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‘By learning how to keep loving camp, I learned how to keep loving my broken, messy, beautiful country’

In February 2020, rising Counselors In Training at URJ camp Harlam attended the RAC’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar, the Reform movement’s flagship social justice program that takes high school students to lobby on Capitol Hill.

Dear Camp Harlam L’Taken Participants of 2020,

Just a few weeks ago, in another world, I was sitting with you guys — fourteen former campers approaching your summer as counselors in training — on the carpeted floor of a breakout room in a Hyatt Regency in Arlington, Va. I’d been invited to lead a conversation that would connect the work of the Religious Action Center with the experience of being a CIT.

Being a summer camp counselor in training is a crash course in how to adjust when simple things get complicated.

Adam Zemel

What does Chapel on the Hill have to do with Capitol Hill? What we talked about then is even more true and fitting today. We discussed the quotation from former New York Governor Mario Cuomo (I told you it was even more fitting today), who famously said that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. And I asked you, what does this have to do with camp? And, as usual, you all got right to the heart of the conversation I was hoping to have.

We talked about camp as poetry and the wider world as prose. We talked about how at camp we learn how to imagine a better world — a more perfect union — and then out in the world, with places like the RAC, we roll up our sleeves and work to bring that world into being.

But then, in those closing minutes of the conversation, we turned it on its head. The truth, we said, is that being a camper is poetry, and being a counselor is prose. And being a CIT is learning the difference.

CIT summer is a crash course in how to adjust when simple things get complicated. Let me explain: There is a purity to life as a camper, even in the moments when it is challenging and frustrating.

Being a counselor is different than that. You’ve been hired to create that pure experience, which means by necessity your experience is less pure — messier challenges, more frustrations, less sleep, more responsibility. It’s right there in the name: camp is for campers. Trust me, camp is incredible for counselors as well — the friendships are deeper, the days more rewarding, the lessons are more powerful. But camp isn’t there for you. You’re there for camp.

And as a CIT, you would have had eight weeks to get used to it. And it is a difficult adjustment. A loss of innocence. “Hey, this place you love that made you who you are, that you wait all year to get to, that gave you the best friendships of your life and helped you define yourself in relation to the world, well, going forward, instead of just giving you all that, you will only keep getting it if you work for it.

And it turns out, if you don’t work for it, it’s going to disappoint you and make you angry. Because camp is only pure for as long as you stay a camper, and if you want to keep going to camp, you have to grow up here just like you are growing up everywhere else. And because you’re young and still learning how life works, you might blame that on camp, and not on the fact that you are growing up.” An entire adolescence in eight weeks.

The year of no summer camp — we want to hear from you. Let us know how your kids feel here and how you feel here.

Instead of eight weeks, your crash course was a heartbreaking email on a random Thursday in April. The plan was for you to learn this lesson slowly, over an entire summer, at camp.

And even then, even if you could be at Harlam this summer learning the prose of camp, I don’t know if anyone was planning on your crash course including so many hard lessons at once. Closing camp for a summer in response to this pandemic is a shocking way to learn one of the hardest lessons camp teaches: that one of the things we celebrate camp for the most is an illusion — the glorious illusion that camp is separate from everything else. Every summer at camp we give ourselves over to that illusion. We celebrate living together inside “the bubble” and collectively convince ourselves that we are on a break from the real world.

But the truth is that there is no bubble. And this is the secret: that’s precisely what makes camp so magical — that this place that transforms us and defines us and shines so brightly in our hearts exists in the same world as everything else. This world that is filled with heartbreak and mundanity and boredom and loneliness and injustice and cruelty also includes Camp Harlam. I mean, that barely feels possible, right? It’s why the illusion is so easy to believe. But it is possible — it’s the truth. Camp is just another part of the world.

And, sadly, that’s why camp can’t open for the summer of 2020. Camp needs you to stay home this summer because there is no bubble, and the world needs us all to stay home, so that we can protect each other and take care of each other and make sure that the people who are suffering the worst have a better chance to heal.

Camp gave me so much of what I love in the world and in myself, so when camp needs something from me, I try my best to do it, even when it involves those hard lessons.

I learned a lot of hard lessons over ten summers working at Harlam. But I kept working there, because it’s a great place to learn life’s hard lessons, and because I love camp. And when you love something, especially when that thing you love is a place, you give back to it by being there to give it to whoever comes after you. So I hope when camp comes back, you all do too.

As a counselor and unit head, in learning how to keep loving camp despite the hard lessons and disappointments, I learned what it means to grow up and what it means to love something even when there is a gap between the idea of it that lives in my heart and the way it exists out there in the world. Here’s another secret: without that gap there would be no room for the people who love something to take responsibility for it, to have an impact on it.

Camp is broken and messy and beautiful, and I love it so much that it actually hurts when it lets me down. But, by learning how to keep loving camp, I learned how to keep loving my broken, messy, beautiful country and this broken, messy, beautiful world: get right there in the middle of the mess. Fill the gap. See camp, see America, see the world for what it is, yes, but always—always—see it for what it could be, also.

Draw inspiration from that vision of what could be, and then: get to work. This is the basis for all covenants.

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This quarantine is a covenant of sorts. It’s a deal we are all making in the here-and-now, to put the work in and sacrifice and trust each other in the hope that we can redeem the future. It’s a covenant that allows me to know deep in my bones that camp will be back, and we’ll see each other again, and we’ll sing on the hill and laugh so hard it hurts to catch our breath and stay up way too late because it’s worth it. Like all covenants, this one allows me to draw strength from hope.

And if I can paraphrase some words from Barack Obama, who was cribbing from Hatikvah: in the unlikely story that is the whole world, there has never been anything false about hope.

We do not give up just because we know the lessons are hard and the work is demanding. We do not stop loving when we outgrow our innocence. No; instead, we light a candle and help to light the world. We love even harder. We keep pushing through the wilderness. We join hands and march (metaphorically, for now) towards what could be. We hold on fast to our hope. And, all together (even when we have to spend a summer apart), we step into the gap. It’s what we learned how to do at camp.

Adam Zemel is a former camp counselor and a senior at George Mason University. He is beginning his MFA in Creative Writing at UC Riverside this fall.

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