More than Memories – How Camp Interlaken Touches Me Every Day

By Lex Rofes, Camp Interlaken Alum, Ozo 2008, Cornerstone Fellow 2011

I have a pretty cool job.

Many folks are confused by it when I explain what I do, but despite their confusion they are generally intrigued. I live in Jackson, Mississippi, and for work I travel around the American South, from Texas on the West to North Carolina on the East. Specifically, I plan fun and creative Jewish programming for kids in religious school through an organization called the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

When I tell folks that this is my day job, they often feel the need to ask a few follow-up questions. Is it hard being Jewish in Mississippi? How did you end up down there? Do you miss the snow? My answers sometimes surprise them in their simplicity (not particularly hard, I wanted a rewarding Jewish job after college, and NOPE!).

But occasionally they ask a question that puts a big smile on my face. They ask: what prepared you to do this job?

The first answer I always provide is one word: camp. Growing up at Camp Interlaken JCC and eventually working as a staff member there was the best preparation I could possibly have for my work in Jewish education.

So there’s an important question to ask: why? What about camp plays a role in my work?

Here are a few examples.

I was recently in Pinehurst, North Carolina, and I was discussing with some of their teachers how they might be able to incorporate outdoor activities into their religious school in a way that felt Jewish. My answer? Play gaga!

The only reason this thought came to mind was because I spent so many wonderful days on the athletic field at CIL in our sensational gaga pit. While I may not have known, when I was in Shoresh and Tzomayach, that gaga comes from the Hebrew root Gimmel-Ayin, and literally means “touch-touch,” I did know that it was a wonderful game that brought together thousands of campers at Jewish camps around the country and the world.

Guess what? We did introduce gaga to the congregation in Pinehurst, and now they’re looking into building their very own gaga pit!

Soon after that, I was asked by a temple in Arkansas how they might make the weekly parasha (Torah portion) a bit more exciting. I encouraged them to act out each week’s portion as a play.

They liked this idea a great deal and have been acting out the parasha on a weekly basis for a few months now. But as anybody who’s attended services on Saturday morning at Interlaken knows – I can’t take credit for this idea myself! CIL’s Shabbat shticks are notorious for making otherwise difficult portions in the book of Numbers or Deuteronomy feel relatable. Kids look forward to putting on hilarious costumes, funny voices, and occasionally breaking out into song or dance during these performances, acted out by the cabin or unit leading services that week.

When visiting synagogues, I am also asked frequently to help lead Shabbat services. When doing so, some of my favorite prayers to teach are those that I learned at Interlaken. Whether it’s the “Y’varech’cha” (Priestly Blessing) melody that starts off every Shabbat dinner at camp to our beautiful Interlaken version of “Hinei El Yeshuati” from Havdalah, so many camp tunes have made it into these services.

Camp’s motto is “A summer of fun, a lifetime of memories.” With each passing year, I realize just how true that motto is. I wouldn’t trade my memories of camp for the world.

But what I’ve learned is that camp isn’t only something that lives on in my memory. It’s not something that only affected my past. Camp Interlaken JCC continues to strengthen the Jewish work I do in the present. The Jewish experiences I had there, the knowledge I gained – I utilize it every day. And the best part? I know the camp will continue to positively affect me for years to come. It isn’t a question of if – it’s only a question of how.