Finding their faith in great outdoors

For Hannah Platt ’08 summer camp is a religion. Literally. Platt has gone to Camp Ramah in Ojai since the summer of 1999. The camp is affiliated with the Jewish religion, which profoundly impacts daily activities. Campers attend religious services once a day and twice on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

“[Religion] added a closeness and a relatability that I don’t think can be found in secular camps,” Platt said.

Many students like Platt have been attending religiously affiliated camps since youth. For the most part, these camps are typical summer camps. They offer arts and crafts and a high ropes course. Enduring friendships are formed and campers develop a deep connection to these childhood meccas. Yet campers also experience religious services, prayer and theology.

Platt began attending Ramah because many members of her extended family attended as well, not because of its religious affiliation, although she did express it was an important addition to the community. Last year, Platt was a counselor and plans to continue her work at the camp this summer. As a camper she spent one month in Ojai, but as an employee she spends nine weeks at the camp.

Many of the religious aspects of the camp, such as the prayers each morning, are in Hebrew. A few of the normal camp activities are meant to present Jewish values or teach campers about Jewish culture. Ramah is only one of the many Jewish camps in Southern California that attracts Harvard-Westlake students. Camp Hess Kramer and Camp Grindling Hilltop, both owned by Wilshire Boulevard Temple and located in Malibu, are two of the most popular Jewish camps for Harvard Westlake students.

Joey Meyer ’09 will be a counselor-in-training at Hilltop this summer, and has been going to the camp every summer since 2000. He started going to the camp because his mother attended in the 1960s.

At Hilltop, campers attend services every night for half an hour and celebrate Shabbat every Friday where they dress up to sing, dance and celebrate the Jewish faith. Meyer experiences more religion than when he is at home where he does not attend weekly services.

“Most of what I know about Judaism I learned at camp,” Meyer said. “Some [traditions] are even sacrilegious, like praying to the sun god on beach days,” Meyer said.

As a Reform Jewish camp, Hilltop has both religious and secular ascpets. While the Jewish faith is represented in songs and the services, campers also participate in cheers and sports.
Ellie Bensinger ’09 attends a very different kind of religious camp. Every summer since 2003, Bensinger has travelled to CedarS Camp in Lebanon, Missouri. CedarS is a Christian Science camp and the camp’s religious affiliation was the main reason Bensinger decided to attend.

Because Bensinger is the only Christian Scientist that she knows of at Harvard-Westlake, Bensinger expressed feelings of displacement and a need to be defensive of her religion at school. At home, Bensinger attends religious services every week and camp increased her faith in Christian Science.

“I felt like going to a place where everyone lived their lives by the same beliefs as me would be a nice safe environment to let down my guard and really get a chance to grow and practice” Bensinger said.

At CedarS, campers pray before every meal and before activities, and discuss the applicability of the Bible and other religious texts.Christian Scientists reject modern medicine and believe in the medicinal powers of God, and thus, campers participate in testimony meetings where they acknowledge any healings they might have had.

“It made it all seem clearer. I saw people who had been practicing their whole lives and what a positive effect it had on them” Bensinger said.