You can go home again
By Lew K. Cohn
They say you can't go back home again, but this past weekend, I did.
I went back to Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, this past Friday, March 17, for the first time in 30 years for my cousin Savannah Garst's Bat Mitzvah celebration. The last time I had been at Jacobs Camp, I was an awkward 16-year-old teenage counselor-in-training, or CIT.
Jacobs Camp was a formative place in my youth. It was a home away from home for four weeks every summer, from third grade to eighth grade, and again as a senior when I became a staff member.
If the foundation of my Judaism started at home, then Jacobs Camp supplied some of the bricks and mortar. I made friends there and came out of my shell. I learned what it meant to be a Jew in one of the smallest Southern states and how my identity as a person was what I made it, not what others chose for me to be.
I learned how to take care of myself at camp because I had to; no one was going to pick up after me or coddle me. I learned how to be selfless and to give back to the community through work days at a Jackson-area nursing home or the Mississippi School for the Deaf. I learned how to work together as a teammate in sports, on skits and in religious studies.
When I left Jacobs for the last time, I didn't know if I ever would see the place again. My last summer as a CIT was filled with highs and lows. It was my first time back at the camp in four years and while I had a great time reconnecting with people and making new friends, I also had an adversarial relationship with my camp director.
The director would not let me come back to the camp for my last three years as a camper because my family had moved to Texas, where Greene Family Camp is located, so he expected me to spend my camp time at Greene, which just was not home to me.
It was okay for me to come back as a staff member and work for him, but when I did, I found myself at odds with the favoritism I thought was shown to some people on staff. Most of my friends among the staff were like me — people who hadn't been to the camp in a long time — or people who were new to camp and I guess I felt they were not being treated with the same respect or support the veterans were given.
I made up my mind I didn't want to come back to camp again when I left in 1987 and that decision was compounded by the loss of a good friend, Sheldon Luber, the very day camp let out. Sheldon was a year younger than me, and when he got back home to Arkansas on Aug. 14, he and some friends went out for a car ride and got into an accident and Sheldon was killed. He would have been 16 just 10 days later. I didn't want to go back to Jacobs anymore because it would remind me of my friend who died just hours after I last saw him.
Over the years, my stance towards the camp softened, but life got in the way. I went to college, went to work, got married, had kids, settled down. I couldn't afford to send my kids to camp, so I never got the chance to go back to Jacobs to see what had changed and what had stayed the same.
My cousin Stephanie Perler Garst, however, kept involved with Jacobs Camp as a camper and staff member, and later, as a parent. She and her husband Barry sent their eldest daughter Savannah to Jacobs from the time she became old enough to attend. Much like it was for Stephanie and for me, Jacobs became her home from home, her comfortable place in the world. So it made sense that when it came time for Savannah's Bat Mitzvah, it would happen at the camp.
When Betty and I arrived at the camp after a long 10-hour car ride Friday, it was definitely different from how I remembered it. There were different cabin buildings and structures on the property. Sure, some things were the same, like the dining hall and breezeway and the activity center which houses the gymnasium. But there were things we never had for sure, like a rock climbing wall or an adventure course. And I couldn't help but feel like the camp had gotten smaller than it was when I was a child.
When I got some free time, I went down to the outdoor chapel by the lake and sat strumming my guitar. While I was there, I did some thinking and started reconciling my feelings about the place and realized I had really missed being at camp. While I sat there watching the wind move the water on the lake and listening to the music reverberate, I felt at home once more.
Savannah did a great job with her duties as a Bat Mitzvah and the event was a lot of fun. The drive back home was long and we finally got in a little after 9 p.m. Sunday, March 19.
I am glad I got the opportunity to go back to Jacobs, even if it was just for the weekend. It was an opportunity to get back in touch with a place that really had an impact on me throughout my life. I would like to go back again, and this time, I won't wait 30 years to do so.