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Rosé, Sex, & Bonfires: Inside The World Of Adult Jewish Summer Camp

‘There are four types of people who come to adult Jewish summer camp,” Carine Warsawsky, founder and CEO of Trybal Gatherings, said.

“The FOMOs (people who never went to camp,) the Nostalgics (former campers,) the Do-Overs (former campers who had a rotten time,) and Tagalongs (people brought by their friends.)”

I nodded, pretending to be a fifth kind — the impassive reporter, only in search of a story. Secretly, I know exactly which type I am.

I am a Nostalgic.

When I was 15, my parents packed my suitcase, shoved me in a minivan, and drove me to camp. The Union of Reform Judaism’s first camp in Washington State had opened, and as committed Reform Jews they saw fit to offer up their daughter — an acned, sulky Iphigenia — as a sacrifice to the cause. I got out of the car, and the camp director approached me, grinning beneath a baseball cap. “What part of camp are you most excited for?” he asked, extending his hand. “Leaving,” I said.

Three of the happiest weeks of my life passed. On the last night of camp I sat on the cabin porch with a counselor. “You know,” she said, “I didn’t think you were going to be cool. On the first day of camp, I heard a girl in our unit say, ‘There’s something about that Jenny Singer that makes me want to smash her face in.’ But you are cool.” I stared at her — my counselor thought I was cool! I had become a camp person.

Not everyone feels this way about Jewish summer camp.

Trybal Gatherings participants at shabbat dinner Image by Sara Knobel Photography

Forget the mosquitoes and the Wagner-length talent shows; the alarming price tag and the powdered eggs. The ages 8 to 16, roughly when children attend summer camp, are cruel years. But, for better or for worse, they are formative.

Jewish camp — that quintessential diasporic experience which creates a crucible of self-discovery — is an unparalleled shaper of identity. The now-disgraced sociologist Steven M. Cohen says it, “Wet Hot American Summer” says that, your rabbi says it and the fact that seventy doctors, lawyers, and teachers travelled to the Berkshires for Trybal Gatherings says it, too: Jewish summer camp is one of Judaism’s best tools for survival, and for creating leaders who make Judaism worth preserving.

Carine is 33 years old. She has the vibrancy, deeply rooted self-possession and hair of someone who might have once played Annie in a childhood production of the musical “Annie.” For over a decade, she worked in the Jewish not-for-profit and travel worlds, dreaming of a way to cure what she terms “the Birthright Hangover” — the phenomenon of American Jews participating in Birthright Israel trips, full of Jewish communal passion, later burning out after a few months. Obsessed with data-driven planning, she surveyed 37,000 Birthright alumni about their post-trip needs. “Overwhelmingly,” she says, “they asked for a 3-5 day, all-inclusive experience within a three-hour driving radius of home.”

They asked, she realized, to go to camp.

So Carine went to business school. She called every person in her network. She cashed in her life savings. And Trybal Gathering — a 3.5-day annual Jewish summer camp for adults — was born.

Early morning yoga on the lake Image by Sara Knobel Photography

The numbers: Warsawski came up with the idea of Trybal Gatherings eight years ago. The camp is in its second year — last year there were two sites, this year she added a third (the Berkshires in the Atlantic region, Lac La Belle, Wisconsin, and Malibu, California.) She works with a core staff of three camping and logistics professionals, and adds local freelancers (photographers, rope specialists, rabbis,) at each site. Each location’s programs are unique and change each year, funded through participant fees (hovering around $600 for an all-inclusive weekend), Jewish organizational partnerships and philanthropic support. Carine hasn’t taken a salary in 18 months. Neither has half her staff this past year. “I believe to my core that I’m affecting hundreds of people,” she said. “Trybal is attracting people who otherwise wouldn’t go to Jewish programs. People come to Trybal alone and leave having a community.”

I did not want to take the chartered bus four hours on Thursday afternoon from Manhattan to the Berkshires for Trybal Gatherings. My concerns were identical to the concerns I had about going to camp at 8, and 15, and 18:

Who will sit next to me on the bus? Will I have fun? How will I keep my hair straight the whole time? What if they don’t have any food I like? What if I’m scared? What if I don’t make any friends?

I sat in the back of the bus and took out my laptop to do some work. A young, male, pediatrician sat down next to me, stared deeply into my eyes, and asked if I would like to exchange stories of “our Jewish journeys.” I closed my laptop. Music played over the speakers. Someone passed down an enormous bag of candy.

URJ Camp Eisner nestles cosily in the Berkshires. In late summer the camp is emerald, dotted with water features, gaga pits, low-slung buildings, prayer spaces, and rolling fields. The mosquitoes are gentle, the fire-pits glow, the infrastructure is neither coldly contemporary nor uncomfortably rustic. In the morning, mists twist leisurely in the air; come afternoon the sun sparkles on the lake, and at night the sky is dense with stars. The food is perfectly fine.

We wheeled our bags up the gravel path from the dining hall to the cabins, and I checked in with my hair. (Captain’s log: Some kind of drizzle besets us. My sister’s raincoat makes me look like Darth Vader. Hair has been compromised, will continue to expand if weather persists.) The girls — the adult women — in my cabin seemed to know each other already. They all had such nice brown hair! Such rugged-yet-flattering Birkenstocks! I chose a bottom bunk and pretended to be busy arranging the objects in the swag bag participants had been gifted — a monogrammed selfie stick and glitter sun screen, among other things.

My cabin-mates waited for everyone to be ready before everyone walked down to the outdoor beer garden. I braced to see if the people I’d labeled “the popular girls” were teaming up to plunge me into a lake or cover me in waste, “Parent Trap”-style. But they smiled. They gave friendly handshakes and asked questions. Even the tall blonde one did this! I guess people developed social skills between being campers and becoming accountants and occupational therapists. They had worked out their self-hatred or turned it, dagger-like, on themselves.

All weekend I waited to see bullies rise and cliques form. Instead, people frolicked, sipping beers and flinging corn-hole sachets. They gamboled down grassy lanes, chatting about the pros and cons of apartment hunting without a broker. They developed respectful boundaries and read social cues. They were generous with the bug spray. That night we toured camp, did a silent, outdoor disco, played relay games, drank by the fire, and went to bed.

And it was evening, and it was morning, the first day.

The next morning there was yoga — yoga on the dock, in the sun, with a licensed yogi-and-masseuse who was also a rabbi, and there were yoga mats, and, somewhat obscenely, a professional DJ with full speaker system. And then there was human foosball and boating and challah baking and hipster crafts and something called tinctures. And then there was pickling and more yoga and some kind of soccer game that involved wearing an inflatable plastic ball.

That was before lunch.

When I worked at summer camp, the activities we planned were things like: Tag. Skit-making. “List all the Jews you can think of.” Once as a camper, I participated in an activity where we were instructed to see how much water we’d have left if we spat it mouth to mouth down a row of 12 people.

Carine Warsawsky welcomes campers to Trybal Gatherings Image by Sara Knobel Photography

Carine and her staff don’t plan activities like that. There is no kickball at Trybal Gatherings — there’s slip n’ slide kickball. There isn’t a cooking workshop, there’s a pierogi workshop with a chef from Brooklyn food startup the Gefilteria. A professional “experience designer” Carine met at South by Southwest led tie-dye. In the afternoon, I sat by the pool as swimmers lounged on an 18-foot floating lily pad. I overheard a woman walking up from the kickball field say, “Let’s stop by the beer garden and then the pool? There’s rosé in the canoe.” I checked in with my hair. (Captain’s log: Humidity has cleared. Hair is calm, but not limp. The golden hour.) Carine strode by and smiled at the lily pad — a last minute donation from a vendor she cold-called. “Carine! Carine! Jump in!” the pool people called. “In a bit!” she shouted. Then she leapt into a golf cart, whipped out her walkie-talkie, and whispered, “It’s snack time.”

Next time I saw her she was zipping through camp, handing out Chaco-Tacos.

We went back to the cabins to get ready for Shabbat. I didn’t have anything to do except put on a white outfit that made me look like a youthful French peasant — not because I’m low-maintenance (I’m not) but because at Jewish summer camp on the West Coast, focusing on your appearance is grounds for shunning. If you know how to French braid, you French braid. Otherwise, you stick with what you’ve got. If you peer at yourself too long in the mirror, a girl with sun-kissed skin peeking out under pastel spaghetti straps will roll her eyes at you and say, “It’s just camp.” Then she’ll shimmy her shin-hair off with a single stroke of a razor, schmear on some Lip Smackers, and slink off to seduce the floppiest-haired boy by whispering light cruelties into his ear throughout tefillah.

But only a few hours away from the spires of Manhattan, things were different. The women in my cabin — lawyers, app-engineers, Jewish professionals — stood in the steaming bathroom air, half-dressed, huddled around two hair straighteners. (Captain’s log: I am third in line to use Julie’s hair straightener. Every time I doubt God, She proves that She is real.)

Trybal campers bless each other on Shabbat Image by Sara Knobel Photography

Clean and bug-sprayed and smelling like singed hair, we watched the sun dip towards the treetops as we walked down the lane to the lakeside kabbalat Shabbat service.

But first, an experiential outdoor sense-driven Shabbat activity. Dressed in white like a “Backstreet Boys” photo call, young Jews stood making cocktails with a mixologist from the Gefilteria, doing ritual hand washing, lounging in Adirondack chairs as a guided meditation played in their ears, and wrapping beeswax for Havdalah candles. In the dining hall, the candle-lit dinner twinkled with a thousand Urban Outfitters-worth of holiday lights. The campfire smoldered. When we returned to our cabins and shook the smoky scent out of our clothing, there were chocolates and handwritten notes on each of our pillows. “We’re trying to entice, surprise and delight,” Carine told me later. I never saw her or any member of her staff break a sweat. By all appearances, the camp was being run by an invisible army.

And the next day, more options: Blintz-making. Archery. A seminar led by a rabbinical student called “Jews and Sex.” Climbing the 60-foot alpine tower. A joyful return to childhood in the form of Color Wars, which the blue team totally would have won if there was any justice in this sick, sick world. The sun fell into the lake and Havdalah arrived, and with our arms around each other we watched paper lanterns float flaming into the sky.

Yes, the yoga-teacher-rabbi-masseuse said, of course they are bio-degradable.

The writer (center) at Trybal Gatherings Image by Courtesy of Jenn Queen

I observed. I watched as hoodie-sleeve touched hoodie-sleeve around the campfire, as women let their towels slink and fall around their nearly-naked bodies at the pool, as my cabin-mates jostled for space at the sink in the morning while perfumed steam rose from the shower stalls. I wanted to hear just one person call another person a fat slut, or a stuck-up bitch. Then I would see that camp hasn’t changed, no matter our ages.

Instead, strangers danced with each other. The two mixed-gendered cabins seemed to be having the non-sexual times of their lives. The pediatrician examined the Jewish professional’s kickball injury. The acupuncturist traded business tips with the real estate investor. People sampled each other’s IPAs. Ample cans of beers and cider were available by the afternoon, with a mimosa bar in the morning and spirits out at campfire time — but somehow, nobody was sloppy, just cheerful. It looked, unfailingly, like an advertisement for happiness.

And what about sex?

There were wide-open spaces, there were gazebos tucked into offings overgrown with trees, there were untold empty cabins, there were soft patches where reeds grew thick around the lake, there were gaga pits, and there were bathroom stalls. There were pairs who could be seen walking each other solicitously back to each other’s cabins after Shabbat dinner, and then grinding on the Bar Mitzvah bash dance floor on Saturday night. And there were, fascinatingly, more male than female participants.

And yet –- I have never been to a Jewish young professionals event that felt less like a meat market. I have never felt so comfortable and un-objectified in a major social setting. And I have never been to a comparable event where I felt so comfortable talking to women –- where I didn’t feel like, in just engaging with them, I was wasting their time. “I have very few Jewish friends, and it can be hard to make new friends outside of your workplace, gym or social circle as an adult,” a 32-year-old woman told me. “I’ve already seen a group of my new camp friends less than a week after returning home.”

About two-thirds of the people I spoke to said that one of their main reasons for coming to camp was to find a romantic partner. “Always looking,” one 29-year-old woman told me. “Always looking.”

But some people came as couples, or with significant others at home. Without exception, people were looking for a group, a tribe. Friends. A 35-year-old told me he grew up in a Hasidic community but has sought his own path. “In general, Hasidic men have a very social lifestyle,” he said. Like many who distance themselves from sheltered Orthodox communities, he has found this lifestyle hard to replicate. At Trybal, he found something both familiar and new. “Everyone was so welcoming, and warming,” he said. “No egos.” He plans to return next year.

At summer camp you can do a lot that you can’t do elsewhere. You can make a lifelong friend in a day. You can devote yourself to weaving multicolored plastic strings into a stick that has zero utility. You can dance even if you’re not a dancer, sing even if you’re not a singer. You can be so cruel to a person that they remember for the rest of their lives. You can do construction work on yourself.

Carine Warsawski is adamant that she isn’t creating a summer camp for adults — she’s using summer camp as a framework to make a new world for adults. A community — a place where shared values are reflected in a space of total trust and compassion — that is a heaven on earth. “What we’re trying to do is not to make camp,” she told me. “In our pre-camp surveys people say what they’re looking for is Jewish connections. We’re making those connections.”

Camp is to mainstream Jewish-American culture as Israel is to world Jewry. It challenges stereotypes, making us strong, swift, pioneer-like, non-materialistic. Anxiety and neuroses fade to the background. And, like Israel, camp faces the irony that in an exclusively Jewish setting, Jewish religious practices swiftly evaporate.

Reform Jewish summer camps typically feature prayer before and after meals, brief evening services, and daily Jewish learning. Trybal Gatherings nixes all of those things, inserting “Jewish, Jew-ish, and just ish” activities throughout the day, with a quick prayer service on Friday nights. “People realize their Judaism doesn’t look the same as their parents’ and that causes a lot of guilt — we’re here to tell people you’re Jewish the way you are, and that’s great,” Carine tells me. I question this — across non-Orthodox movements, Jewish camp has been a place where kids connect with Jewish rituals and practices on a deeper level, with higher immersion. It’s a way to get kids who speak no Hebrew to recite the motzi blessing on bread and even to rattle off a six-minute-long birkat hamazon, I tell her. But it’s not the vision of Trybal Gatherings.

Motzi has been the tradition at Jewish summer camp for many years, great, but people don’t do that during the year,” Carine argues. “We’re trying to reach people in their Jewish lives throughout the year, not get them to do something they would only do at Sunday school. We’re trying to show people that they can be Jewish in their everyday lives just the way they are.”

Ashkenazi mixology with the Gefliteria Image by Sara Knobel Photography

The genesis of Jewish summer camp: American Jewish immigrants in the 19th century wanted opportunities for their children to assimilate and connect with nature. It’s a plan that echoes ideas the Romantics held a century earlier.

A Jewish camp is a delicate thing — purchased and planned over decades, it can go out of business with the changing of the trends, it can burn down or double in size, it is the site of great joy and sometimes the setting for tragic loss. It is a bedrock of American Judaism and also, possibly, one of its primary guarantors. It’s an easy place to fall in love — with a person, or with a people. It’s a hard place to leave. It’s a harder place to leave alone.

It was, it turned out, impossible to leave Trybal Gatherings alone. There was a JCC Shabbat dinner the first Friday back in New York City. Then a break fast, thrown by a second-year participant. After Yom Kippur, 15 people from my Trybal weekend vacationed together at a house on Fire Island. Everyone was invited to all of these events — the FOMOs, the Tagalongs, the Do-Overs, and the Nostalgics. The Boston-area group congregated at a bar almost immediately upon return. This is a goal of Trybal, Carine says, to “augment and complement” local Jewish programs. She thinks the long-term benefits mitigate the cost, which is high. “I don’t think young adults are going to pay $3,000 to join a Reform community,” she says, “But will they pay $600 to get this injection of Jewish experiences?”

A 29-year-old participant who works in Jewish education told me she agrees. “Things like Trybal Gatherings can be a way to foster a brand new kind of Jewish community,” she said.

Writing this, I am constantly interrupted by the buzzing of my phone –- the New York Trybal faction wants to have another Shabbat dinner. They want to go to the speakeasy at the 2nd Avenue Deli. They think maybe we should all get ice cream. Will we see each other at the 20s and 30s Sukkot event at the JCC? And it’s just like the song we sang around the campfire, only not so bittersweet –- “the seasons, they go round and round. And the painted ponies go up and down.”

We can’t return to being kids.

But we can look forward, together, to where we’re going.

Jenny Singer is the deputy lifestyle editor for the Forward. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny


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