An Ode to My First Love: My Jewish Summer Camp Counselor

The only problem? She was 16 and I was 5.

Adam loved Eve. Samson loved Delilah. Romeo loved Juliet.

And I loved Idina.

Unlike fair Verona, we lay our scene in the fair hills of a Central New Jersey Conservative Jewish day camp in the summer of 2000. Idina was slender and tan, with a ponytail of light brown, and eyes the same color. Dimpled cheeks, with a perfect smile, ear to ear. From the first time I saw her, I knew she was the one. I was stricken by her beauty, but my heart ultimately fell in love with her warmth. She was always kind, and only shortly after meeting each other, she grew to become rather fond of me as well. I was always to be greeted with the sweet embrace of a hug, smile and a repeated proclamation that I was her favorite.

But like Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers of Verona, the possibility of our eternal togetherness was doomed from the start. Oh, how I yearned for her touch and the day I would proclaim my love. But a shared love could never be.

She was 16.

I was 5.

Idina was my camp counselor during the summer going into kindergarten. She was, without a doubt, my first true love; a real woman all wrapped up in a staff t-shirt and denim shorts. The perfect nice Jewish girl. Oh, how she gave me butterflies — a new feeling.

I thought about her constantly and only wanted to make her happy; to do things that would make her laugh and notice me even more than she already did. I had to shine for her in everything. That would win her love.

Our daily schedule at this camp started with Tefillah in the sanctuary, followed by swim, dance class with the latest Israeli pop tunes, reciting the Birkat Hamazon after lunch, some kind of ball game, music class with a whole lot of singing and ice cream at 4 p.m. to end the day. But no matter the activity, I tried to go the extra mile around Idina and stand out.

I loudly and proudly chanted along with each bim, bam, yai, lai and dai in morning prayer. I gave my absolute best backstroke in instructional swim. I passionately whipped out my coolest dance moves to the “Israeli” pop song that turned out to be Turkish. I pounded away on the lunch table while chanting the last oh-so-important lines of the Birkat. I feigned interest in sports, a pastime of sheer ambivalence for me, running around the fiery blacktop to chase some ball, all while ensuring Idina was in view to see my supposed dedication. The things we do for love.

And with all the ruach, spirit, in me, I sang and sang my little heart out to every Debbie Friedman and who-knows-what song during music class, vocally proclaiming, “Not by might… Not by power… But by spirit alone!” Yes, my spirit alone would win Idina’s heart.

My enthusiasm for camp coupled with my little boyish charm, precocious ways, sense of humor and unmistakable red hair set me apart from the two other boys and five other girls in our group. Idina would often tease me and ask if she was my favorite counselor at camp. My cheeks would blush from embarrassment, and I would grin. How could I say no? I knew she adored me. “That’s my Elijah!” she would say. “My favorite…”

One evening, my parents told me I would be getting a special treat. Someone was coming to babysit who had never come before. The catch was we had to pick them up. So, we drove to a neighborhood not far from mine. It was dark out, and out of a house came a shadowy shape that seemed very familiar. And into the car came Idina.

From what I understood, people prefer at least one date with the nice Jewish girl before bringing her home to meet one’s parents. But I didn’t care. Idina was coming over, and I was in heaven.

We were driven back to my house, and my parents departed. Idina and I spent the night playing board games, ordering pizza and watching cartoons. I was mesmerized to have her in my house, in the most private of settings, where I didn’t have to share her with other campers. There was only us in an evening of pure bliss. When she tucked me in for bed and hugged me goodnight, I saw that slender figure exit into the darkness. Summer was almost over. Our time together, finite.

Kindergarten came and went. I kept my camp group photo in a chest near my bed, often taking it out to look at the only picture I had of Idina. I was still loyally hers, despite the distance. But I knew I would see her again next summer, God willing.

When summer returned, I was back at camp. Idina was there too, and when she spotted me on the first day, I was greeted with that same warm embrace I had so dearly missed. I would pretend to hide from her until she would catch me and have me sit in her lap. But these interactions were few and far between. I was no longer her camper. Still, my devotion remained.

Even into first grade, when friends or relatives asked if I had a crush on any of the girls at school, I would firmly say no. Secretly, my heart belonged to Idina. I swore that someday we would be together as one. Holding firmly onto that one photo, I looked into Idina’s eyes and continued to make that promise.

But our love never came to pass. The camp eventually filed for bankruptcy and shut down. By this point, I was already gone. Simultaneously, Israel, the almost mythical Eden our camp preached so fervently about, was in the throes of widespread violence in the Second Intifada. And our own country was attacked and sent to war.

The little boy grew up.

Thankfully, I matured into a person who understood the many social, moral, ethical and (let’s face it) legal problems associated with a young boy dating an adult woman 11 years his senior. Ultimately, I went back on my biggest promise.

I stopped loving Idina.

But by the onset of middle school, I began to feel those passionate feelings of love again, this time with girls who were also born around 1995 and not 1984.

I have not seen Idina since the Twin Towers stood. If we were to meet today, I wonder if we would recognize each other. We would have a lot of catching up to do, but would she even remember me?

It is strange, the events and people that make such strong impressions on the young mind. My love for and time with Idina belong to a period of childhood innocence. So distant from today, yet so precious.

Now 28 and happily married for a year to a different nice Jewish girl, I am content in knowing what true love actually is. But I still revel in my memories of those days I will never get back: for camp, for folksy Jewish songs, and yes, for discovering what the heart feels.

Elijah Reiss

Elijah Reiss (he/him) is a writer from New Jersey, primarily concerned with analyzing his own past. When he is not awash with nostalgia, he enjoys Broadway, record collecting, and spending time with his wife and two cats.

Read More