This summer, I joined many fellow parents across the country in doing something that may seem to some to be irrational — I entrusted my two daughters, ages 8 and 12, into the care of complete strangers for a month at Jewish summer camp.
In my particular case, I’ve been lucky enough to serve as a scholar in residence at my kids’ camp (Ramah in the Rockies) for the past four summers. This has given me the chance to observe firsthand how beneficial, even life-changing, the crazy decision to send kids to summer camp can be. This is due in no small measure to the remarkable young people who serve as camp counselors. I have been able to see their work up close; reading to kids at bedtime, leading songs, making every child feel included and accepted, comforting kids who feel homesick, turning everything, even cleaning the bunk, into fun.
These kids who care for our kids are amazing.
My time at Ramah is usually peaceful, but at 2:30 a.m. on August 7, I knew something had gone very wrong when I heard, “Fire! We need everyone’s help right now!” I threw on some clothes and ran outside to learn that the fire was in the central lodge building, a large wooden structure that houses the kitchen, dining hall, and all of the administrative offices.
My heart sank when I ran down to find the entire lodge engulfed in flames shooting at least a hundred feet high. The heat was incredible, and even though the camp had been blessed with heavy rain the day before, I couldn’t help but worry what would happen to everyone, including my own children, if the fire spread to the surrounding forest. I knew we needed to be ready to leave quickly.
Standing in front of the fire, walkie-talkie in hand, was the camp director, Rabbi Eliav Bock, a friend I’ve known since college. He was directing about a thousand things at once with unbelievable focus and composure. Emergencies are something that he prepares for, and it really showed that night. He asked me to help drive vehicles away from the lodge so that they would be ready to use in the event of an immediate evacuation. He made sure that all of the kids and staff were at the fire emergency gathering spot, and that all of the horses and other animals were safe.
When the vehicles were all in place, I made my way to the gathering point, where I found the entire camp sitting quietly, each group of kids gathered around their counselors. I found my own daughters and gave them each a quick hug, and I could see the tears of fear welling up in their eyes, but there was no time for me to stay with them. The staff in charge of campers had to stay with their kids, which meant that the rest of us needed to be available to do other things.
The amazing thing is, I felt no parental anxiety at all about leaving my daughters in the care of these incredible young people. They all knew what they were doing, and they protected their kids, our kids, my kids, with tremendous competence and compassion.
The decision was made to move everyone to an open field at the end of camp farthest from the fire, and closest to the road leading off the property. I arrived there with the last group of adults, and before I had even reached the gathering spot, the sound of singing reached my ears through the chilly darkness of that night. Sitting on the damp wild sage in an open field under a full moon, the kids and staff were singing Hebrew songs together with loud, joyful voices.
The staff found a way to turn this frightening experience into a moment of mutual reinforcement for everyone. When I found my daughters down on that field, they were sitting with their bunkmates and counselors, wrapped in blankets, singing songs, and smiling. The staff was doing, I realized, what they always do. The same young women who braided my daughters’ hair, wrote them special notes every Friday for Shabbat, and made sure that they always had the whole group together whenever they moved from one activity to another, were doing the same thing now out on this field.
I don’t know how I will ever be able to express the gratitude I feel to those incredible people for what they did for my children, and for all of the kids here. Led by Rabbi Eliav, their heroism continued as we relocated the entire group to JCC Ranch Camp, where the staff found a way to make this last week of camp a joyful and enriching experience for everyone.
I’ve always been drawn to the myth of the 36 righteous people who sustain the world with secret acts of kindness. I’m certain that they were all present at Camp Ramah the night of that fire, and that they will probably never know how much their actions changed the world. But I’m also starting to realize how remarkable the camping world is every summer. I, for one, can’t wait to see who will care for my kids when they come back to camp next year. I also know for sure that this has been a summer my daughters will never forget – and not just because of the fire.