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I Discovered Myself At A Summer Camp For Jews of Color

In the sweltering March winds, a group of fellow volunteers from my high school in San Francisco and I trudged up a dusty road towards the Samarpan School in New Delhi. I was thousands of miles away from home, about to teach kids I had never met, unsure of whether or not I’d be able to connect with them: this seemed so far from anything I had done before.

When I was asked to create an educational activity to teach the students, paper circuits were the first thing that came to mind. This is a project that I first brought to Camp Be’chol Lashon and which we now do each year; it is a camp tradition. The project is simple: all you need is a piece of paper, some copper tape, a button cell battery and an LED light. Despite its simplicity, it never fails to bring joy to kids of all ages. It’s wholeheartedly satisfying to create something where there never was a something, to master the power of the gods in order to turn on a tiny little lightbulb whenever you’d like.

As the Indian students began to speak in animated whispers to one another about how to apply the copper tape without it ripping, my fears faded away. The moment their LEDs connected and the blue, red and yellow lights flickered on across the room, I recognized the same wonderment I had felt when I made my first circuit.

The students grew more daring, challenging each other to line up as many bulbs as they could in parallel, creating more and more complex layouts. Then, as quickly as we had come together, I left, leaving behind a small scientific community and, hopefully, a new tradition. In retrospect, my experience in India wasn’t so different from my experience at Camp Be’chol Lashon, an overnight summer camp for young Jews of color that has been my sanctuary since I was nine years old.

The author, Maia Campbell Image by Courtesy Maia Campbell

Camp Be’chol Lashon is everything that I believe a summer camp should be. I’ve spent countless hours lazily prodding questionable meat preparations in the sticky mess hall. I’ve regularly felt some quick, slippery mass slide past my foot in the murky lake, and jolted with a strange mix of fear and excitement for the unknown. I once spent an afternoon pulling leeches from a friend’s bare legs, both of us shaking with incredulous laughter.

Every year at Shabbat morning services, I’ve led the Nissim B’chol Yom, the prayers for daily miracles, in itchy white tights. I confess wholeheartedly to sneaking out of my cabin well into the night, laying down on the eucalyptus leaves, holding warm hands in each of my own as I gaze up at the stars.

Communities are built around traditions. Because I have been attending CBL for almost ten years now, the traditions that I find so sacred and instrumental to my life at camp are ones that I helped to make. My identity — as a budding scientist, a performing artist, a woman, and a biracial Jew — was profoundly shaped by my camp experience.

This fall I will be heading to MIT in Cambridge, an entire country away from my home. I’ll be in a completely new environment, interacting with a completely new group of people. I leave San Francisco with the faith that the friends and traditions that seem tied to one place can serve me well as I seek to connect with others. Armed with the self-confidence and self-understanding I gained in my travels in India and at Camp Be’chol Lashon, I’m sure that I’ll be able to take on whatever this new chapter of my life throws at me.

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