I was raised completely without religion. My father was a Lutheran and my mother Jewish. My father likes to tell the story that when I was little I would tell people I was Lutherish. I wasn’t Baptized or Bar Mitzvahed and aside from really wanting a nativity scene when I was about 5, I never felt like I missed anything. Well, imagine my surprise when one day my mother came home with a sleeping bag and told me I was going away to Christian sleep away camp.

It was a beautiful July day driving up to Camp Koinonia. We passed all the famous resorts of the “Jewish Alps”, the quaint towns along the Delaware river and scores of fancy camps for well to do kids. However my daydreams of sitting around a campfire toasting marshmallows, listening to someone play guitar came to an abrupt halt when my father pulled into the dusty patch of land with a small building and a sign that read Koinonia. It wasn’t much to look at, really! I was introduced to the camp director and assigned a group. I waved goodbye to my family and wandered around the communal area waiting for my group to show up.

The way the camp worked was every evening all the groups show up at the base camp for dinner. The base camp consisted of some showers and a ramshackle plastic tarp roofed open air pavilion where all the campers ate dinner. After dinner the group would collect supplies (breakfast, lunch and water) for the next day and hike 3 miles at dusk along a rocky trail, across a rickety pontoon bridge spanning the lake and up a steep hill to their campsite. If you were lucky you didn’t have to carry the 5 gallons of water on your back. We were pathfinders and of course stayed in a tepee.

I was one of 5 kids in my group of 12 year olds. It was like culture shock for me being one of the only kids from the suburbs. The other 4 kids, two white and two black were from Queens, The Bronx and Jersey City. Three of them smoked and they all talked about the sex they had had. Some of these tough inner city kids were there for the entire summer. I was just there for two weeks. Every few weeks one of the kids would get a care package sent from home. The care packages would always include candy and a carton of cigarettes which the recipient kindly shared with his fellow pathfinders.

There was a lot of routine involved. Wake up and go to First Words (like a morning prayer service), remember this was a religious camp. I would sit on a stump and watch the mosquitoes biting my legs while listening, half asleep to someone read a prayer. We would then come back and make breakfast. Go on a hike. Go swimming in the lake. The first time swimming I dove into the lake and touched the vegetation on the lake bottom. When I reached the surface of the water and looked back towards the dock I saw my group putting on life preservers. One kid was actually shivering he was so scared of the water. I remember feeling very powerful at that moment.

Our counselor was a twenty-something guy named Dave. He was heavily into the whole Christian thing and constantly talking about the power of God. I didn’t realize how much all the Christianity was rubbing off on me at the time but my Mom told me that I was walking around saying “Jesus loves me” for months afterward. I liked Dave and we developed a bond. I think it was easier to talk to me than some of the other kids. I still have this letter and this piece of wood Dave carved for me 36 years ago today.

At the end of the session we went on an overnight rafting trip on the Delaware. It was an amazing experience that I would repeat 15 years later with my friend Tim, that time having a run in with a bear, but that’s for another post. When my parents came to pick me up I couldn’t believe how old they looked, they were 37 at the time. They couldn’t believe how dirty and skinny I was. Koinonia was one of those childhood experiences that you carry with you forever. It was the first time away from my family. I learned to start a fire, cook my own meals and live with juvenile delinquents, all whom I liked very much. I learned about religion, sex and smoking. But mostly I learned about camaraderie.