I grew up at Warrensville Center Synagogue in Cleveland Heights when that was its only name in English and when it was on Warrensville Center Road. While it was an Orthodox synagogue, most of the members were not religiously observant. But Rabbi Jacob Muskin wanted to make sure the children of his congregation had a full range of religious experiences.
This included Orthodox Jewish summer camp. So, when the synagogue offered to help pay for me to attend Camp Stone Sugar Grove, Pa., an overnight Bnei Akiva camp owned by Young Israel of Cleveland, my parents agreed to send me.
During my first summer, in the late ’70s, the first session had just 25 campers and we literally all fit in the back of the camp’s truck when they took us off-site for outings. Most of us were not from Orthodox Jewish homes, though our counselors and camp staff were. Camp Stone is where I learned to daven – my counselor sitting with me each morning during Shacharit and patiently turning the pages for me when I lost my place or could not keep up.
It is where I fasted on Tisha b’Av for the first time. It’s where I really felt the urgency of the arrival of Shabbat, when we cleaned our bunk with special attention and dressed in white shirts and blue skirts as the sun was setting, where we sang and danced after a traditional Shabbat meal. It is where I learned lots of Hebrew words and terms. It is where I learned a ton about Israel and its history. Oh, and where I first heard music by the Israeli band, Kaveret.
It is also where I learned a bit about roughing it. Leaky wooden cabins. Showers in a separate building down the road. Swimming in a lake with a muddy bottom and …frogs.
It’s where we dined in a cheder ochel (dining room) that you could feel moving if enough campers were jumping around, and where we ate off of the colorful and thematic American Greetings plates and cups donated by the Stone family, who also purchased that camp and for whom it is named. At first I thought it was because all the pathways in camp were full of stone.
I returned to camp for several summers. Always first session – second session was much bigger and populated by the Jewish day school crowd – and always ready to learn more about Jewish practice, Jewish history and Israel.
I married a Camp Stone alumnus who, ironically, I never met at camp. He always attended second session, and he became a counselor and later the rosh mosh (head of camp) for one summer.
Our kids have heard us talk about camp, have learned the songs and dances we know from camp, and have met our friends from camp and their children.
It was not hard to convince them to come with us to a 50th anniversary of Camp Stone celebration held in Israel during chol hamoed Sukkot.
More than 700 people attended the event, many of them young singles and young families. Just the sheer number of Camp Stone alumni living in Israel is a testament to the love of the land that camp imbues. And there are scores more alumni living in Israel who did not attend. The event was on top of the anniversary event held last month in Cleveland.
A new promotional video for Camp Stone was premiered at the anniversary event. I learned there are hundreds of campers each summer. And that they are raising money for a new pool, which means they have an old one and are not swimming laps in the lake. The lake figured in the video too – with cool water sports and equipment. We had aluminum canoes and row boats and loved every minute of using them.
In other words, this is not your parents’ camp. But the campers in the video looked like they were doing incredibly cool things and they looked as happy as we were during our tenure. And they still line up in front of their bunks, dressed in blue and white before Shabbat.
I did not know most of the people who attended the Camp Stone anniversary event, though I suspect I knew many of their parents. But I love the fact we are all connected by our special summers in the camp cocoon.
Marcy Oster is a former Ohio resident who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Karnei Shomron in the West Bank. To read more of Oster’s columns, visit clevelandjewishnews.com/oster.