There were no marshmallows to roast, no mosquitoes to ward off and no heat emanating from the "fire." Still, a small group of young professionals suspended reality for a moment as they gathered around a miniature "campfire" on the second floor of the National Museum of American Jewish History to share memories of summers past.
As children across the region pack for camp sessions that begin this month, about 39 "overgrown" former campers in work attire or retro camp shirts gathered at the Independence Mall museum for a June 5 "Camp Reunion" organized by the institution's young friends group and the Collaborative.
Camp Galil had the strongest showing, with at least a dozen proud alums, including Tribe 12 executive director Ross Berkowitz in the Habonim Dror movement's official blue shirt.
For those who had gone on to become staff or stayed in touch with friends, the memories weren't all that distant.
Brian Cohen, a high school math teacher, still has a monthly dinner with a group of former co-counselors. He gestured toward a young man and woman chatting by a Galil display. They used to be his campers, he said, "now they're old enough to drink. It's a little confusing for me."
Caroline Kallman Joffe kept Camp Harlam close even after aging out, moving into a post-college apartment with camp friends. "It was like we were living in a bunk," said Kallman Joffe, who does marketing for a local jeweler.
After schmoozing over adult bug juice and other goodies, the young professionals disbursed into small group activities, some staying on the top floor to make friendship bracelets while others went downstairs for improvisational games, camp stories or a discussion on translating camp lessons to the adult world.
Rebecca Kahn, senior program manager for the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Camp, challenged her breakout session to think about how they could create the kind of community they had at camp as adults, and make sure camp was still available to the next generation.
"To me, camp was the greatest gift my parents ever gave me," she said.
The event gave Kahn an excuse to see a friend from Ramah in the Berkshires, too — 29-year-old Tamar Barbash, a Long Island native who now lives in the Art Museum area.
Though Barbash grew up attending day school and observing Shabbat, "I can still tell you that my Jewish identity is wrapped up in camp."
"I love the opportunity to be around people who seem to have the same connection to camp as I did," said Barbash, a social worker for JCHAI. "There's something about connecting with Ramah alumni that makes me feel like I would be part of a community even if I'm in a city that isn't necessarily my home."
Barbash stopped working at camp eight years ago, yet she still comes back every Labor Day weekend for an annual alumni mini-camp complete with Friday night services, a Saturday night dance party and programming for families with young children.
While Barbash already keeps close ties with many former camp mates, she found another, unexpected connection last Tuesday when she met someone whose sister was on her bus during her Ramah seminar in Israel.
"It's kind of amazing how small this world of Jews really is. I really like being a part of it, and I want my son to be a part of it."
Barbash said she and her husband haven't decided yet whether they'll eventually send their 10-month-old son to day school, but he will most certainly attend Jewish camp. The bigger question, she said, is whether he'll go to her alma mater or to Ramah in the Poconos.
The night wrapped up with camp-themed improv games led by local actress Sharon Geller.
It was a bittersweet event for Collaborative program director Molly Wernick, who noted she won't be going to camp for the first time since she was 9 years old. She spent 14 summers at Galil, from camper to youth director. By her calculations, that's roughly 100 weeks of camp. "We all know that our experiences at camp really makes us our best selves," she told the crowd. "So how much do we miss camp right now?"
Before everyone left, someone called for a friendship circle, a bedtime tradition at many camps in some form or another. Without skipping a beat, the young adults formed a lopsided oval, holding hands with arms crossed as they sang a Hebrew rendition of "Taps" as naturally as if they'd just done it yesterday.