Finding Sanctuary at Jewish Surf Camp

Sababa Beachaway Tents (Photo Credit: Wave Riding Vehicles)

Summer has always felt to me like a season I should love but I’ve never really taken to. I’m an introvert-leaning winter baby (shocking that I’m a writer, I know) so I prefer almost everything that goes with cold weather except for dirty snow. By contrast, the summer is an extrovert’s paradise; The relentless sun and endless heat a lot of pressure to be happy and scantily clad and bodily confident.

This is the easiest, shallowest explanation for my historical summer disdain.

There is, of course, a deeper, less cute reason.

The summers of my youth were long seasons of yearning and longing.

Summer when I was a poor kid who got evicted with my Mom a lot and didn’t always have food in the house meant that for months the only meal I could depend on for sure most days would be free breakfast at my nearest public school in the mornings. But food for the rest of the day was an open question.

I patiently waited out the heat and tried to sleep through my hunger, my back aching through humidity, lusting after the sound of the Mister Softee jingle echoing down hot concrete streets, hoping that the sound of cars rushing through water was a much needed break from a rainstorm when really it was just an open fire hydrant transformed into a sprinkler by a hollow old can.

Summer is the reason I couldn’t wait to grow up, why I thought being a kid was totally overrated. Being a kid to me meant having no control over anything in my life. When I grew up, I could have money, and money could buy me food, could guarantee shelter, could offer me the things that I needed and longed for so that I could finally do this thing that everyone seemed so interested in centering their lives around: Relaxing.

Summer camp is, at its heart, an embrace of the best parts of childhood. Your needs are taken care of, even if what you want is another story. Hopefully you make more bonds than you do enemies. You learn things you didn’t know before you showed up, try on a different way of being to see if it matches who you are today, who you want to become tomorrow and maybe after that. You discover the things you never want to try again, usually by failing.

Most everyone around you fails at whatever it is you’re trying differently but in tandem — whether that’s an icebreaker or learning a new skill; You rise and fall and laugh and cry and sleep and lose sleep and get drenched by summer rain and crush hard on one of your camp counselors and write home and make bracelets out of multicolored strings and nothing matters as much as this moment except for the next moment which is so much more fun.

I envy the privilege of being a kid, though I don’t know I was ever afforded the innocence that comes with it, given the body I was born into. Once the innocence is gone, its absence feels permanent, like you can never get it back. Adulthood is the unrelenting weight of knowing, context, responsibility.

The creative in me, the adventurer, the journalist, has always wondered if this last part wasn’t the whole truth, though. In the late ‘90s, I got an inkling that it might not be when I worked as a camp counselor at Camp Mariah, a Fresh Air Fund camp in Fishkill, New York. After my first year at Vassar, I was deeply in love with the outdoors even if I still wasn’t the biggest fan of summer.

Camp Mariah was a camp for creative city kids, so that helped. The air in upstate New York is crisp and fresh, and I started to understand how one could love it, even though I didn’t quite sleep really at all that summer because the nights were so dark and the quiet was only broken up by frogs and crickets and I was used to a lot of light and noise pollution lulling me to sleep.

During the day, I was the assistant teacher of a masterful photographer who taught us how to shoot black and white photographs with Pentax cameras. We developed pictures from film using chemicals that smelled like alchemy and magic.

Me as a camp counselor, circa 1998

When we weren’t in the classroom, my favorite thing was dunking my big feet in the lake. I could have gone swimming, since I learned at free day camp as a fourth grader. I just preferred standing with my feet submerged, my eyes on cirrus clouds against a darling blue sky. That, to me, was epic. It was before I had a meditation practice or even knew I would have one. It felt as close as I would get to serenity, the absence of being watched, or worried about anything. It’s the first moment I can remember when I could just be somewhere without worrying about what I had to do next or what would happen next because of my presence.

So twenty years later, when my friend Marcy — talented musician, HR expert & also, I would learn, someone with a brilliant scientific/engineering mind — asked, “Can you take photographs, by any chance?” I was astonished to learn about Sababa Beachaway. Sababa — which roughly translates to “no worries,” — has held week-long day camp sessions based out of Far Rockaway for four summers, and this was its first summer South.

Looking at the website felt like peering into an alternative life. To say nothing of the fact that I was a 40-year-old non-surfing former religion reporter, I have always had a deep admiration for the Abrahamic traditions, including Judaism, which has felt the most akin to Catholicism, my personal faith tradition. But that’s the best thing about being a writer. My greatest desire is to be a witness — I don’t need to be, don’t want to be, a clone.

So three 2-week sessions of surfing, scuba and sailing along with meditation at a nondenominational Jewish summer camp near Virginia Beach was not something I could say no to. I was hired as Camp Storyteller, one of the most impressive titles with which I’ve ever been bestowed.

And as honored as I was, the thought of it intimidated me for all the reasons I’ve mentioned — and one more. I was both hopeful and afraid that going to sleepaway camp at this point in my life would help me find something and heal a part of myself. I had more hope than fear.

The fear was really just about whether or not I was ready to say goodbye to the way I used to think about summer. Our old stories about things and people can be comfortable, convenient, familiar. I knew to let that story go, I would have to be willing to make room for at least one new one and I was terrified that it might be a really positive one.

I arrived at Sababa at one of the dorms on Old Dominion University’s campus the weekend before Independence Day. My name had been on my dorm room at Scotland House for days, so everyone knew I would be there even though I didn’t know most of them until I showed up. I was terrified that people might be unfriendly to me immediately by making the (correct, in my case) assumption that I’m not Jewish, but instead, I was the mystery guest, greeted with squeals of delight.

The values at Sababa, which roughly translates into “no worries,” inspire kids between the ages of 10 and 17 to find holiness and create sacred space wherever they are. As addicted as I am to my phone and my laptop as the main engines of what I do, I love that one of the first things that happens when tweens and teens come to Sababa is that one of the camp directors affectionately greets them and their families, takes their phones and laptops if they have them and puts them away for safe keeping for two weeks. What a gift it is to give the young ones back themselves and allow them to discover the beautiful (if often inconvenient) reality of the natural world right in front of them in this world that is so endlessly, shallowly connected by screens and notifications that can both foster otherwise impossible connection and deepen isolation.

I tried to imagine being a pre-teen or a teenager in the world of today, trying to disconnect from the incessant chatter of the world for even 24 hours straight, then not only learning how to answer the call of the ocean by attempting to surf (I didn’t get a chance to try) but also learning more about how to become more of myself through seeing myself reflected in a community that both saw and affirmed me during this two-week journey.

One of the first items I received and cherished, aside from my trusty waterproof camera, was my Siddur Sababa, which on its cover outlines the Sababa values: To be stoked by fire, propelled by water, nourished by taking only the food that we need and to find balance in the shelter and sanctuary of one another.

Within days of being at Sababa, I felt like I had found some of my people, even as an adult orphan that still struggles sometimes with belonging especially to new groups of people. Before I knew it, the smallest campers — 10 years old and pretty talkative — were among the first to befriend me. (This is a good time to mention that I actually find kids to be the most intimidating, scariest humans of all — they are fragile, they see everything, they know stuff they maybe can’t articulate with big words like adults can, but they break so easily and also they don’t filter anything. They are the bravest, the most honest, the most in need of our protection. They make my nerves so bad because I worry about them more than anything else.)

Each of them offered me presents of found dimes, artful photographs of “big fat fluffy sea birds” (you likely refer to them by their technical names: Seagulls) and an education in competitive ballroom dancing.

I realized just sitting in conversation with them that they were free.

What would it mean, I wondered, to be free most of the time from the perceived, unrelenting social expectation to be perfect? I think for most adults we just assume that’s a wash and we have to be in the game, but for kids, there’s still some hope. Would they not find incredible benefits now, as their identities are still taking shape, and they are deciding who they most want to be in the world, in learning how to disconnect from the endless echo chamber of comparison and social media performance?

The adults I know have discussed and complained to one another about the social awkwardness that people our age have using our smartphones as crutches, almost as emotional shields, so unaccustomed are we to having conversations unencumbered by the presence of a screen or a notification.

And yet we know that there is something deeply fulfilling about getting to unplug. To chill on the beach. To be connected with oneself, with one’s friends. To be present in your youth and develop grit, resilience, heart while also having a lot of fun failing — to try and fail to pop up on a surfboard, it turns out, is not so easy when the waves are cold and crashing fast around you, but there is something that happens internally to a kid, to a group of kids, who keep fighting the crests around them to make it happen with a wickedly stubborn, beautiful joy.

These are the things that you hope everyone gets to experience at summer camp. These are the things you hope everyone gets to experience somewhere, some day, at any time.

It’s the essence of being a kid. Of relaxing. Putting down stress, picking up faith.

Sababa’s camp directors are Lynn Lancaster, who has been a part of creating thoughtful programming for Jewish children and families for many years and Danny Mishkin, an innovative Jewish educator who has aspired to be a camp director for much of his life.

Lynn is erudite, a little taller than me and I suspect her favorite word is “hysterical,” said with a dry tone that makes everything funnier. She is the measured, even yin to Danny’s yang.

My new fellow Sababa Tribe Member Laura made these beautiful cards.

Danny is a fascinating blend of Buddha, surfer dude and Jesus with a nondenominational rabbinical flair. He usually wears a black foam trucker hat that reads, “Pray for Surf,” his curly black hair streaming to his shoulders or tucked through the back in a man bun.

Lynn is graceful, regal and a master at soothing parents and children. Danny is ebullient with children — buoyant, fun-loving, endearing. They are a dream team for bringing Sababa Beachaway to the world, offering an open tent of intentional noncompetitive community for kids.

One version of the Sababa Beach logo

The influence of the balance their combined presence is embodied in the Sababa Beachaway logo, a Star of David combined with a surfboard and the waves of the ocean is surrounded by its tagline, “Camp at the Beach.” This logo is on the back of rashguards and on the tents we sit under to get some respite from the sun. It infuses secular space with the regular reminder that the natural world is as sacred a sanctuary as young people can be for themselves.

Our days typically begin with gratitude circles, checking in on their Sababa levels (a one is really ideal, it means low stress; a 10 is high stress intensity and is no bueno) and breakfast (which is kosher like all meals at Sababa) before splitting up into groups to try either surfing, sailing or scuba.

We close our morning prayers by singing the Sababa version of Ma Tovu and a combination of Hebrew and English:

Ma Tovu, Ohelacha y’akov

Mish’kustecha yisrael

How great are your tents, O Jacob

Your dwelling places, O Israel!

And with Thanksgiving

I’ll be a living sanctuary

For you

Campers spend time in spiritual reflection as part of the Amidah activity, a standing prayer in the Jewish tradition that at Sababa includes small groups reflecting on Jewish wisdom collected in the camp’s Siddurim. It includes mantras from inspiring figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, for example, who said: “When I marched in Selma, I felt like my legs were praying.” Or, from the Talmud: “I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for others.” Sababa youth return to these mantras often over the two-week period, to identify mantras that help them connect to their divine spark or purpose.

Another practice that I love is a variation of mindfulness practice tailored to young minds eager to be in the ocean on days that reached into the 90s to either learn or practice surfing. Danny, Lynn or a counselor would ask campers to find one aspect of the environment they considered awesome and for a few minutes, the community discussed the immediate beauty around them before singing Ma Tovu. We then turned to one another acknowledging the divine spark with which we were all created, verbalizing to our neighbors, “You were created in God’s image and I promise to treat you as such.” And in the next step, we acknowledged our perfect imperfections, which make us who we are.

After sharing those, we were asked to bring to the circle our unique gifts and what we bring to the world before singing Ma Tovu one last time and starting the day’s activities. These mantras related to abundance, prayer and freedom had a calming, soothing effect. With Virginia and Oceanview beaches as the backdrop, it was easy to feel the truth of other words from Rabbi Herschel: “To pray is to know how to stand still and dwell upon a word.”

An epic wave (Courtesy Wave Riding Vehicles)

It would be a lie to say my first time at Jewish surf camp was all smooth sailing — but that’s life.

Snorkeling is not my jam; I tried taking photos of the scuba divers and failed miserably. I was saved by a counselor with an oxygen tank who grabbed my camera and got some pics deep underwater where I couldn’t go.

I didn’t drink as much water as I should have and got pretty dehydrated which was the exact opposite of fun. It was a sign from God I needed to sit down in air conditioning for a day or so and stop pretending I could do all of the things all the time (I need this reminder about once every three months.)

One of the 10-year-olds who is now a bestie let a dragonfly land on her finger like the brave little one she is. Somehow this did not suggest to me that the winged insect the size of a mini-helicopter would not sting me when it came flying at my face so I fell backward screaming in a starfish formation that sent Danny and probably half the population of people tanning themselves on the beach into hysterical laughter. (We all will refer to this from now on as the Dragonfly Incident of 2018, which I 100% deserve. No camp storytellers were injured in the creation of this particular anecdote.[Not that anyone asked.])

But when I least expected it, about halfway through the month, I had a profound moment that I had been hoping for, the experience that I was most terrified of, the one that I knew would change me.

As I stood in the Atlantic Ocean mid-morning, I realized I was humming some of the words of the Ma Tovu prayer, even though in my efforts to be a witness, I hadn’t been participating in the circles. I was waiting for some of the surfers to catch a wave when I felt seashells like bones on the bottoms of my feet. Because I had been thinking of the mantras from the Siddur — “I found fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me” — I thought suddenly of the Middle Passage and its connection to the Atlantic Ocean. Of their many millions of lives lost and those of us who try to honor them by living through witness.

There are so many bad analogies between slavery and the Holocaust — I won’t make another. But I did think of this connection, of the lives lost, of the way struggle has connected Blacks and Jews over the years, how time and history has moved us together and apart in waves that ebb and flow like the sea over time.

Standing in the ocean, the rest of the world fell away and I remembered myself. I was standing in water, once again, in the summer, but I was becoming new. This was a whole different body of water. This was my inheritance. To both witness and to let water hold and carry me. To provide living sanctuary for myself, to remind others they can provide it for themselves. A reminder that water can hold and carry me, can move me and us forward in so many ways. It is always moving us forward.

I felt re-baptized in a new world, with a new understanding. It was a soft, silent shift. More holy than even my trip to most cathedrals in recent years.

Morning at Virginia Beach

In the midst of documenting the first Sababa Beachaway at ODU, I was reminded of the innocence of childhood that I didn’t necessarily have but was nonetheless beautiful to witness kids fully explore — in the presence of God and each other, as my junior high school principal Brother Brian Carty, a Christian Brother in the Jesuit tradition, used to say.

Most of my time this summer was recovery and discovery. I was recovering the sense of deep connection with God you can experience when you find people who are not supposed to share your experiences for whatever analytical reason you find as an adult, but they do; When you have never had someone tell you with sincerity that you were made in God’s image and they promise to treat you as such. It didn’t even matter that my main perfect imperfection over the course of the summer was that I let myself be overwhelmed by the demands of the outside world despite the unplugged status of the community — but the beauty of God’s grace is that you don’t have to earn it. You can’t actually ever earn grace — you can still be a beneficiary.

At the end of the first session, one camper called Sababa her Sukkot Shlomecha — temporary shelter. And I nodded, because that is exactly what I found, too. Temporary shelter in new friends and in moments when I least expected it — in drives to the beach, on walks to the dining hall, hugging my knees at the beach, in front of a campfire by the river. I didn’t even know I needed it, though I did crave it, a shelter from hostility from standing out, from being hunted, suspected, dismissed, hated, threatened.

It has been awhile since I felt the experience of communion and salvation that comes with experiencing a deep healing, to find the freedom, power and profound beauty in community. I’m in awe of the Sababa vision and community for making it possible for any young person to find it so much sooner than I have — again and again and again, to know their spiritual resources are as reliable and incredible and dynamic as the ocean waves. To practice remembering, as they do a prayer, that, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, if they surrender to the waves, they can learn to ride them.

I read somewhere that at summer camp, kids become more of who they are meant to be. At Sababa, I realized that you can create a spiritual home for yourself at any age and develop a ritual around what sparks your divine fire, what fuels your spiritual flame. And you can learn, through others, and within yourself, how to stoke it, how to take what you need and leave the rest. How to show up for yourself by showing up for others. You can create sanctuary or become a living sanctuary for others, or for yourself, at any age.

One of many beautiful sunsets at Old Dominion University

Writer, Journalist & Educator. Author of I Can Write The World & a few other books.

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