Like so many other Jewish kids, I started going to Jewish sleepaway camp at age 8. But unlike for many others, it wasn’t necessarily a blissful experience. Always the heaviest camper in my division — my family credits my tuchus and zaftig figure to my Argentine genes — I stuck out like a sore thumb. I clung to my counselors who probably sympathized with me, and spent every free period stowed away in woodshop or ceramics class. I somehow always lost touch with my “summer sisters” during the school year, probably because I wasn’t really making friends. It was tough out there for a shy, plump kid.
But the last summer at Jewish camp was different. I found a group of girls who were beautiful, quirky, smart, hilarious, and, like Link with Tracy Turnblatt from Hairspray, accepted me no matter what I weighed. The perpetual whispers about my weight aside, it was the first year I actually looked forward to returning to camp with my newly established group of friends.
Of course, that was the year my parents decided to send me to fat camp instead. Both doctors, they were worried I was on track to develop type II diabetes, and they wanted to nip my growing waistband in the bud.
Was I upset that as soon as I solidified my place at Jewish camp, I would be back to square one at fat camp? You bet. But I also desperately wanted to lose weight before entering high school. Still, I was scared shitless by the prospect of spending eight weeks at a non-Jewish camp. Up until the summer of 2009, the Jewish community was all I knew, and, bullying aside, at least Jewish camp provided the comfort of weekly Shabbat-o-grams, challah, and a shared sense of identity.
From what I saw on MTV’s Return to Fat Camp, my sheltered Jewish bubble was about to pop, and I was unprepared.
Plot twist: Turns out fat camp was way more Jewish than my Jewish camp. And I’m not just talking about the challah. (At the Shabbat services I led there, I was allowed to give each attendee a drop of grape juice and a bite of challah. Non-Jews always tried to weasel their way into the rec hall for that sweet, sweet, doughy bread. But as soon as the service ended, my co-counselors and I would eat as much of the challah as we could shove down our throats before line-up. Ah, fat camp.)
I imagine people envision fat camp to be some sort of starvation farm filled with herds of overweight children. Or maybe they think it’s like the movie Heavyweights with a black market of candy and fast food, and a psychotic owner who terrorizes the campers. Neither are too far off, but they don’t paint the whole picture.
Like Heavyweights — rumored to be based off the actual camp I attended — we had a money hungry, crazy owner, and the boys’ side did run a candy black market (campers would pay $20 for a Milky Way). But although portion sizes diminished over the years, we were hardly starved. In reality, the only difference between Jewish camp and fat camp is that we were weighed once a week, most of the activities were exercise-based, and we didn’t get cookies and milk for an afternoon snack. Oh, and fat campers are absolutely savage.
After my last summer stint as a counselor for two weeks in 2017, I wrote a crowdsourced expose about camp called “Sex, Splenda and savagery: Confessions from my time at fat camp.” Filled with anecdotes about hoarding Splenda packets, sex in the ga-ga pit, and counselors giving food — AKA contraband — to campers, the story landed me on the owner’s unofficial “banned for life” list. It was totally worth it.
But how exactly was fat camp more Jewish than my Jewish camp? I can break it down with one word: community.
Before fat camp, I didn’t know what confidence felt like. At school, I was incredibly self-conscious of my body and abhorred getting dressed in the morning. I yearned to fit in and to look like everyone else, but my sweet tooth and disdain for exercise distracted my eye from the prize. I felt unattractive, undesirable, and alone.
But after eight weeks of schvitzing off 15 pounds, I returned to school with newfound self-esteem — and a heavy heart. I finally found a community of people with a shared sense of pain. We wore our insecurities on our sleeves, our extra weight visible for all to see. And no one gave a shit.
See, at fat camp, we had this thing called “camp goggles.” No matter who you were in the outside world, in the Poconos, everyone was seen through the same lens. Your specific trauma didn’t matter, your physique was arbitrary, and the color of your skin and socioeconomic background had no weight (pun intended) on camp grounds. What mattered to the fat camp community was your neshama, your soul.
I could talk about the little Jewish things I did at fat camp, like sharing mitzvahs of the week at Shabbat services, fasting for Tisha B’av (granted, I only did this once so I could skip exercise for the day), and making my 8-year-old campers perform “I Had a Little Dreidel” for MTV night. But that’s not what made fat camp more Jewish than Jewish camp.
Judaism heavily emphasizes kehilla, or community. As we understand it, being a member of the tribe comes with providing for every member’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. I didn’t find this at Jewish camp, where I was made to feel othered and ashamed of my body.
I found kehilla at fat camp during color war when both the blue and gold team cheered on the heaviest camper while he struggled to complete the grueling mile lap. I found it when that same camper died last summer of a heart attack, and people I hadn’t seen in years gathered to remember his life. At fat camp, community meant being there for each other, even if it broke the rules: like the time a counselor comforted my heart-broken bunkmate with peanut butter M&Ms and raw pasta (we stole butter packets and salt from the dining hall and cooked that pasta in a shaving bucket using hot shower water).
The saying “we live 10 months for two” is truest for fat campers. September through May, I counted down the never-ending days until I was back with the community that truly understood me and my baggage. Each summer I had the same tight-knit group of friends I could rely on to make me pee my pants with laughter and coach me through using a tampon.
Between the terrifying owner, shockingly low wages, and counselors untrained to be on suicide watch, fat camp was a total shit show. But it was a shit show made up of the most diverse, incredible human beings who appreciated me for who I was and taught me the true meaning of community.
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