Dina Trembisky (center) surrounded by friends at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, New York.
|In the summer of 2010, Dina Trembisky, 16, from Potomac, Maryland, was a camper at Havurah, a unique program for teens from the North American Russian Jewish community at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, New York. The program is supported by the Genesis Philanthropy Group in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jewish Agency. |
November 22, 2010 / 15 Kislev 5771
By Dina Trembisky
I was never part of anything big.
Being the first born of Jewish Russian immigrants, I wasn’t part of the soccer team like all my friends were in the 1st grade, because my parents didn’t like the idea of a young girl playing such a rowdy sport. I also didn’t to go Hebrew school like many of my classmates. My parents just didn’t know that was what you did in America.
In my constant effort to be considered “normal,” despite lacking obvious things that could help me fit in, I completely avoided the idea of my Jewish heritage. Looking back, there have been a few instances that I know frown upon, like when classmates would say; “You’re Jewish? Wow. You don’t even look Jewish!” - a statement bad in its own right in that it stereotypes all Jews to look a certain way. But what got me was the
fact that deep inside, I actually took that statement as a compliment.
My family was not very religious, but I still celebrated the major holidays, occasionally went to synagogue, and had my Bat Mitzvah. Nevertheless, I never felt any connection to Judaism. It was almost as if I was obligated to do these things in order to rightfully call myself Jewish. It was all so confusing to me, and not something one could call enjoyable.
Until I was sent to summer camp.
We were told our camp was called Camp Tel Yehudah, the official national senior camp of Young Judea, a Zionist youth group sponsored by Hadassah, but I liked to think of it as what it was: Jew camp. Upon finding out that I was going, my first questions were “Is it very religious?”, “Will there be praying?” ,“How often?” , and so on.
It turned out that my fellow campers ranged from the unobservant like me to religious Jews who knew every prayer. I quickly found out that we were not forced but rather encouraged to participate in prayers and ceremonies. The way Christians go to church on Sundays, Jews go to synagogue on Saturdays to observe Shabbat. Shabbat is the day of rest. The only previous experience I had had with Shabbat was at my religious uncle’s house where everything from riding in a car to using the computer was considered work, and therefore, prohibited on Saturdays. For obvious reasons, I was not excited when I heard that we would be observing Shabbat every week at camp, from Friday evening to Saturday night.
What I didn’t know was that at Camp TY, Shabbat meant fun and celebration. That evening, the entire camp shuffled into the chadar ochel (cafeteria), prepared for a whole day of rest. Everybody was dressed in his or her best clothes. The girls wore flowery sundresses and skirts, boys in button down shirts, khakis, and sporting kippot on their heads.
The long, cloth-covered cafeteria tables were lined with empty cups and plates, just ready and waiting to be filled with food. The kitchen staff saved their best recipes for this evening and the trays had to be refilled as quickly as they were served. The whole place smelled of chicken, beans, iced tea, soup, salad: all blended into one delicious concoction. The room was filled with chatter and laughter as we all devoured our dinner together.
All too soon, dinner was over and the tables were cleared. We were each given laminated papers with prayers on them. “Great,” I thought, “more reciting words I don’t understand, reading from right to left, and pretending to be engrossed in the prayers.” Many of the campers at my table wore the same, uncertain expression on their faces.
Soon the prayers began. The kids who had been going to Jewish Summer camp since they were young knew all the prayers and were happily reciting them along with the counselors, while the rest of us sat there silently, waiting for it to end.
Then a minute or two into the prayers, I witnessed something that surprised me. While they were praying, the counselors would suddenly clap, stomp, hit the table, high five each other, and other strange movements that seemed like it shouldn’t be done during prayers.
Soon the prayers transformed into something with a distinguishable tune and people began standing up and clapping. At this point, our extremely spirited counselors started doing a dance to the prayers, and I reluctantly began clapping my hands. One counselor at my table sprung up on the table bench and started belting out the words, while others began galloping through the rows of tables and pulling campers to their feet. Sooner or later, most of the campers had climbed onto the benches and were trying to partake in the chants.
From my table, the craziness looked a bit ridiculous. The cafeteria was turning into a jungle, with gorillas pounding on their chests and the smaller monkey following close behind. I didn’t understand why everybody was so into it, why they didn’t seem to be embarrassed, and the biggest mystery of all was why they looked like they were having so much fun.
I looked down at my hands, lying neatly on the table with fingers intertwined, and then back up at the cafeteria madness. I looked at my bored and uninterested bunkmates; watching the others with eyebrows raised in disbelief, then back down at my hands. Suddenly, I remembered the end of Shabbat in synagogue, with their long droning chants, the unreadable and puzzling characters in the prayer book, being forced to stand up, bend, turn around, and sit back down again, and how hard I had to try to keep my eyelids from collapsing, how out of place I felt not understanding any of it.
And then I looked back up at the room of people. Without thinking, I turned to my bunkmates, “Come on you guys,” I pleaded, “I don’t want to be the only one standing up. Join me! It can’t be that bad.” And to my great delight and surprise, they did.
Standing up on the benches, I had a much better view of the cafeteria, and looking around, saw expressions on people’s faces like I had never seen before. Beginning to shout out the chants and do the dances, I could see that my bunkmates’ expressions mirrored those of the other campers, and felt that mine did, too. Then I realized what expression we were all wearing: The expression of pure bliss. Something that in this day and age has become as difficult to find as winning the lottery. In our daily lives back at home, there seemed to always be something to worry about, something to do, somewhere to go. However at camp, the few things that were expected from you were exceptionally easy to follow.
And here we were, here I was, finding joy in the culture that has forever been a part of me, but was always dormant. I could feel it starting to sizzle inside of me, as my soul grew warm with this new finding. My culture, my religion, my race. It all of a sudden seemed so beautiful to me. I realized that I didn’t have to be able to read Hebrew, I didn’t have to go to synagogue every Friday, and I didn’t have to know every single prayer in order to be Jewish. Despite these things, I felt I shared something with each and every person in the room. We had all been through times of confusion, uncertainty, and inadequacy, but now we were all here in one summer camp, together, a community, a family.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I was part of something. Part of something bigger than a club, bigger than a team, bigger than anything I have known. Until this moment, I never realized how uninformed I was of my own religion, how much delight and pleasure singing and praying together actually brought, no matter how much of it one actually understood. A powerful feeling of togetherness spread through the room as we swayed back and forth, with everyone’s arms wrapped around their neighbors’ shoulders, intertwining like vines, and we all sang the last song, together. Once sung, everybody threw their hands up in the air and yelled “IS-RA-EL!” a closing statement to embody what all of us shared and loved.
After that evening, everyone at camp started to feel a bond, coming to realize that we were in fact a community. A community of people that was lucky enough to share the commonality of our heritage, I finally saw why and how I could become proud of who I am. After being exposed to and discovering how magnificent being Jewish really was, I don’t think I will ever look back.