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What's Jewish About Camping?

by Maxine Segal Handelman

I didn't grow up camping, but my husband did.

Every summer his family would spend several weeks at Devil's Lake State Park in Wisconsin. After college he decided to go up to Devil's Lake with some friends. It started with maybe a dozen single twentysomething friends, for a long summer weekend. They hiked, canoed, swam, and celebrated Shabbat. Each year they returned to Devil's Lake, even as the group grew.

The journey from single to married to families never slowed us down. In 2001 four pregnant women were part of the tent-building crew. I sat at the fire with one hand on my swollen belly, the other hand on my friend Ann's even larger belly, and as both babies kicked in utero, I rejoiced in our children's first playdate. In 2002 four babies, ranging from 6 weeks to 11 months old, crawled about the campsite. Our standards for clean babies went out the window. It took a really long time to break down camp that year.

Everyone took part in a meal crew, making one meal and relaxing for the rest, a system that serves us well now that the group exceeds 60 people, with kids ranging from toddlers to teenagers. We are a Jewishly diverse group, ranging from modern Orthodox to non-observant. The food is kosher and nut-free, with gluten-free and vegetarian options at every meal. We take care of the earth as we strive to live off it. (Well, not entirely. This is car camping, after all.) Most families have acquired a set of camping dishes to use at every meal. Some families have two sets of camping dishes, to be washed in the meat or milk three-bin washing systems (soapy water, plain water, and bleach water for disinfecting).

Every year we have to promise the park rangers that the fishing wire we are stringing through the trees around our entire campsite will be gone by the time we leave on Sunday. We don't even try to explain to them why we need this eruv to make carrying items around our campsite permissible on Shabbat.

Shabbat at Devil's Lake is a palace in time. (Except of course for the one year that it started raining as we made kiddush Friday night and didn't stop until Saturday night as the sun set, but we try not to think about that year.) We set up picnic tables in a big circle around the fire, built up so it will last long into Shabbat. One of the several rabbis leads the group in Kabbalat Shabbat, paced to hold the interest of all the kids and the adults, peppered with singing and a good story or two. Tea lights are lit on the tables, grape juice and wine passed around, homemade challah blessed and shared. Dinner is a feast – sometimes tincan stew (made in 10 gallon cans collected for weeks before the trip) or chicken fajitas – and the singing around the fire pit can go late into the night. Stars shine brightly at Devil's Lake, especially compared to the city streets of Chicago where I usually do my gazing. Friday night is the perfect time to bring a blanket to a nearby field and watch for shooting stars.

Hiking and swimming are all within walking distance of our camp site. Shabbat is a day to explore nature or kick back with a good book (or both – Shabbat is long in the summer). At first, we new parents climbed the bluffs with children riding in backpacks. When she was 2, our younger daughter made the climb by herself to the top of the bluff, about half a mile up, and then she climbed into a backpack and slept the rest of the hike.

Now, having grown up at Devil's Lake, the children are master hikers, taking on more challenging boulder fields every year, helping their friends along. Kids of all ages run in packs, watching out for each other and creating their own experience.

One year, we grown-ups were treated to a variety show with skits and dance numbers performed by all the kids. Another year, among the cords of wood we bought for the fire were some odd bits left over from some building project. That year, the boys spent hours creating cities and superhero worlds with those wood pieces.

Havdalah at the campsite is a sublime moment. As a new fire grows in the fire pit, we gather around, 60 or more of us, singing and swaying, smelling spices often created from plants and flowers collected near the site. And as the last notes of “shavuah tov” fade away, the kids scramble to pop marshmallows onto the sticks they have foraged and do what they have been waiting for all of Shabbat – make s'mores! The guitars come out, and the songbooks, and we sing folksongs and Indigo Girls late into the night.

I didn't grow up camping. But my kids will. They can put up a tent and break one down. They can shlep water without too much kvetching, pick up a daddy longlegs spider by the leg to get it out of the tent (oh, wait, that's me, they still don't do that), row a canoe, pee in the woods, and take pleasure climbing a boulder field with their friends. They thrive in this camping community that now includes friends from all over the Midwest. I just hope they let me come back and join them when they start a camping group of their own.

Maxine Segal Handelman is United Synagogue's early childhood education consultant. She has been camping her entire married life, and her daughters each went on her first camping trip in utero.

 
 
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