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An oral history of the most epic Jewish summer camp prank ever

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The summer before 10th grade, some friends of mine pulled off what I have long thought had to be the most outrageous prank of all time: spoiling the biggest twist in the Harry Potter series for an entire sleepaway camp.

It happened at Camp Ramah in Ojai, Calif., on July 18, 2005, two days after “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the sixth book in J.K. Rowling’s series was released. I never even attended Ramah, but the prank was so epic that years later, campers, counselors and even those like me who merely had friends at the camp are still talking about it.

It may seem a trivial bit of mischief to those who never attended sleepaway camp or who never understood why fans of Harry Potter slept outside bookstores awaiting the next installment. But what a handful of 14- and 15-year-old boys intended as a harmless joke felt to many at Ramah like a serious betrayal and prompted stern calls home, saddling some involved with lingering guilt.

So, in these waning days of summer and the Jewish season of repentance, I interviewed some of those who planned the prank and some who woke up to it. It is a story of youthful indiscretion, contemplated through the lens of young adulthood.

Their remarks have been lightly edited for clarity and length. And, a perhaps unnecessary spoiler alert: The (arguably) biggest plot twist in the Harry Potter series is revealed in this oral history.

The Main Characters


Rabbi Daniel Greyber was executive director of Camp Ramah from 2002 to 2010; he’s now the head of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC. Zach Lasker was camp director from 2002-2011. He’s now executive director of Temple Israel of Hollywood. Jonah Platt was a boys’ counselor in Machon, the unit of the oldest campers — and the one that always planned the prank. He’s now an actor, writer, and musician. Adam Schlesinger, Ilan Slovin were Platt’s charges; Sam Blitzstein was also in Machon, but in a different tent. Schlesinger is now a CPA, Slovin works in public policy, and Blitzstein in tech. Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer was a visiting rabbi that summer, Jenna Metson was a counselor for Machon girls; Gary Gold was another Machon camper, Anna Stern was a first-year camper in Nitzanim (rising fourth- and fifth-graders).

Chapter 1: A ‘capstone project’ for the masters of mischief


RABBI DAN GREYBER: Camp Ramah, like every other summer camp in the history of the world, has a legacy of pranks. My attitude was, I don’t want to take the fun out of summer camp. As director, there was an obligation to be against pranks — part of the job of the director is to say they’re not allowed. But part of the job of campers is to do pranks and get in trouble for them.

JONAH PLATT: Generally the “cool kids” from the oldest age group would do something.

ADAM SCHLESINGER: There was the left shoe prank, where they went into every bunk and tent and took everyone’s left shoe, and put it on The Hill and wrote some message, like, DON’T FEEL LEFT OUT.

JONAH PLATT: The Hill is this giant hill that is the central location of camp. If you’re doing a prank and you want everyone to see it, you should probably involve The Hill.

GREYBER: Another time, the oldest group went away on an overnight, and the second-oldest group took probably 1,000 paper cups, filled them all up with an inch of water, and put them in their tents, so people faced the choice of spilling all this water or picking up every single cup.

ILAN SLOVIN: Since our first summer at camp, going into 5th grade, my friends and I had been relentlessly determined to break new ground in the field of Jewish summer-camp troublemaking. We had been looking forward to it for years.

PLATT: These were definitely the troublemakers, the rebels. When they assigned us that tent, they were like, yeah, we’re giving you guys the handful.

Chapter 2: “Like wildfire”: Harry Potter goes to camp


These campers, like much of their generation, had grown up with Harry Potter, an orphan who finds out he’s a wizard. Each of the seven books in Rowling’s series represents a successive year of Harry’s education at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. By the sixth book, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” he is roughly the same age as Ramah’s oldest campers. Each Harry Potter book is longer than the last — the sixth was 672 pages and the darkest to date. The villain, Voldemort, was gaining strength despite the best efforts of Hogwarts’ beloved headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, and it was unclear whether Dumbledore’s trust in his deputy, Professor Snape, was warranted. The title of the book itself contains a mystery: Who was the “Half-Blood Prince”?

SAM BLITZSTEIN: That year the book was coming out while I was at camp, so I and many others did a preorder. You had to preorder it early enough to make sure that you would get it the first day.

GREYBER: The first day, we probably got 75 copies of the book delivered to camp.

ZACH LASKER: It was one of the biggest phenomenons that I have ever seen at camp. I don’t know what could happen that would be similar to that in this day and age.

PLATT: It would be like if Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame was a book, and you had been waiting, like, decades.

RABBI SHAWN FIELDS-MEYER: What you usually notice at camp is kids running around, always very active — in discussion, singing, doing art — always in groups. All of a sudden, I notice lots and lots of kids holding these huge books.

What struck me is the wide range of ages of campers who were carrying the book around, sitting in the grass and reading. Sitting on benches and reading. It was beautiful and unusual for camp.

JENNA METSON: People were reading it like wildfire. People were missing activities and hiding in places so they could read the book. I remember one camper of mine, we couldn’t find her — she had hid under her covers to read the book.

SLOVIN: Sam finished the book in one day, which to this day I still don’t know how is possible.

BLITZSTEIN: Basically from when I got the book until I finished the book, I think I just ditched whatever scheduled activities we had going on. I don’t think I really interacted with people while I was reading it.

I remember finishing it and having almost an out-of-body experience, because the end of this book is this surprising moment where, you know, Dumbledore is dead.

FIELDS-MEYER: It’s crazy that even this many years later I don’t even want to say what it was, but it was that Snape kills Dumbledore.

BLITZSTEIN: As a character who you grew up revering, for him to die, and to die at the hand of his lieutenant who no one else ever trusted, that was a pretty intense moment. I remember sitting there and being in awe of what had just happened, kind of in shock.

Chapter 3: “What if that wasn’t a problem anymore?”: An idea hatches


Two days after the book came out, Machon went on an overnight trip. Just over a week was left to go in camp, and the group still hadn’t come up with a prank.

BLITZSTEIN: I guess after I finished I thought, I should participate in camp again, and we had a travel day. Our edah went to some beach town.

SCHLESINGER: The Ventura Pier.

SLOVIN: Some friends and I had been talking about how we had a week and a half left in camp and nothing had materialized. We were kind of lamenting what in our warped 15-year-old minds had amounted to a monumental failure. We were coming to terms with, are we just not going to have a prank? And the Harry Potter thing was happening that day.

SCHLESINGER: Someone, while we were sitting there at the beach, was like, are there any spoilers in there?

BLITZSTEIN: I said, “Are you sure you want to know?” And they did, so I told them what had happened. They started telling other kids in our group, who did not want to know, and they got pretty upset.

SLOVIN: I didn’t want to hear the ending, because I was gonna read the book when I got home. I was like, “Don’t tell me.” And somebody was like, “What, that Snape kills Dumbledore and Snape is the Half-Blood Prince?”

I was a moderate Harry Potter fan, so I was like, aw man, W-T-F! But I got over it relatively quickly. I was disappointed but not that mad.

BLITZSTEIN: That’s what spawned the idea for the prank — they saw the impact that this knowledge could have.

SLOVIN: Gary mentions this idea that he had. He’s like, “Dude, that could be our Machon prank. What if we ruined the end of Harry Potter for everyone?” I remember thinking, Oh my gosh, wow — that’s brilliant.

SCHLESINGER: Someone said something about, “Everyone is just reading their book all day, being antisocial. What if that just wasn’t an issue anymore?”

SLOVIN: Gary was kind of the ringleader. He had recognized that if we were going to do this, we had to stop talking about it except to people who were involved. So we got all secretive and started planning it quietly on the beach.

A lot of thought went into the kind of materials we were going to use. We were really intentional about using nonpermanent markers and paint because we didn’t want to actually destroy camp property. That was the kind of thing you’d get sent home for.

BLITZSTEIN: At some point in the middle of the night they were going to do the prank and they asked if I wanted to come along, so I went with them.

Chapter 4: “We’re just ruining the end of a book about wizards!”


SLOVIN: We all set our alarms at 3 a.m., and about 10 of us met in the tent area to begin the prank.

SCHLESINGER: I think we were all wearing black.

BLITZSTEIN: The two big gotchas of the book — Snape kills Dumbledore, Snape is the Half-Blood Prince — it was like, let’s spread this as widely as possible.

SLOVIN: We split into three teams. There was the Chadar Team — that’s the chadar ochel, the cafeteria where everyone goes first thing in the morning to eat breakfast. There was the Street Team — there’s a big road that kind of goes around, that team was going to write it in chalk on that road. And there was Random Window team, which as the name suggests, was going to write Snape kills Dumbledore, Snape is the half-blood prince all over random windows and random buildings all over camp. I was on the Random Window team.

SCHLESINGER: I definitely did chalk on the sidewalks and on the street.

SLOVIN: We were like, “But wait! Where’s the first place people go in the morning? The first place isn’t the chadar ochel — before that, people will go to brush their teeth in the bathroom!” So we wrote it on the windows in the guys’ tent-area bathroom.

BLITZSTEIN: I just got caught up in the fun of it, like we’re out at night, doing this prank that is designed to have minimal impact.

SLOVIN: We all thought we would get caught in the middle, but it kind of went off just as planned. So we were feeling good about ourselves. We had definitely perceived it as a harmless, funny type of prank, like, “How can they get us in trouble for this? We’re just ruining the end of a book about wizards!”

SCHLESINGER: We had no idea what the reaction was going to be other than “that was an epic prank.”

Chapter 5: Ramah wakes up


SLOVIN: We thought we were going back to the tent and sleep. But once we had the adrenaline going, that wasn’t going to happen, so we were like, what are we going to do now?

So to cap it all off, we thought we should all be pretending to play Quidditch — riding around with brooms right where everyone will walk down The Hill — chanting, Who killed Dum-ble-dore? Snape kills Dum-ble-dore! Who is the half-blood prince? Snape is the half-blood prince! Who killed Harry Potter? Machon killed Harry Potter!

PLATT: Bear in mind, some of these kids don’t even read Harry Potter. They were jumping around on broomsticks, you know, galloping and gallivanting around The Hill as a way of taking credit for the prank.

ANNA STERN: I remember them laughing maniacally.

SLOVIN: It was this ridiculous spectacle where people were mad, and they’re kind of yelling at us, and we’re celebratorily chanting Snape kills Dumbledore.

PLATT: You wake up in the morning and you go outside, and literally all over the camp, on windows, in window paint, in chalk on the ground, they had written Snape Kills Dumbledore. Like, you could not avoid it. Basically anyone who read Harry Potter, you had waited years for the book, you woke up and it was ruined for you in two seconds.

SLOVIN: A lot of in-the-moment reaction was people being annoyed — very annoyed — and, “I can’t believe you guys did this, oh my God, it’s not funny!”

LASKER: I showered and emerged for tefillah, and I’m confronted with some pockets of kids and staff who are upset and crying, and the start of the gossip mill of what’s going on. The moment that I heard what had happened, I took my glasses off and decided not to wear my contacts, because I did not want to read what was written.

You know like when an airplane is going down, you first put the oxygen mask on yourself? So first things first, I protected myself from having the book spoiled.

METSON: People were trying not to look, knowing that there was a spoiler around. If they saw chalk ahead, they would close their eyes. I was one of those people trying not to look.

LASKER: Jenna Metson, I think similar to me, heard what had happened, and when I saw her, she was being led around with a blindfold over her eyes because she didn’t want to see.

GREYBER: My wife was the Harry Potter fan in our family. I read the first book, but I didn’t know who Snape and Dumbledore were. So I saw these words and was like hey, that’s a little weird. I think part of her task in that moment was to help me understand, that’s really awful! That’s terrible!

PLATT: This really set off a low-stakes bomb for a lot of kids. Like boom, ruined your dreams, kid. And it wasn’t like “Voldemort is real” or something. It was the biggest twist of the entire series.

FIELDS-MEYER: People were crying, screaming, distraught, very upset and disturbed with the revelation of this event in the book.

STERN: I came into the chadar ochel and thought that someone had died because it was just so solemn and everybody was crying.

PLATT: I remember I was pissed, but then I was like, at least they didn’t spoil who the half-blood prince is. And then I walked into the men’s tents’ bathroom, and on one mirror it was like, “Snape is the half-blood prince.”

The people who don’t read Harry Potter were in awe and respect of this prank. They were like, “That’s a great prank. They didn’t damage any property, this was kind of clever, no one has ever done this before.” I was not in that camp — I found it to be a mean-spirited prank.

If I hadn’t been a Harry Potter fan and had no skin in the game, I probably would have laughed at it. Like, my co-counselor [Oren Gabriel] didn’t care — he thought it was cool.

SLOVIN: Oren was going through the motions in front of the camp director, like, “You guys: NOT. OKAY,” but then behind closed doors was like, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”

SCHLESINGER: It was the talk of the town. Everyone either thought it was hilarious or crying, but everyone had a very strong reaction.

STERN: I had only read the first one or two books at that point, but I think I cried, just to add to the dramatic effect, because I was a dramatic child.

SLOVIN: I distinctly remember the moment or the feeling I had when I heard that people were crying. I remember being really, really surprised that people were crying because that’s not the reaction we expected at all. We expected to get eye rolls and get yelled at by camp. But crying really threw me off.

BLITZSTEIN: When I heard that kids were crying because of something that not only I participated in but also kind of happened because of me, that definitely made me feel very personally responsible.

Chapter 6: “Logical consequences”


GREYBER: I mean, look: I would give it an ‘A’ for creativity. I actually felt like this was a good-faith effort at doing a prank that was not physically dangerous to anyone. I tried to acknowledge the thought that had been put into that. On the other hand, there were kids in tears, so part of how we responded was having them learn that harm isn’t just defined physically.

LASKER: One of the things that was very important to us at camp was the idea of logical consequences. The consequences should be relevant to the crime and ensure that people learned from it.

BLITZSTEIN: After prayers, they collected us and brought us in. It was interrogation style, bringing in one kid at a time.

LASKER: We sat down with each kid and had them call home, and said, “This is your conversation to have. You need to tell your parents what you did and take responsibility for it.”

And one by one, the kids called and they would say, “Mom, dad, I ruined Harry Potter,” and the parents would talk to the kid and it was on speaker phone so Rabbi Dan and I could hear.

SLOVIN: My mom wasn’t really mad. In the months leading up to camp, I was really into thinking about what the prank would be, hyping it up. So she had been giving me all this “do not break anything!” So when she got the call from Zach Lasker, she was like, “Oh, thank God! Oh, that’s it? That’s the prank? Wonderful! We’re in the clear.”

In hindsight, that had definitely informed the planning. I had a universe of acceptable pranks that was limited by my juvenile moral compass and my mom’s warnings about what not to do, and this was inside of it.

BLITZSTEIN: I remember being pretty distraught. My dad was relatively formal, like, “OK, thank you for letting me know.” But I did hear later on that he was pretty frustrated.

LASKER: All of this was going swimmingly well until the last kid who had to call home.

Keep in mind what I said about my glasses and my contacts. Whereas all the other kids said “Mom, dad, I ruined Harry Potter, I wrote the last line on the walls, on the whatever,” the last kid said, “Hey mom, dad, I wrote ‘Snape kills Dumbledore’ all over camp.”

I’m like, Oh my gosh, it’s 4 or 5 o’clock, I have managed to go all day where you have not managed to ruin the book for me! And now you have.

GREYBER: From a Jewish perspective the name for what had been inflicted was ona’at devarim which means, pain that you inflict through words. The rabbis actually said that that is some of the worst pain that you can inflict. And so we used this as a teaching opportunity that the kids all needed.

SCHLESINGER: We also had to write apology letters to different campers who were affected by it. We wrote dozens of letters. And obviously we had to clean everything up, which was a lot of cleaning.

BLITZSTEIN: In the light of day, it’s ironic that the 15-year-olds cared about physical damage but not emotional damage. Chalk is much easier to wash off than emotional trauma.

LASKER: The next summer was amazing. Yet another book came out, and knowing that some of our community was still carrying the emotional trauma — I use that term very liberally here — we made a Harry Potter reading room for the weekend that the book came out. And there was a camp rule that at any point in time, you could take your book and go to that location and sit down in AC for as long as you wanted to, we had the room decorated and enchanted and magical. We downloaded the theme music from the movie, which was a big deal in 2006.

Chapter Seven: Departing the pensieve


PLATT: I’m saying this with a smile on my face, obviously because I’m in my 30s now, but I’m still pissed off!

SCHLESINGER: Looking back, it was definitely an epic prank and a memorable prank, probably the most epic I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if it had any long-term damage for anyone — I hope not, because it definitely was not meant to do that.

STERN: The reason I remember it so vividly is because it never left my head when I read the rest of the series. From being nine years old, you don’t have many memories, but that is definitely one of them for me.

I’m a third grade teacher now, and my students are obsessed with Harry Potter, and I told them this story that happened when I was their age. And they were like, “That’s just the worst thing in the world. Why would someone do that?” So it’s carried over to this day.

GARY GOLD (via email): What I remember is that the Harry Potter prank was deliberately benign. It did not target, alienate, or disproportionately impact any individual or class of individuals. The prank gave Camp Ramah good-natured fun and a memorable morning.

SLOVIN: I feel very conflicted about it. It’s almost two parallel thought streams. There’s the element that sort of embodies my 15-year-old mind at the time, which is, “this is hilarious and it’s kind of ridiculous to the nth degree, so it’s a fun story to tell.”

And then there’s the other thought stream: What about the kids that were so obsessed with the book that they preordered it? You look back and it was one of the most exciting things going on — a year and a half of suspense — and then: Boom. Done. Next. What I thought of as a harmless prank was not harmless, and I was missing something there. Now age has filled in the gaps a little bit. So I definitely feel bad about it.

My friends were annoyed at our friends that were reading at the end of camp, but what about the kids who were lonely at camp? Where reading that book was going to be not a distraction from all the fun things that everyone does at camp, but an escape?

BLITZSTEIN: I would like to apologize to anyone who was hurt by it, for not letting you have the experience that I got to have.

I never wanted to make anyone cry, let alone about this thing that was something so deeply personal to me. Because I could imagine a world where I was in that age group and the older kids read it and spoiled it for me, and I would have been really hurt about that.

I was not at a point where I could think through my actions to want to avoid that kind of harm to others. And with J.K. Rowling’s recent transphobic remarks, the idea of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes has been even more on my mind.

I’m sure some people maybe still look back and are like yeah, what a funny prank. But I don’t. I say, What a mean prank. What a way to put kids at the butt of a joke. Wow. Way to go.

FIELDS-MEYER: We had read the first book out loud to our children when they were younger, so I knew about Harry Potter, but we hadn’t read much beyond the first book. But what happened for me was I realized that I needed to go back to the beginning and find out for myself what it’s all about. I dove in, I read every book. I devoured the books. And I loved them.

LASKER: It was really endearing to see a couple of kids who were really well-behaved try to figure out how they balance their own judgment with having fun and going with the flow of other kids. And to grow in that way — that’s hard to do. You got to watch emotional and social growth occur in front of your eyes.

GREYBER: Moments like that are teaching moments and they are part of why Jewish camping is such a phenomenally successful and important part of the Jewish educational landscape. Using those moments as opportunities to teach and to laugh and to be in such a deep sense of community, I just think is phenomenal.

I didn’t read all the books, but I did watch the movies with my kids. When I watched the sixth movie, the ending still had the impact — nothing was lost. I think the truth is at that point, it had been long enough that I had sort of forgotten all of the drama around that. So I don’t think I actually knew it was coming. But when I saw it, I said, “Ahhh — this is what it’s all about.”

How a Harry Potter spoiler became a summer camp prank for the ages

Author

Louis Keene

Louis Keene

Louis Keene is a staff reporter at the Forward. He can be reached at keene@forward.com or on Twitter @thislouis.

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