This week as the Jewish people celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah, I want to take a moment to reflect on one of the miracles in my own life – Henry S. Jacobs Camp. Perhaps my earliest camp memory is of Shabbat as a 9 or 10 year-old. I vividly remember sitting beside Lake Gary, awestruck by the beauty of the water and the trees, the harmony of so many voices, and the unity of us all dressed in white. Camp was the first place I felt spiritual, the first time I realized I was a part of something much bigger than myself. It was there I first encountered a sense of a kehilah kedoshah (holy community), and the friendships I made there remain some of my most treasured.
Camp was a place of deep personal growth and discovery. I felt cared for and nurtured by the counselors and older campers I looked up to. In that safe space, I felt the independence to figure out who I was. As a counselor during college, I learned how rewarding it could be to foster that growth in others.
After college, I worked in finance for 5 years, and people often ask me why I decided to become a rabbi. The truth is that somewhere deep inside, I knew it all along. I knew it ever since I was a kid at camp, and I met rabbis who inspired me. They inspired me by showing me how rich and joyful a Jewish life could be. They inspired me to want to make the world a better place. Even back then, I knew that I wanted to be able to do that for other people someday.
After my first year of rabbinical school, I had the opportunity to come back to Jacobs as the Director of Jewish Life. I was so excited to be back with my people and to give back to the place that had given me so much. As I saw campers so proud after leading services for their units, as I heard them wrestle with how Jewish values can guide their sportsmanship or their artistry, and as I heard bits of Hebrew in a Southern drawl, I saw myself in them.
I witnessed another generation who couldn’t wait to get in the gates on opening day and who cried their eyes out as they boarded the buses home. I witnessed the continuity of the Jewish people in the Deep South and our special form of Judaism. I witnessed the miracle of Jacobs Magic.
On Hanukkah, we place our menorah in the window, symbolizing the power of a miracle to bring light into a dark world. Today our world is filled with far too much darkness. For me and for so many of us lucky enough to call Jacobs Camp our home, 3863 Morrison Road will always be a source of light.
Jeff Dreifus spent 13 summers at Jacobs Camp as a camper and staff member. He is currently a 4th year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in New York City.