Beliefnet
I had never had a trunk before. And this one was big. It lay open in my bedroom with a mimeographed yellow checklist taped inside the lid. In blue ink, I had begun marking it off: 14 pairs of underwear, check. Two bathing suits, check. Flashlight, check.

I paused when I reached the most unusual item on this list: four white shirts and four white pairs of shorts. These outfits, the list explained in parentheses, were to be worn on Friday nights. To religious services.

At age 10, I didn't find the prospect of attending services every week very enticing. I was going to camp to swim, play softball, do arts and crafts, meet new friends--not to pray.

But this particular camp, located in Milford, Penn., was run by the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association (YM-YWHA) of New Jersey, a Jewish organization. Camp Nah-Jee-Wah provided all the usual camp activities--plus kosher cuisine, Jewish culture, and Friday night Sabbath services. In all honesty, I chose it more because two of my school friends loved it than because of its religious affiliation.

My family took pride in its religious background. My father, a professional baritone, also served as cantor at the Metropolitan Synagogue of New York, a brick building with walls so thick that the nonstop sounds of Manhattan never entered the sanctuary. Our rabbi, an erudite man with a national reputation, led the services and often gave sermons commenting on important issues of the day. Both the rabbi and my father wore flowing black robes that made their arms, when lifted, look like giant angels' wings.

Nothing about Camp Nah-Jee-Wah was quite so intimidating. We lived in simple cabins. Swimming in the lake, a new experience, delighted me, as did the new songs I was learning and the clay sculpture I worked on that first week. I missed my parents but discovered that life without them could be quite liberating.

I ate--or didn't eat--what I wanted. I wore the same clothes over and over. I stayed up late because there was always someone to talk to. I expected Friday night services to be a minor distraction in this otherwise joyous summer.

On the first Friday afternoon of camp, our counselors hurried us out of the lake and back to the bunk. Wrapped in robes, we headed for the showers. Fresh with the scent of the lavender soap my mother had packed for me, I went in search of my first white shirt, a button-down from Sears stuffed in my wooden cubby hole. When I looked up from putting it on, I noticed a transformation: My bunkmates and my counselor, scrubbed and clean, practically shone in their whites.

We walked out on the lawn where Division Abigail gathered each night before dinner. All 64 girls and their counselors looked angelic in the afternoon sun. Our summer whites made me feel serene and part of this group I barely knew.

As we made our way to the mess hall, the aroma of chicken soup replaced the usual camp food smells. Every table had baskets of soft, egg-yellow challah, poppy seeds clinging to the top. When finally a platter of roasted chicken was placed before us, it was the first meal I'd eaten with gusto since leaving home.

Services were held at lakeside, where rows of benches had mysteriously appeared while we ate. By then, the sun had begun to dip lower in the sky, skirting the tops of the pine trees surrounding the lake. The heat of the day had given way to that comfortable, summer-only feeling of no temperature at all.

That night, I learned something very new about my religion. Led by campers, the service had familiar strains from my Manhattan synagogue but was more accessible. Instead of hundreds of adults dressed in all their finery, contemplating sermons with complex political and historical messages, here were hundreds of kids wearing simple white shorts and shirts, listening to each other.

The camp's rabbi played only a cameo role compared with the service's real leaders: the kids. We chanted the ancient Hebrew words, led the prayers, and even gave the sermon. When the service ended, the entire camp headed to the giant lawn, where a second-rate PA system broadcast scratchy records of Israeli folk music. But it was good enough. On a place usually reserved for kickball and relay races, girls in white shirts danced the hora, whirling in the darkness.

Every summer for the next six years, I returned to camp and treasured those pristine summer Fridays when I learned that Judaism is about participating, whether in a service or an observance of a tradition. It didn't matter if you wore a fine dress or a pair of shorts.

My summers of Friday nights came back to me recently as my daughter's fourth-grade class led services at our own synagogue. Though the children stumbled here and there over words and melodies, the pride on their faces at having taken part was evident, and I felt a little nostalgia as my own daughter approached the bimah (altar). I hoped she was feeling what I had learned at camp so long ago--that the deepest experience of religion comes when you stop being an observer and join in the dance.

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