Camp Nowhere (A True FFB Litmus Test)

Imagine this scenario:

You’re sitting with a bunch of your friends at a Shabbat dinner. Everything is going fine until across the table—

“Hey, Yosef, remember when we did that skit at Moshava for color war?”

“Yeah, and Jacob sang the theme from ‘Gilligan’s Island’”

“And us girls on the red team totally had more ruach, but the judges were biased and you guys won”

“And then Adam raided our cabin afterwards…”

And suddenly everyone at the table starts talking about the wonderful time they had at Moshava/NCSY/Morasha/Lavi/Nesher/Mesorah/Yeshiva Har et Tzion/Brovender’s/any other frum yeshiva, seminary, youth group, or summer camp. No matter how hard you might try at passing, your silence and inability to contribute to the conversation will probably give you away. Especially when they ask “where did you go, Rachel?”

I went to NFTY, camp KUTZ (I wear the lanyard around my neck since it is a convenient place to store my keys). I went to JCC camp Kingswood. I went to public school. But as soon as I say that, the conversation will come to an awkward pause.

The last time this came up, I let the conversation go for a while, and I eventually said “Hey you guys. I was wondering—could we possibly change the subject? I feel a bit left out.”

And of course everyone was a bit ashamed after my gentle rebuke, and we got back into a discussion about how much homework we all had. But of course these were my friends who all know that I’m a recent BT. I was not in a place where I needed to project an FFB image. I don’t think I have the ability to pass as an FFB.

In this way, as ba’alei teshuva, we may be forever doomed. No amount of studying, davening, black hat wearing or Yiddish speaking will get you those shared memories of bygone days when frum kids could be frum kids. Sure, as soon as you speak up people will be nice enough to change the subject (and if you’re lucky maybe even to Torah) but that involves saying something, and calling attention to your different-ness.

I often wonder if maybe this is just an age thing, and that as soon as we get old enough our past will be so far behind us that no one will have any reason to bring up the summer camps we have never been to. I hope for every BT’s sake that it is.

21 comments on “Camp Nowhere (A True FFB Litmus Test)

  1. Guys,

    I know the feeling all too well….I (& many of my generation) went to PS and to Talmud Torah/Hebrew School on Sundays & the afternoons. Now, up until recently, people I meet ask me about me, and my family. When I mention to the question, “so, where do your kids go to school” or, more to the point” What Yeshiva do your kids go to?”, I say, in a low voice “um, they’re in (name of school(s), which is a public school near (a certain conservative Yeshiva)”. Sometimes, but not all the time, it’s just “oh”, and that’s it. But, I don’t remember if this happened, the questioner will ask me why, and I’m sure I would have to answer about the tuition $$. The point is, by me lowering my voice, I used to be self-conscious about this subject, and not comfortable at all when the subject came around to schools. I wonder if I’m right or wrong to feel this way. Of course, at this point, my oldest will be in college (CUNY) next year, and my youngest IS going to a girl’s Yeshiva HS next year.

  2. Rachel, you commented on another post that you wanted to be “adopted” by a frum family. We’d be happy to adopt you! And neither my husband nor I have any religious camp stories, although we do have “being frum at a Secular University” stories. (Okay, mine are more “becoming frum at a Secular University” stories) that I think you might really relate to. And we live in Pawtucket… look us up when you’re next home. (I can give you references if need be.)

    I just answer the schools question with “public school.” And I never went to camp. But at this point in my life, where you went to school is a passing question more than a subject of conversation. So it will become less and less of an issue. I agree, it’s just part of searching for connections.

  3. It was good of you to interject that you felt left out. I never went to any Jewish camps of any of the streams of Judaism. Once I was at a camp that just happened to be 95% Jewish, but that was purly accidental and my parents would have never sent me there if they had known. Anyway, I did not even have a Bar Mitvah — no party, no aliyah, natta. But that I find makes for interesting conversation.

    So next time your FFB friends are recalling the good old days, maybe you should tell a story of your own… that might make for good conversation!

  4. I am not sure if any constructive purpose will be served by this semi-historical comment, but it might shed light on the evolutions and changes of one of the first and most powerful kiruv forces for teens- NCSY. I write with some authority as a former NCSYer, regional official and national committee chair back in the 1970s who has stayed active throughout the years as an alumnus.

    Originally, NCSY consisted of some day school and public school kids who were affiliated with Orthodox shuls. That was certainly the mix thru the 1970s. The organization segued more into chizuk with day school kids and retained the pure kiruv with public school kids as well due to demographic changes.

    Today’s NCSY serves both populations with a variety of national programs for both populations in the US and Israel and very strong regions. Since the US Supreme Court allowed entry by religious organizations on public schools after school hours, NCSY has taken the lead in forming Jewish Student Unions whereby kids who have very minimal backgrounds are exposed to Torah concepts for the first time, thereby giving them the opportunity to grow and change their way of life.If NCSY helps a yeshiva student strengthen their observance by helping them appreciate it, that is one aspect of NCSY’s mission. When you hear and read about someone from the boondocks who is learning in yeshiva or seminary and defering college at least for a year or is keeping tznius despite living in a milieu where that is not the mode of dress, you realize that NCSY is still a major force in kiruv. Both illustrate the fact that many BTs and FFBs who came thru the NCSY milieu and ranks will tell you that seeing so many of their peers who were at an event or program helped them realize that they were not alone in their exploration of Torah and Mitzvos

  5. Good idea Gershon Seif.

    I have never been asked about camp, maybe an age thing. Schools though, comes up when you meet someone new. People just try to figure out if you know the same people I think. Like when you go to another state and tell someone you know so-and-so as if everyone in Baltimore knows that family.

    I recently asked my 16 year old FFB yeshiva bochur, always having attended “yeshivishe” cheder and high schools, and camps, if he was embarassed that I was a BT. He was genuinely surprised, said not at all. “Everyone’s parents are balei teshuva”. I said “everyone?”, as with his yeshivas I found that very surprising. He said, “Well, so many. Nobody cares. They’ve been frum forever, what’s the difference”. Out of the mouths of babes.

  6. Rachel do not worry my father is a Baal Teshuva. Once he had me and my brothers
    no one could tell. not even me that he is a BT
    I am 28 with children and Now for sure no one can tell. Bec torah has been his home all these years and we grew up in it. No worries!!!
    everything is fine its just a passing phase.

  7. “I pointed to the top of the resume, which says clearly, “Brooklyn College.” That tipped the interviewer off that I am not a Bais Yaakov graduate, but if he had not “gotten it,””

    there are many beis yaakov graduates who went to brooklyn college. MANY.

  8. But of course these were my friends who all know that I’m a recent BT

    As others have commented, there will invariably be *something*, at some time, that sets you apart, but I believe your statement above is key; being a recent BT.

    I was involved with NCSY since I was about 11. But I went to public school all the way through, and SLOWLY became frum along the way. I was typically the one “public school kid” at a table of “day school kids” being told to not be clique-ish. NCSY isn’t all frum kids.

    Anyone moving to a new community often feels out of the loop, even with kind and friendly neighbors who bring over a caserole and say HI. So it’s the same thing; as the newness wears off, the feeling of being an outsider should diminish greatly.

  9. Years from now you’ll reminesce at the shabbos table about those friends from Penn Hillel, remember fondly the Purim bash with “Menachem Schmidt and the Chassidic Rockers”, who paired up with whom after shabbos dinner….

    And some lonely BT who became frum in her 30’s will decide that *all* frum people know one another and she will *never* fit in.


    Don’t worry about it. People talk less about camp with age.

  10. The issue of feeling “left out” of the conversation regarding Jewish geography or shared experiences is valid and can be awkward. However, the issue is really one of sensitivity. (While I don’t get upset that my summers were spent differently than others and for a few minutes I have little to offer to the conversation). A far more serious issue is when the discussion involves matters that truely are painful for the guests. How about discussing someone’s mariage with singles sitting at the table? Or talk about prenancy when there are those suffering with infertility? How about the success of their children when others present are going through “issues” with their kids? Talking about your trip/vacations/new purchases when the guests are out of work or are marginally making ends meet?

    There are countless times when seemingly innocent talk can be very painful to those present. We need to be more sensitive and alert to those around us.

  11. I got the “Where’d you go to school?” question on a job interview for a frum organization recently. I pointed to the top of the resume, which says clearly, “Brooklyn College.” That tipped the interviewer off that I am not a Bais Yaakov graduate, but if he had not “gotten it,” I would have told him without shame that I’m a BT. And baruch Hashem, I got the job.

    So the question doesn’t go away, but I think it comes up less often over time, and it will also bother you less. As Menachem Lipkin said, after you’ve been frum for a while, you have enough of a framework to participate in any frum conversation.

  12. I also dont think these comments are always made in a holier than thou manner. Often, they are just the opening line of jewish geography or a search for common background/friends.

  13. I don’t think that these types of comment are generally said in a smug or arrogant fashion. But adding to Menachem’s comment, as you become more comfortable and acquire your own frame of reference, you will take these comments in a less defensive fashion. When I was at that earlier stage, I tried to use those types of exchanges as a way to learn more about the experience that I had missed out on.

  14. I’m perpetually amazed, amused, and dismayed by a uniquely St. Louis phenomenon. When two native St. Louisans meet, the first question after exchanging names will always be: Where did you go to high school?

    Forgive me for getting up on my soapbox, but professional adults in and beyond middle age who still care to socially pigeonhole others by virtue of decades-old demographic trivia illustrate the human capacity for immaturity and superficiality.

    As Yaakov Astor correctly observed, if it’s not summer camp it will be something else. But not everybody will care where you went to camp or high school. Some people, whether BTs or FFBs, will care who you are. Grab hold of those people and don’t let them go.

  15. No, Rachel, as you move along, although summer camp may not necessarily be brought up other things will. Count on it.

    Usually these things are brought up innocently, but even then there can be an air of arrogance or exclusivity to them, as if Torah were a club, not a universal religion.

    I like the approach a young Rav Shach took when asked, “What’s your yichus?”

    “It starts with me,” he replied.

  16. Lately, since I now work in kiruv, and it’s no big deal for me to have had such a background, when that sort of thing happens to me, I become a bit proactive. I tell them, “actually I went to Solomon Schechter high school in Brooklyn. Would you like to hear what it was like?…”

    You put the other person at ease, and if they say yes, you get a chance to teach someone a little bit more about yourself. You get a chance to teach our community about looking at things from a different angle.

  17. Last month, I was teaching a course at a local college. One of the students came over and said that I looked familiar to him. He asked if I had ever learned at Chofetz Chaim. I told him that I have had a chavrusa there for the past eight or so years. He asked where I went to High School. I answered Forest Hills High School. He replied “Oh, was your principal Rabbi —-?”. I said “No, not Chofetz Chaim High School (formerly) in Forest Hills but public school, Forest Hills High School.” Suffice to say that the conversation ended there.

  18. I think it’s largely an “age thing”. Eventually, after living in a frum community for a while, you’ll develope “frum” connections and memories of your own that will be shared with those in your current circles. Soon enough your kids will be going to some of those same camps that these people went to!

    There will always be occasions like the ones you are referring to now, but they will become fewer and less frequent. More importantly, you’ll care less about them.

  19. Sorry, Rachel. When you’re living in a frum community, it starts with, “Are you related to…” and disintegrates from there. (Variations: “Where are you from?” and “What’s your maiden name?” with an ocassional “Where did you go to school/learn (for men).” My married name is shared by many frum families, including a Rav or two–and I’m sure that only a couple of treif-eating generations ago we were all scrubbing laundry side by side at the shtetl stream. I could certainly liven up the small talk by responding, “No, but our branch of the _________ family claims a prominent Torah-denier and a baby born from a sperm donor?!
    (BTW: I’m an alumna of Camp Herzl in Wisconsin in the 1970’s–an apt subject for an entire post. I can remember every cheer, but it doesn’t get me very far in Monsey!)

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