The haunting tune began, and with one last glance at your focused expression, I closed my eyes to absorb the words: “Aicha yashvah badad…”
Tonight, I sit again upon the hard marble floor. I remember with a start how fresh this day was in my young mind so many summers ago. How I longingly wanted to feel something. I remember with a cynical laugh how I copied your every move, vicariously feeling all the emotion on your face. Did you feel as sure of yourself then as I dreamed you did? Now, I am of similar age as you were then, and my mind still swirls in apprehension of the day. How I wish for those old days, the days I sat there, willing a tear to slide down my face. Innocently and so very eagerly wanting to be like you.
Where are my tears now? I feel blank, empty, so unwilling to push myself into a place of mourning and tears. This time, I can recall this day of years past all too clearly, with its actions and feelings. My mind pushes away the creeping feeling of sadness as I sit in the same silence, my eyes wandering around the room. It seems only natural to sit alone in my silence, absorbing the moment, my mind miles away. I remember you taking care of each of us, guiding us with our small meal of bread and eggs. I’m thrown back to those young days where my discomfort with feeling sad didn’t allow me to understand the day. I remember, though, how my inner will was so determined to copy you and find the ability to relate. Tonight, my mind and heart fight a short-lived war before I choose to allow the inevitable. It’s still not easy, and it feels foreign and unsafe. I feel defeated inside, as though my inner will for happiness is crushed by the vulnerability of this day. I allow myself the tiniest opening to feel a day of tears in our history.
I choose a Hebrew-English ArtScroll megillah from the shelf, with a wistful halfhearted smile, remembering as I watched you purposefully do the same so many years ago. I now know why. I find a spot on the floor slightly apart from the group. A spot that will allow me to enter the privacy of my own mind. I place my head in my hands and give myself a minute to absorb the emotions and to allow them to overtake my guarded mind. Like I witnessed you do so long ago, my face expresses pain and crushing sadness that I dread to acknowledge. I know that for me there may be no tears, but I think of you. Where are you today? Do you know that miles away, your former camper is thinking of you and mimicking you? You taught me how to sit alone, while surrounded by hundreds, to create my own Tishah B’Av. As the hushed whispers in the room quiet down, I give myself a small nod of approval.
My dear counselor, I thank you, for you too may not have been certain, but you taught me how to do Tishah B’Av.
Singing in Sternberg
“In a faraway town, on a road no one knows, lives hundreds of girls where happiness flows…”
On that unknown road lies Camp Sternberg, among the hills, ditches, and rocks that the country is known for. Surrounded by woods, inhabited by black bears, brown deer, and of course, the ever-present, annoying skunks, Sternberg was my home away from home for eight fabulous summers. It was there among the hills and woods where I found a safe place to soar beyond my blindness and physical disabilities and feel like a typical teenager.
Camp Sternberg, was the first frum camp to introduce and welcome the idea of accepting campers with disabilities. In Sternberg, I was included in all of the activities that I was physically able to take part in. The amazing staff helped me feel like one of the crowd, and they were always ready to assist me with whatever I needed. In Camp Sternberg, my self-esteem flourished. Among the hills and woods circling the grounds are many buildings — bunkhouses, staff bungalows, the infirmary, gazebos, and the dining room. All are stamped with memories that are stored deep within my heart.
But nothing has stayed with me more than the laughter and singing that poured out of the dining room, morning, afternoon, and night. Song after song and tune after tune that left me with memories to cherish until today. The atmosphere in the camp dining room as I sang along with my friends filled me with a sense of belonging and connection. Those were the moments when I felt fully part of that special place. And while I made many wonderful friends in Camp Sternberg, the person who I had the most special bond with was Adina, the incredibly talented singing counselor. Adina, who always knew just the way to build the camp spirit through song.
“Camp Sternberg, if this doesn’t wake you up, I don’t know what will!” Adina would sing into the mic before bursting into a round of, “Meheirah yebaneh Hamikdash” — a song that always livened up the dining room.
All of that lasted until the summer of 1993, when I arrived in camp knowing that Adina, the amazing singing counselor, would not be there. She had become a kallah just two months before camp began, so her position was filled by someone else.
Camp Sternberg was still singing, but the counselor who always made sure to connect to me both in and out of the dining room was gone. I missed all of the schmoozing time that I had spent with Adina and the special way she looked out for me. I sorely missed her and had a hard time getting into the camp spirit. “Smile there, aren’t you glad you’re living?” staff members would sing as they passed me by. Their words didn’t make me smile for too long.
Everybody who knew me knew why I was sad. They all tried their best to cheer me up, but it wasn’t an easy task.
And then it happened.
One sunny afternoon, after finishing lunch, campers and staff piled out of the dining room. Once again, my friends tried cheering me up, to no avail. Not until Shira, Adina’s younger sister, showed up and said, “You want to see Gitty smile?” She turned to me and said, “Gitty, Adina sends regards.”
It was like a million-watt light bulb lit my face, and Shira said “See, she’s not smiling, she’s beaming.” She was right, I sure was. Just hearing from Adina lifted my spirits. But Shira wasn’t done. “Gitty, Adina’s coming up to camp for Shabbos,” she said. Finally, there was a real smile on my face.
For the next few days, I was elated — finally, I had something exciting to look forward to. On Thursday, though, I began to feel sick and was sent to the infirmary overnight.
On Friday, as the camp got ready for Shabbos, I was stuck in the infirmary feeling miserable. Not only was I sick on the one Shabbos that Adina was in camp, I was also going to miss Friday night singing with Adina at the lead. With the camp infirmary right across from the dining room, I was able to hear the Shabbos zemiros, and straining hard to hear Adina’s voice above the rest, I was able to enjoy the singing I loved so much. Yet as much as I enjoyed it, it made me sad. Sad because I was stuck in the infirmary away from everyone else and away from Adina. I longed to spend time with her before she got married and moved to Eretz Yisrael.
Suddenly, I heard a rush of girls crowd into the infirmary. “Guess who’s in camp?” they called. Then Adina herself burst into the infirmary, all smiles. “Hi Gitty!” she called in her warm and bubbly voice.
In an instant, I jumped up and began packing my belongings, all feelings of sickness left behind. “I’m coming with you,” I said to Adina.
Adina laughed. “See, I’m a better nurse than you are,” she joked to Nina, the nurse.
And in some ways that was true. The feeling of friendship and caring that Adina swept into the infirmary with healed me faster than any medicine ever could.
I was able to spend time with Adina that night and the next afternoon as well. And best of all, I was able to join in the singing with Adina at the lead once more. Those memories are forever at the forefront of my mind. The way Camp Sternberg, and specifically Adina and her sister, Shira, treated me and continue to treat me with such special love and care has given me the confidence to believe in myself as a valued person despite my disabilities. Who could have ever imagined what a summer in camp could accomplish for one girl?
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 865)
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