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The first time I stepped foot on the grounds of Eisner Camp, I was thirteen years old. Having attended two very different brands of overnight camp in the past--a Girl Scout camp when I was eleven, and a YMCA camp when I was twelve--I was not necessarily prepared to enter a Jewish community for the summer.
All of a sudden, my status changed from a Jew, to a Jew raised in an interfaith family. No longer would I spend Sundays feeling awkward at “chapel” or saying an inherently non-Jewish “grace before meals.” I would soon be participating in daily tefillah (prayer) and practicing the lengthy Birkat Hamazon (the prayer said after meals). Fitting in at this Jewish camp meant that you could sing every song in Hebrew, regardless of whether or not you knew what it meant. I didn't know many of these songs when I got to camp, but with a lot of close listening, I picked them up and sang them enthusiastically at our Friday evening song sessions.
After a few weeks, I realized how comfortable I was made to feel at Eisner through the efforts of my fellow campers, my counselors, and my educators. Since Eisner was a Reform camp, this meant that patrilineal descent flew just as far as matrilineal, making it an extremely accepting environment for interfaith kids like me--with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother.
At night our counselors would leave the bunk for a few hours, and we would break out our ramen noodles and arrange ourselves in a circle on the cold bathroom floor. In whispered conversations, I soon found that I was not the only one with a non-Jewish parent, and many of my bunkmates found it intriguing that I got to celebrate Christmas. “What's it like?” they would ask, and “Was that ever confusing for you?” “No,” I would say, and dazzled them with stories of my family's annual Christmas Eve celebration.
When I returned for my second summer, our tightly knit co-ed age unit included a boy named Chris. Rarely, if ever, will you find a Chris, Christine, Kristen, or anything of the sort at a Jewish summer camp. But Chris's Jewish friends suggested Eisner as an alternative to a mediocre part-time summer job, and he ended up at camp that summer, serving both as something against which we could define ourselves and as a symbol of just how accepting the camp environment was. Chris may not have been Jewish, but he sat politely during our prayer time, and found his own way of fitting in. I never saw one person question him, and instead, he became an integral part of our age unit.
I came to love Eisner for its benign, progressive approach to helping kids and teens form their identities--religious identities as well as personal ones. At an evening program on dating, I watched as some of my best friends willingly placed themselves in the “I will only date and marry Jews” category, while I sat at the “I would date and marry a non-Jew” end of the spectrum. Despite a fundamental difference in opinion (due largely to our respective upbringings) we emerged afterward to openly discuss our feelings without ever questioning the validity of one another's stances. I never felt “rejected,” or “not good enough,” as many kids from interfaith families are made to feel in other, less supportive environments. The level of sensitivity with which the staff ran the program, as well as the level of maturity with which campers participated, amazes me as I reflect on this now.
Within a few years I became a counselor-in-training, and then a staff member. I learned during our staff-training weeks about the level of sensitivity--both toward fellow staff members and toward all campers--that we were expected to uphold in our little camp bubble. I realized that this was an essential part of my counselors' training, and that it directly shaped the supportive camp environment.
During the staff-training week of my final summer as a counselor, our camp director made sure to deliver an explicit disclaimer about the campers that would be arriving in three days. “Many of the kids coming to camp this year are from non-traditional homes. Some have one Jewish parent, some have two. Some live with one parent, and some come from a household with two parents of the same gender.” I looked around the room at our 200-person staff, and no one even batted an eye.
It occurred to me that this type of disclaimer indicated a generational change in the make-up of our Jewish community--a community that was now confronting the challenge of raising Jewish children in an interfaith home, and in many other kinds of non-traditional homes as well.
For me, the non-traditional family model worked, and in many ways my strong Jewish identity arose because of (and not in spite of) my experience as part of an interfaith family.
Here I was, a staff member at a Jewish camp, helping to strengthen the Jewish identities of many children. I later realized that doing so helped me to reinforce my own Jewish identity. Somewhere along the way, the interfaith status dissolved, and I felt simply Jewish.