Driving through the Poconos to get to Golden Slipper Camp, you won’t see a business or residential area for miles. Just winding roads and trees, and then more winding roads and trees, until you roll up to a security booth with an officer in it and a sign up ahead that tells you that, yes, you are now at camp.
Like at so many other Jewish sleepaway camps, the bubble feeling is real here. Summer is a place to escape into mountains, nature and a self-contained world of spirit and connection.
And this summer, after two years in which a real-world problem, COVID-19, pierced that bubble, the feeling is finally back.
Golden Slipper’s 200 or so campers, boys and girls between the ages of seven and 15, can walk around without masks, social distancing requirements and fear. They do not have to think twice about interacting with others.
COVID is still present in the form of the negative tests that are required for walking up and around this Stroudsburg hill. But once you are in, you can forget about the pandemic and everything else happening in the outside world. It’s just like camp used to be before 2020 — and throughout the first 70-plus years of Golden Slipper’s existence.
“I say at the beginning, at orientation, and I’m sure I stole it from someone over the years, that camp is just trees and land and some buildings. But that energy, that vibe, that’s us, that’s the staff, that’s people returning year after year,” said Matt Freedman, Golden Slipper’s special events coordinator.
Freedman attended the Jewish camp as a camper and counselor from 1990-2002. Last year, though, the schoolteacher returned to take over the role of special events coordinator, primarily organizing evening activities.
During his first summer back in 2021, Freedman saw the trees, the land and the buildings. This year, though, he sees camp.
“It was physically back (last year). It’s emotionally back this year,” he explained.
Monday, July 25 was a rainy morning at Golden Slipper. The outdoor fields were soggy, and the walking path was marked by puddles.
There was not a camper or counselor to be found around the grounds…until you walked up to the hybrid basketball court/evening activity hall that you will find at almost any sleepaway camp. The facility with a roof but no walls, to let the fresh air in, was ideal for a morning activity on a rainy day.
And so everyone, all 200 or so campers, their counselors, the head staff members, Freedman and camp Director Justin Guida were gathered there for an a.m. version of “night at the races,” an evening activity in which bunks compete in games like relay races while riding pool tubes.
Freedman bounded around the stage, blasted upbeat music and made campy jokes about how much he was enjoying his power. On the court below, kids raced up and down, cheered each other on and went wild when their bunks won. Guida watched from the side and smiled.
A girls’ cabin called themselves Team Ireland and kept repeating a chant about the European country. An older male camper informed the Jewish Exponent that his nickname was “the alpha Jew.” All of this went on for almost two hours.
“We can actually feel everyone’s spirit and joy again, hear everyone’s voice again and be in this environment where it feels like it is electricity through everyone’s body,” said Jordyn Citron, a counselor of Team Ireland who is in her 15th summer at Golden Slipper.
Citron’s campers added that, without restrictions, they felt like they didn’t have to be fake. They could be their true selves, interact with other kids around camp and make new friends.
“This is my first summer with no masks,” camper Arianna Lodge said. “I came last year and we had masks, and I didn’t get to meet like anyone.”
After the morning at the races, the campers rested in their cabins for a while before heading to the dining hall for lunch. Everyone ate at the same time, and campers talked, laughed and even broke out in some cheers.
Guida, Freedman and other head staff members continued improvising their way through the rainy day that was upending their normal, mostly outdoor schedule. The grass fields were still too wet to use, but the rain was stopping and the sun was starting to peek through the clouds.
Near the end of lunch, Freedman picked up the microphone and announced the schedule for the afternoon. Rest hour first, of course, as everyone needed to digest. But then back-to-back periods of co-ed swim and preparation for “TikTok Night” later that week, when each cabin would perform a comedic skit. Half of the bunks would do one or the other, and then they would switch.
In the pool, boys swam on one side and girls on the other, with ropes in between, though there was a middle section for them to swim together if they wanted. Some boys and girls outside of the pool walked out of their respective areas to meet and talk.
Counselors not on lifeguard duty jumped into the water to splash campers, toss them around and carry them on their backs. One male counselor walked around singing the Ed Sheeran hit “Bad Habits” and told a camper that he loved the song.
“You get to see smiles. That was missed last year,” said Aaron Ransom, a second-year counselor who was at the pool. “It just feels more alive. It feels like camp.”
But perhaps nothing felt campier than the preparations for “TikTok Night.”
One girls’ cabin was focusing on a “Dora the Explorer” theme and, in particular, the main character’s famous “Backpack” song. The tallest girl in the bunk played Dora while the smallest played the backpack, contorting her body into a ball shape so her bunkmate could lock arms with her and hold her up on her back.
As they practiced this routine before Guida, who was driving around to observe some practice sessions, their bunkmates cracked up from the porch. The director did, too.
Over on the tennis courts, the waiters and waitresses, or the oldest campers who help with meals, practiced their own skit that portrayed drop-off day at the start of the summer. “Parents” hugged their precious “kids” and refused to let go, while the “kids” tried to break away. There was a single parent, a mom and a dad and two moms.
“We’re progressive here,” a counselor said to Guida.
After the “campers” had broken away onto their buses, the director himself walked up to the “parents” to shake their hands. Only it wasn’t Guida, of course; it was a waiter playing him. He walked down the line, nodded his head and shook every hand.
The real director and everyone else on the court cracked up together.
“It’s kind of fun,” said Hugo Simonetti, the kid who played Guida.
As the clock ticked past 4 p.m., the director returned to his office. Sitting on his desk was a thick binder for the American Camp Association, which would visit the next day to inspect and hopefully certify Golden Slipper.
Guida said the binder contained “everything about camp,” and that he was confident the inspection would go just fine. It was probably his biggest concern of the day along with the rain.
“We have to deal with, ‘It’s raining; what are we going to do? It’s too hot; what are we doing to do?’” he added. “Those are the real issues that aren’t real issues, but they are camp issues. We have to deal with them before we think about anything else.” JE