By: Rabbi YY Jacobson.
In a single moment, eleven years of memories swelled up in my heart. I was a mere spectator, but I could not hold back the tears.
You see, I have spent some eleven summers in that location which I was now visiting. From the age of nine, back in 1981, I was a camper—then a staff-member—in Camp Gan Yisroel, in Parksville, NY, a small town off exit 98 on the 17. Only this time around, I came to camp to pick up my 11-year-old son who spent part of his summer here.
It was the last day at camp Gan Israel. It was time to say goodbye.
Once upon a time, I was one of the boys who would weep when camp came to a close and we were instructed to board the buses that would tear us away from two months of limitless fun and deep friendships. Now, 32 years later, it was like time froze: the same scenes, the same emotion, but with a new generation of staff members and children. Right outside the shul, counselors and campers stood in a circle singing an Alma Matter about their two months in this Catskill Mountain resort. I looked up and I saw my son, his arms around the shoulders of his counselor, singing too.
My mind took me back to the summer of 82, when the following Alma Matter was composed during Color-War. (The tune and lyrics were written by Dr. Mendel Shemtov, solo by Yosef Piekarski.) It has become an instant hit, and has been sung in camp ever since.
Snuggled by the fireplace
One lonely winter night
Skimming through fond memories
Of good times as a child
The fire melts away the years
As I find myself once more
Sitting by a fire, but
This time I’m not alone
My counselor is sitting beside me
My bunkmates are singing nearby
With heartfelt concern he speaks to me
The words that changed my life
How it pains my heart to realize that
Those times are forever gone
Oh, where would I be, if it weren’t for you?
Gan Yisroel I love you.
A few decades have passed since 1982. But in this idyllic bubble, where heaven and earth converge in the innocent imagination of children, not much has changed. Campers and counselors wept as they embraced each other one last time. One camper in particular could not console himself; he and his counselor were weeping uncontrollably. Those special bonds created in over-night camps are unparalleled. The sparks ignited over the two summer months, the friendships formed, the spirit of life ingested, the deep Yiddishkeit bequeathed—have no parallel in any other structure.
Driving down memory lane, I recalled our own Friday nights in camp: the singing for hours, followed by the walks with our counselors in the forests; the sleepless Color-War nights, the skits, plays, and the insane hikes. The canteen, the pillow fights, water fights, and much-dreaded Bedside Inspections. I recalled the many characters who hibernated all year, and came to life only in camp. But most importantly: Those bonds between campers and counselors which have over the years transformed the lives of thousands of children.
I walked out the front gate to go to my car. And there he was: Eric. Eric, the legendary caretaker of camp over the past four decades, was standing on the main road doing what he has been doing now for forty years: directing traffic.
In Eric’s mouth was a cigar. It seemed like the same cigar he had in his mouth back in 1981, when I was a camper.
As always, Eric was getting annoyed with the bus drivers who were not paying attention to his hand gestures. As always, the muffler of the bus hit the gutter while going down the hill, and Eric demonstrated his discontent. As he blew out some heavy chains of smoke, he exhibited his well-known sour face which he often displayed to us when he saw us misbehaving in camp.
“How can you boys not pick up a piece of garbage in the Rebbe Shlaika’s camp?!” he would chastise us. That’s right; Eric never mastered the title “Shlita.” Our camp for him was the “Rebbe Shlaika’s camp.”
The buses departed. The camp was now almost deserted. What was just a few moments ago a bustling Garden of Eden, filled with the laughter of hundreds of children, was now a lonely piece of land in the Borscht Belt. I said, “Goodbye Gan Yisroel” as I walked swiftly to the car. I knew that if I would procrastinate any longer, I might never leave the bosom of my youth.