Recollections of Camp

By: Brad Kahn

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to come up with a short piece for the newsletter about my experiences at camp. “About 500 words would be perfect,” said Tova, and I thought, 47 years in 500 words?  I’ll give it a shot…

I’m Brad Kahn, and I spent eight glorious years at Interlaken as a camper and staff member. I’ve been fortunate to be close enough to camp distance-wise to be back a few times since then, most recently last summer. More on that in a bit.

I’m mostly going to leave names out of this, since I don’t want to miss anyone; besides, you know who you are.

To this day, I still don’t know how I got on that bus that first year. I was 12, didn’t know anyone, and had never even seen Lake Finley (no massive daily e-photo blasts back then, kiddos!)  I watched the others, who could barely contain themselves, climb about excitedly on the armrests and the luggage racks for the next five hours. I figured if they’re this excited, what a place this must be!   

What strikes me every time I think back on the eight years that followed is that the summers seem to blend together into one seamless camp experience of love, friendship, and community. Maybe that’s just the effects of time, but that’s ok; that’s kind of the whole point of Interlaken.

What ties it all together is camp itself. Some of my favorite memories are really just short films in my head of a moment in time on the machaneh. Walking back to our cabins from the Ulam after evening program on a perfect night. Standing on the flag rectangle on a chilly morning with the smell of pine trees and toast in the air. Mellow morning wakeups. Lying on the athletic field looking at the stars (and even the northern lights now and then). Sitting in the old office listening to the bats scurrying around inside the walls. OK, scratch that last one.

For the next 30 years or so, Camp came in and out of my life at random times.

I was working at Channel 7 in Wausau for a little over a year, and I happened to be running the studio camera for that noon newscast, when the anchorperson began to read. 

“Fire destroyed the dining room of a summer camp near Eagle River last night…”

I nearly bolted out of the studio, hopped in my car, and drove the 90 minutes to Camp, before realizing there was really nothing I could do, no help to be given.  

Thankfully, a couple of years later the 25th reunion came along, and we could all come back and assure ourselves that everything would be fine. Still, we old-timers miss that tiny, beat-up Chadar. You should have seen it at its best, filled to the brim on a shabbat evening…

Visits and reunions came and went. Wonderful to see old friends and beloved counselors. It was a welcome reminder that, despite all the changes – new cabins and public buildings, ropes course, swimming pool, naming rights – the neshamah (soul) of Interlaken remained.

In 2016, when it came time to introduce my son EJ to Camp, what better way to do that than Family Camp? We stopped outside the Ulam, and he bolted, running around and checking the place out for about 15 minutes, before coming back and breathlessly exclaiming, “I’m coming here next summer!”  

My wife Sharon warned him, “It’ll be different. We won’t be here.”  

“Good,” he replied, and was off again.

Just like that, Camp became his second home, and my transition was complete: camper to Ozo to staff, to EJ’s Dad. Couldn’t be prouder.

Three years of Family Camp also gave me a chance to experience the joys of being a “grandpa counselor,” as I met many of my campers’ campers, and saw how my feelings about this special place got passed down from counselor to camper, generation to generation. Having even a little something to do with their love of camp is one of the great honors of my life. 

For those who don’t know, I’ve been a chef for the last 20+ years. Last summer I had a chance to come back and help in the kitchen, which had gone through about three years of pandemic semi-inactivity. In early June I helped the mostly new staff get ready for the summer to come, then back during intersession to do some re-setting. Lots of hard work, but totally worth it when, for the first time in 39 years, I was there for the ruach – buses full of campers driving into the machaneh. Any staff member will tell you, it’s the highlight of the summer, and I choked up witnessing it one more time.

When my memories take me back to that first year, (1976, but who’s counting?) and I think about the first time I stepped off that bus, I think about all the people I didn’t know yet. People who would become some of the most important people in my life. The years apart since then do nothing to diminish that importance. Please know how much I love you and how often I think of you.