Camps and Summer Fun | Local

First-timer’s camp jitters turn to lifetime bond

Ryley Katz at camp in 1994
Ryley Katz at camp in 1994

I always thought it was cliché when someone said “one decision changed the course of my entire life.” That is, until I said it myself.

When I was 11 years old, my mom decided to give me respite from hot Arizona summers by sending me to summer camp. She also thought Jewish summer camp would be the perfect place for her daughter who associated Judaism with Chanukah, matzah and the occasional youth group event. It would form a Jewish identity while simultaneously giving me a sense of independence, she said. I was suspicious.

My parents selected Camp Tawonga in Northern California because of its strong values and beautiful location just outside of Yosemite. That first day was frightening — I knew no one and had never seen this place where I was about to have “the time of my life” (read: two weeks away from everything I knew at home). I boarded the bus to camp while my mom fought back tears and my dad gave me an overzealous thumbs-up. As I settled into my seat, two girls popped up in the seats in front of me. “Hi, I’m Mia,” said one. “Hi, I’m Maia,” said the other. I wondered how I’d ever tell these two girls with similar names apart.

Sure enough, Mia and Maia were in my cabin, as they were for the next five summers. Together we developed our Jewish identities, a sense of independence and bonds that have lasted a lifetime. Camp Tawonga became a part of the fabric of my life. After five summers as a camper, I joined the summer staff, and for the last eight years have worked on the full-time professional team helping parents make the decision to send their kids to Jewish summer camp. I married a Jewish man because of the values I learned at camp and am raising two beautiful little girls to live their lives Jewishly.

As I think about that one decision my mom made over 20 years ago to send me to Jewish summer camp, I can’t help but feel sheer gratitude … though I sure do hate when my mom is right!