While some knew him as Jonah and others as Mac, we all loved and respected him. And we miss him dearly.

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If You Can’t Go Home Again, You May Be Able To Go Back To Camp

Jonah’s camp experiences started as a one-year old when he began spending his summers as a “fac brat” at Kutz Camp (see “Kutz: A Human Symphony in Three Movements,” April 18, 2009). Ellen and I served on the Kutz faculty for more than two decades and our kids joined us for much of our time there. Our summers were near-idyllic. A safe community filled with high-grade humanity, a cabin on a hill overlooking (for most of our years there) a lake and acres upon acres of forest, all meals taken care of, and no dishes to wash. The work was exciting and fulfilling, and our kids lazed away their summer days spending the unhurried hours much like Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher did in an America one may have thought was long gone.

But lovely as those summers were, our lives were not our kids’ lives, and eventually each headed off to their own summers at Eisner Camp. From 1998-2005 (ages 8-15), Jonah typically spent one month on Faculty Row at Kutz and 2nd session as a camper at Eisner.

I suspect that, as with most parents, I won’t ever know much about what happened at Eisner. Jonah’s letters were the only real source of information, and brief as they were, not much came from there either. But here’s what I do know:

URJ Eisner Camp Summer 2004

• Typically, each of Jonah’s letters included a plea that we send “care packages,” sometimes asking us to hide food inside them so it wouldn’t be detected and at other times to definitely not send food. I compromised by sending only foods he didn’t like.
• One summer, Ellen gave him a legal pad to write letters home, but he couldn’t tear off the pages without mangling the tops of the sheets so we had to send a more manageable replacement. In one letter, he actually thanked us for that. Be still my beating heart.
• When he was eleven, Jonah wrote home about loving a Dan Nichols concert. This wasn’t so different from any other camper except that Dan would inspire Jonah to learn guitar and one day (when he was fifteen) play ukulele at Dan’s side during a concert at Kutz.
• Jonah fell in love with the “Magic” card game at Eisner. Each summer, he would come home and spend eleven months strengthening his deck to prepare for the next summer’s conquests. I have no idea if he ever won, but something (maybe a passionate vow of “I’ll get you next time!”) kept bringing him back to the table.
• We rarely learned what camp activities Jonah was involved in, but biking and football did get mentioned at least once in his letters. Jonah was never a terribly athletic guy, although I think he would liked to have been and therefore diligently tried everything. None of it persuaded him, chip off the old fatherly and slothful block that he was.
• The most pencil lead expended in Jonah’s letters was telling us of his excitement about two Tzofim unit plays he was in: Grease (2003) and Stars of David (2004). In Grease, Jonah played Danny Zuko. But more than having the lead role, Jonah was most proud of his “improvisational work” when another character had forgotten her entrance. Stars of David was a mock-talk show where Jonah appeared as the Jewish rapper Etan G and first debuted what would become Jonah’s signature presentation, “Makin’ A Motzi.” Boy, did he get traction from learning that!
• The Boston trip, of course, received enthusiastic attention in his letters home.
• But best of all for us, he let us know how much he liked having Katie and Aiden at camp. He even made sure to take a photograph or two with them.

But what will easily remain the most memorable (and infamous) Eisner moment occurred during the summer of 2001, Jonah’s fourth summer there. He wasn’t having as good a time as in previous summers and he dealt with it in a manner that may have surprised other parents if their own child had done this. We however had long before ceased being shocked when Jonah took matters into his own hands if he’d felt change was needed. Rather than work out any differences or disappointments, rather than find ways to make camp more satisfying and enjoyable, rather than actually tell someone he was unhappy, Jonah simply decided it was time to go home.

A smart one, my boy, he knew he’d have to get the support of Louis Bordman, the camp director, if his master plan was to succeed. So he simply adopted the following strategy: ignore anything your counselors say to you, never follow their requests or (eventually) their demands, and (as you’d planned) answer a summons to the director’s office. Shortly thereafter, he will call your parents and explain that camp just isn’t a fit and they should come pick up their boy. Which we did.

The next day, I wrote in a letter to Katie (who was probably still at Eisner): Jonah came home last night. He’s unbelievably happy being back at ol’ 25 Oak Street. He was so pleased to climb into his own bed and to wake up to cartoons and “real food” (as he calls it).

The following January, Jonah surprised us all again. He wanted to go back to camp. Well, we knew that would take some work. We accompanied Jonah into New York City to meet with Louis, who explained that what happened the summer before could never happen again. Jonah agreed and in a follow-up letter, he wrote, “I know what I did wrong last summer and it won’t happen again. I was having trouble talking and resolving conflicts with you and the other staff. I really want to go back so I’m going to try to be different. I’ll follow the rules, even if I disagree, and talk about it later. I’ll do what someone tells me and then tell someone about it, not refuse to do it in the first place. I’ll keep my anger to myself and get help if I need it. I will listen when someone’s talking to me and I will respond when someone asks a question. If I do something wrong, I’ll take the blame (but if I’m framed, I’ll try to prove I’m innocent). In a nutshell, I’m willing to change if you let me back into Eisner.”

That was Jonah evolving. Compliance without acquiescence. No promise of subservience. Just a willingness to not break teeth.

Jonah always had a powerful sense of justice that drove him to buck the status quo. As a child, he focused on his own “rights.” But as he grew into adulthood, he saw and he reached out to so many others he felt were getting a bad shake. Whether it was a kid getting picked on by bullies or a man he believed America needed as its president, Jonah was becoming a strong, caring, and activist soul.

That next summer, Jonah was allowed “back in” to camp and enjoyed another four summers there. As far as I know, he never got into trouble again. Well, nothing serious anyway. It’s been reported to me that, on occasion, he would run around Olim hill in his Simpson boxers without a care in the world. It’s also been reported that he kept a ready eye out for the well-being of others.

Jonah never again asked to leave early. As with so much of his life, he probably realized how good he was at making his own fun, and at making friends along the way. Who’d want to let go of that?

At the end of Jonah’s final summer as a camper at Kutz (2007), his bunk made a plaque that read, “We know everything.” There may, in fact, have been a few remaining lessons for Jonah to learn about life, but as far as camp was concerned, I believe Jonah did know everything. Given a second crack at making it work, my smart boy realized he had all the tools in hand. And he never looked back.

That was years ago. If you were among the throngs to meet Jonah toward the end of his high school years or in college, you know he rarely walked away from anything. Experiences like Eisner 2001 had taught him exactly what Ellen and I have always wanted our kids to understand: that life takes practice, and that we get better each time we’re willing to give it another go.

Had Jonah survived the night of March 5, 2009, I have every confidence he’d have learned exactly how not to let whatever happened that night not get the better of him again.

Billy

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