As a kid, Allison Richter of Tucson spent many happy hours canoeing, shooting arrows, hiking and crafting at Camp Pearlstein, now called Camp Daisy and Harry Stein, in Prescott.
Her parents never thought she would bring home a husband.
She didn’t, of course, but those summers began a beautiful relationship with summer camp that Richter has enjoyed over the years, first as a camper, then as a counselor when she met her husband and finally as an advisor to camp counselors. The effect of Jewish camp has been lasting.
“A lot of times, Sunday school is just another thing you have to do. Although you may enjoy yourself when you’re there, it just isn’t the same as living every day in a fun Jewish atmosphere. (Camp) definitely made Judaism really fun and it made me feel really connected and solid in my Judaism,” says Richter, who is a teacher at Frances J. Warren Elementary School in the Tucson Unified School District.
Along with enhancing her Jewish identity, camp let Richter trade the sizzling desert for the cool woods, at least for a few weeks. “It was just a lot of outdoor fun with your cabin mates,” she said. “It was great, my favorite part of the summer.”
Those outdoor experiences made her want to become a summer camp counselor when she was 19. She was recruited to work at Capital Camps in Pennsylvania by the owner, Steve Markoff, who had Arizona connections. It turns out he had recruited quite a number of counselors who were attending the University of Arizona, including Tucson attorney Michael Richter, who at that time was just a student.
“We were at the counselor orientation and we were all talking about where we’re from and there were probably 10 of us from Arizona and we all connected and talked about where we went to school and I thought (about Michael), ‘Well, this is a nice guy,’” she says. “Then we did CPR training and he was my CPR partner and we just started talking more and more from there. It started out as definitely a really fun camp relationship.”
The problem with camp relationships, however, is that eventually you have to go back to real life.
“As the summer continued on we both were like, ‘I’m really glad we’re both going home to the same place and we can continue this relationship out of camp,’” Richter says. “But entering the real world seemed a little scary when camp ended because we spent every day together. Every meal, every activity we were together all the time so to go back to Tucson and not see each other nearly as much seemed like something we had to figure out. But we did and 20 years later we’re still married.”
Apart from meeting her husband, what Jewish camp really did for Richter, she says, is give her a solid anchor in her Jewish life and culture.
“In Mesa, Ariz., where I grew up, there were not a lot of Jewish kids,” she said. “The only Jewish kids I saw were at synagogue…so for me to be at summer camp and be able to say something like, ‘Oh, when I have my bat mitzvah…’ and not have to explain myself or to even have Jewish things as part of everyday conversation just made being Jewish really fun.”
She has especially fond memories of Shabbats at camp.
“There are a lot of song sessions at camp, which are really fun,” Richter said. “Shabbat turns into a big extended song session with the prayers and Jewish rituals. It just feels fun. And you’re outdoors and it just feels really different than sitting in a synagogue.”