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Everything I know about Judaism came from my summers at Surprise Lake Camp. My parents, both Jewish, sent my sister and me to camp for three years to get us out of the city, and that is where I found a spiritual connection to my Jewish ancestors. Besides eating matzah balls and kugel on the High Holy Days, I had never had a sense of a Jewish community. Camp is where I learned of the Sabbath and developed a connection to my homeland, Israel.
It wasn't a surprise to my parents that, at age thirty-five, I had my Bat Mitzvah at Surprise Lake Camp, which offers Bat and Bat Mitzvah preparation to children and staff (I was the camp photographer) who may not attend Hebrew school during the year. Claire, Surprise Lake Camp's Jewish Studies supervisor, tutors campers and staff during rest hour and helps them write speeches on a section of the Torah. She helps them with the prayers as well. Camp receives a grant for this and it is offered at no cost to the families. [ For more information about this program, call Adam at the camp office at: 212-924-3131.]
My Bat Mitzvah ceremony was held overlooking the most beautiful lake that I know, with the support of my Catholic husband, who read from the Torah. I shared my special day with my very close friend Karen, the Arts and Crafts supervisor, who also worked at camp, and two campers. And we had a private simcha brunch after.
Due to my strongly felt positive and Jewish connections with the camp, it seemed only natural to send my children there, and they will also take part in the family tradition of having their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs at the camp. My husband John and I both agree that we experience a strong connection to God while standing under the blue skies, in the green valleys of camp.
John is an Italian Catholic from Brooklyn. When we married we had a priest and a rabbi perform the ceremony. We agreed to raise our children to love and cherish God and expose them to both of our religions. Nevertheless, they identify as Jewish and their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs will represent their Jewish side of the family. I can honestly say that our plan has been working for our family. My husband and I enjoy the diversity and multiple celebrations. Our children are less confused because we embrace our differences and they feel lucky to have more reasons to celebrate.
When we first met, John was bewildered by why anyone would send his or her child away for the summer. I then realized that camp in itself might be part of Jewish culture. We found that most of our Christian family and friends were against camp, while our Jewish family and friends all went as kids. When my daughter was three and my son was two I approached my husband about returning to camp as a family. I went back to work as the camp photographer and my children enjoyed camp in the nursery group, created for the children of staff who are too young for the regular program. John immediately fell in love with the natural, spiritual beauty of my most favorite place on earth. He even worked there one summer as the sports supervisor. He is very much a part of the camp family, comes up on weekends and enjoys being there as a “weekend husband.”
John loves the idea that our children are learning about their Jewish background. We live in a society that is geared towards Christianity and they get that ten months out of the year. Now that our children have gone to the camp, he could never imagine not sending them back every summer. My kids long for the summers. They have created bonds with the other children there and love camp as much as, if not more than, me. Every day during the winter, they speak of a camp memory or experience.
Surprise Lake Camp teaches the same Judaic-Christian values that we as parents teach at home. Our kids feel connected and accepted there. Many interfaith children return year after year to learn about the Jewish background that they may not experience on a daily basis at home. Many of the campers aren't Jewish at all and they, too, feel connected to this special place.
Surprise Lake Camp has been the perfect camp experience for my children (and husband). I could not imagine our lives without it. We both love to see our children, from a distance, experiencing camp life. We never considered a secular camp because this is my camp that I love. Surprise Lake is more than a camp. It is a place for spiritual growth--Jewish or not.