Eighteen years ago, my sister gave birth to a daughter. I wrote a poem for her from far away; I think I sent it in a letter for her baby naming. I was working, that summer, as a cabin counselor at the Greene Family Camp for Living Judaism in Bruceville, Texas. I came out of that summer yearning to become a rabbi. I don't think I imagined the roundabout path I would take to make my vocation real.
That summer is a mixed bag in memory. I liked my campers, but I was lonely. Most of the other counselors had been campers for years; I had only attended Greene once, when I was nine. Most of the other counselors had pledged Jewish sororities and fraternities at UT; I had chosen a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts which eschewed the Greek system altogether. The other counselors were perfectly nice -- we were just coming from different places, and at nineteen that isn't always easy.
I remember writing poems about the Berkshires, wistfully remembering the crunch of boots on snow as I sat on our cabin's cement porch in the evening heat. I remember Friday afternoons, when the whole camp dressed in white and we all walked together slowly to the limestone ampitheatre for kabbalat Shabbat. I remember the Friday night song sessions after dinner, led by camp director Loui Dobin -- that experience of singing Hebrew songs, sometimes jumping up and down with sheer enthusiasm, swept me up and carried me away.
And I remember the rabbinic students. There were a handful of Reform rabbinic students there, doing their summer stint at Greene because it is one of the movement's camps, and they were kind to me. Maybe I told them I was majoring in religion. Maybe they just recognized me as a kindred spirit: who knows? But they invited me to study with them, and on some nights when I wasn't on-duty after lights-out I would go to their building and pore over Torah with them, unutterably proud when I could translate something or could add an insight.
I wasn't very good at the extroverted parts of being a camp counselor. The high energy of Maccabiah (when everyone in the camp divided into four teams, dressed in team colors, and competed in all manner of sports and games, complete with team cheers and face-paint) overwhelmed me a little. So did the chaotic atmosphere of the last night of each session when the kids would stay up all night talking, bedtime rules suspended because they were going home in the morning. But I loved the times when I could connect with the kids one-on-one.
Some of my campers confided in me when things were tough. Family difficulties, sickness or divorce -- sometimes they came to me for solace, and I comforted them as best I could. In a funny way, those are some of my sweetest memories of the summer: times when I felt I was able to make a difference. One of the rabbinic students was present for one of these encounters, and after I had hugged the camper and sent her on her way, he quietly murmured to me, "Nice work, Rabbi." I glowed for days.
I wish there were a way to give my nineteen-year-old self a glimpse of my life now. Married to my sweetheart whose photo I displayed on my shelf next to my bunk that summer, who had then just returned from his Fullbright year in Ghana. (As it happens, he's in Ghana even now -- there's a reason his blog is called "My heart's in Accra.") Rearing our beautiful son. Ordained a rabbi, and serving a small congregation in the Berkshires with honor and joy.
That my Boston niece is ready for college is easy to believe. She is smart, thoughtful, introspective -- a young adult ready for her next adventure. What's hard for me to swallow sometimes is that she is very nearly as old now as I was when she was born. I wonder what she'll remember, what she'll regret and what she'll treasure, in eighteen years.