First kisses, midnight swims at the lake, meaningful looks across the dining hall, tears at the end of the summer.
Camp romances can be intense. For some couples, campfire sparks fly long after the season ends. The bonds between summer campers are so strong, in fact, that it isn’t unusual to find couples whose camp romances lead to marriage. As more and more research emerges about the impact of Jewish summer camping and its power to create Jewish adults who raise Jewish families, Jewish leaders are banking on Jewish summer camp experiences as deterrents to growing assimilation.
Camp experiences are so central to Jewish identity building that some even choose to hold their weddings on the hallowed grounds where they spent childhood summers. Others find clever ways of incorporating camp memories into their nuptials. As a matter of fact, camp-themed weddings have become downright trendy!
Alison Petok and Dan Slipakoff, both 29, attended Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., in the 1990s. “We met when we were 12, but the romance started about 10 years later,” says Petok, who grew up in Mount Washington. “Dan likes to say he had a crush on me when we were 12, and it took me 10 years to catch on.”
Slipakoff stayed on at the camp as a counselor, and several summers later Petok returned as a unit supervisor. “There’s a level of freedom to be who you are at camp,” says Slipakoff. “You’ve seen each other at your most energetic and best, and also at your most rundown and vulnerable. It really helps with the relationship.”
Petok agrees: “Sometimes things happen, and I’ll think, ‘We’re able to get through this because we met in camp.’”
Petok and Slipakoff considered having their wedding at Camp Harlam, but because of logistical conflicts they weren’t able to. They did have their aufruf there during morning Shabbat services.
“We have a chapel in the woods, and it’s definitely one of my favorite places,” says Slipakoff.
“Every summer the Israeli scouts (schlechim) teach the kids cheers,” says Petok. “There’s one really silly one called ‘Ja Moose.’ It’s a call-and-response thing, and all the kids at Camp Harlam know it. They used that song, but wrote special words for us and they did the cheer at the aufruf.”
Although their wedding was held at the Fairmont Park Conservatory in Philadelphia, the couple brought many elements of camp to their wedding. Even their ketubah included imagery from Camp Harlam. “Our ketubah has the chapel on the hill and lots of Jewish stars. The artist who made it went to camp with us,” says Slipakoff.
“So many of our friends from camp were there,” adds Petok. “We had a Havdallah service, and Havdallah is really a special time at camp. So during the service we had all our friends from camp stand up with candles under the chuppah with us. We wanted to bring as much of camp into the ceremony as possible.”
Pikesville native Debbie Fink, 40 and her husband, David Green, 43, of Philadelphia, both summer-camp enthusiasts, met at a Camp Saginaw reunion in 2008. While Fink and Green didn’t know each other as campers, they both attended Camp Saginaw during the same summers. In fact, Green is among the campers pictured in Fink’s old camp photos. Green’s camp experience didn’t only influence his choice in partners, he also started a business based on a camp tradition.
“My husband runs mystery tours,” says Fink. “He got the idea from camp because they used to put us on buses and not tell us where we were going. It was a surprise. Now he does tours like that in L.A.”
“There was no other place we wanted to get married,” says Fink. Although the couple already lived in L.A. at the time of their wedding, most of their friends and families were based in the mid-Atlantic region. Camp Saginaw, located in Chester, Pa., was a convenient destination for most of the guests. Of the 150 attendees, about 100 stayed in camp bunks, says Fink.
“On Friday night, we had a barbeque and campfire, and during the days we had camp activities like arts and crafts, swimming and softball. Everybody loved being at camp,” she says. “The ceremony was held in the dell, an outdoor space at camp, and we had the reception in a big barn.”
Fink and Green were married by his rabbi. The reception was cocktail attire, but the rest of the weekend was casual. Although they worried about the weather, the whole weekend was picture perfect.
Malka and Mike Alweis of Teaneck, N.J., met when they were staff members at Camp Stone, an Orthodox camp in Western Pennsylvania that Malka, 23, a Baltimore native, attended as a young teen. Although he worked at Camp Stone, Mike, 22, grew up attending Camp Moshava in Street, Md. Both of the Alweises loved camp, and the idea of having their wedding at Camp Stone started out as a joke, says Malka. Yet, the more she explored the options, the more she began thinking seriously about having the wedding at camp.
“It was really stressful [looking at places], and I hated the idea of spending a ton of money for something that would only last for five hours,” Malka says. “When we spoke to the camp director about the possibility of having our wedding at Camp Stone, he was so excited. “We’ve never had a wedding at camp before,’ he says. ‘We can do it,’ He helped us with everything.
“It was really important to me that we have everything outdoors,” she adds. “I refused to believe it would rain.”
Luckily, Mother Nature cooperated. Instead of a one-night celebration the Alweises’ guests arrived at camp in time for the wedding ceremony on Thursday evening and stayed at camp through Sunday. On Friday, recalls Malka, a lot of the wedding guests went sightseeing at nearby Niagara Falls or visited the Amish community. On Shabbat, guests had all of their meals together, and there were speeches, dancing and camp tours.
The wedding took place beside the lake, and the bride and groom arrived at the ceremony in a horse and buggy driven by one of the camp’s Amish neighbors. “There was a bridge we had to cross to get to the [handmade] chuppah,” says Malka. “We used Pinterest for a lot of our ideas. My father is a painter and my mother is very crafty, so they helped with the decorations. My father spray painted tree branches silver and gold, and my mother created leaf-shaped place settings and Chinese lanterns.”
Jessica and Mike Petkov, directors of Camp Saginaw, are “very open to working with the bride and groom to do anything from a barbeque to a black-tie event,” says Jessica. “Some people just want the place and bring in their own people, but our chef can do [upscale] food. We can help to organize color wars, scavenger hunts, arts and crafts, go-carts, whatever. Typically, people stay in the cabins. Bunks sleep 8 to 14 people, but there are also some private cabins.”
As is the case with most summer camps, weddings take place during the off-season, in the fall and spring.
“People really embrace the camp theme,” says Jessica. “We’ve seen s’more-making kits as favors, and some people do camp T-shirts. One couple had a canoe full of drinks. People come up with amazing ideas.”
For diehard campers, camp or camp-themed weddings are an opportunity to share a place they love with the people they love.
“We are both products of camp,” says Slipakoff, who’s completing his Master of Social Work and plans to enter rabbinical school in the fall. His wife, Alison, who also has an M.S.W., is an oncology social worker. “It’s had an important role in our lives and careers. We hold the values [we learned in camp] dearly.”