Alumni A Smile Goes a Long Way
Written by Nicole Perez, Camp Judaea and Camp Tel Yehudah Alum 87-98
I always knew that Camp Judaea was a magical place, but after what transpired this summer, I am convinced that someone spread magical pixie dust all over the campground. This is the only way I can explain how a rustic campground in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains holds so much meaning and touches so many people across the continent year after year, and one generation after another.
At Camp Judaea, it doesn’t matter if doesn’t matter if you are coming to camp for the first or second session, or if you are from Puerto Rico or Atlanta, because the moment you receive two new Camp Judaea laundry bags, you are officially part of the CJ family. From then on, the Adon Olam will be sung while playing imaginary musical instruments, you will find yourself making up silly bagel songs, and before you know it, you are already starting the countdown for the following summer to do it all over again.
This year, after months of uncertainty, Summer 2021 arrived and the gates of 48 Camp Judaea Lane opened to parents and campers full of anticipation, excitement, and smiling faces. Unfortunately, a few weeks in, sadness, heartache, and unimaginable loss flooded the gates with the collapse of Champlain Towers South. Campers of all ages, staff, and alumni were faced with a mix of emotions. Coming together was the only next logical step, because truth be told, that is what Young Judaea had taught us. Wasn’t that the meaning of Tikkun Olam? It was our turn to try to heal, and it was our own community that needed mending.
In typical Young Judaea manner, we did not waste any time and got to work. Private messages were exchanged to check on the families and friends that were personally affected by the tragedy. Messages were sent to the families offering clothing, food, and even temporary homes, anything that they needed to get back on their feet. CJ families were posting on social media messages of hope, strength, and support. Old camp pictures were posted to remind us of all the good times we had shared. Campers left camp for just one day so that they could be a shoulder to cry on for their CJ friends who were victims of the collapse.
This tragic accident has also personally brought me a mix of emotions, especially in the case of the children who lost their father in the Surfside tragedy. In the very near future, my two children will be losing their father to ALS. Every summer I see the pictures of my two beautiful kids either dancing Rikkud, screaming with excitement during Bikkurim, or playing sports, all with huge smiles on their faces surrounded by their camp friends. How will those pictures change once they lose their father? Will I see them dance again? Will they lose their beautiful smiles? Will they want to be embraced? How resilient will they really be? But after witnessing CJ’s involvement in the Surfside tragedy, I think I can take a step back, take a deep breath, and thank my lucky stars that my family belongs to the Young Judaea movement. It gave me a sense of gratitude.
This summer while in CJ, three long-time Judaeans decided to return to camp after losing loved ones to this horrific tragedy. They could have chosen to be anywhere in the world, a vast array of places to choose from to try make sense of this nightmare, but they decided camp was where they wanted to be. It was so comforting to know they had a place where they could go to be surrounded with so much love, a place their loved ones probably would have wanted them to be.
Their decision to go back to CJ also served a much higher purpose for my family and for that I will forever be grateful because it taught us one of life’s most valuable lessons, and one day, maybe not now, they will be able to fully understand what I am talking about. The three that returned to camp did not know my children prior to this summer, even though as life would have it, I went to camp with their parents. But it was destiny for them to meet, to spend time together, and to learn from one another.
In one specific situation one of them walked right next to my daughter with a big smile on their face. My daughter noticed it immediately and it made such an impact on her that she wrote to me about it. She wrote that she was so amazed that a person who had just been through such loss would have such a huge smile on their face and look so happy all because they were back at “home.”
While reading this from my daughter, I could not stop the tears from pouring out. First, I was in awe that of all the smiles she had seen in her lifetime this one had resonated with her. I also felt a sense of relief, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. These three teens had just suffered an incomprehensible loss and they chose to be at camp with their friends, a place where they felt at peace and surrounded with such an immense amount of love from their CJ community. In the end, what happened was that we all learned one of life’s most valuable lessons and that is: whatever you think you can’t handle, you actually can, and that we have more strength than we give ourselves credit for.
I think I finally got the answers to my prayers. Yes, my children will be resilient; yes, the smiles will return; yes, they will have many shoulders to lean on when they will need it; and no, my kids will not go through life’s challenges alone. Their camp family goes beyond their eda (age group), it will be any person that at one point or another was part of the Young Judaea movement. They will be surrounded by love because that is what we do as a CJ family. And every year, from June to August, my kids will be at 48 Camp Judaea Lane, scurrying on those awesome white rocks, and wearing a big smile on their face, and who knows, maybe someone else might be watching them and need that smile on that day.
Young Judaea thank you for providing us with the most beautiful, supportive family anyone can ever ask for. And more importantly, thank you to the person that decided to spread their magical pixie dust over camp 60 years ago because now we all have a place, we can call home.