Jewish Summer Camp and The Book of Ruth: The Power of a Jewish Woman's Support

Collage by Sarah Quiat.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

These words swirled in my head, taunting me, as I trudged back to my cabin, my eyes blurry with tears. I was twelve years old, finishing up my first week as a camper at Camp Tawonga, and I had just gotten back from what I decided earlier that morning would be my first go at standing up to a man in a position of power. Though the confrontation itself may not have gone as planned, I've recognized something important in the events that followed: the power of Jewish women, in history and today, to lift one another back up when they are at their lowest.

I hated camp. I only had one friend, was concerningly unathletic (which made the daily activities unbearable) and somehow, regardless of how much bug spray I lathered on myself each morning, was covered in mosquito bites from head-to-toe. To say the least, I was miserable. In an emotional letter home, I expressed my immense dislike of camp and begged my parents to pick me up. Finding solace in the notion that my pleas would soon be heard by my parents, I told my counselor what I'd done. Over dinner, I explained to her that, if all went according to plan, I might only be her camper for a few more days. The next morning, she pulled me aside and informed me that she'd told the leader of my unit, an older man who I hadn’t previously interacted with, about my letter. He'd then called my parents and assured them that my mindset had changed drastically since I wrote the letter and that they should feel free to disregard its contents.

I resolved to approach him that night after dinner, and began preparing what I wanted to say. I was livid. Not only was what he said entirely false, but I'd never been asked consent for this phone call to take place, nor for the man to speak on my behalf.

When the moment came for my big speech, however, I explained my frustration with a tremor in my voice, unable to meet his eyes for fear of losing my confidence.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” he responded, and explained that he was "under the impression" that I'd asked him to call my parents, and that I was in fact loving my stay at camp.

To this, I had no response. My face flushing red, I apologized without knowing why and made my way back to the cabin.

In the years following this experience, I’ve thought back to it a lot, and felt ashamed by how quickly I backed down. To be a true feminist, I believed, one must stand up to people who abuse their power and fight until they can stand no longer. There was no “giving up” in the feminist plight, otherwise no progress could be made. Thus, I decided that I'd ultimately failed as a feminist.

However, as I’ve gotten older and have continued to reflect on this experience, I think about what happened later that night—after my supposed failure. When I got back to my cabin, my friend greeted me and wordlessly hugged me without asking what was wrong. She sat by my side on our deck for hours after bedtime until I finished crying. I think about the support she showed me in this vulnerable moment, and learned to acknowledge that part of being a Jewish feminist is relying on your community in the inevitable moments when you fail.

Among ancient Jewish texts, The Book of Ruth stands out as one in which the value of female relationships is made clear. After her sons die, Naomi advises her daughters-in-law to make a life of their own and leave her, believing she has nothing left to offer them. Orpah, one of Naomi’s daughters-in-law, chooses to follow her advice and returns home. However, Ruth stays with Naomi, famously declaring, “wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people; and your God is my God.” Though Naomi at first doesn't seem to understand Ruth’s devotion to her, their relationship becomes increasingly important for them both as time goes on. Naomi aids Ruth in orchestrating her marriage to a man named Boaz, while Ruth remains faithful to Naomi by caring for her and ensuring her comfort as she gets older. Both of these women benefit greatly from their strong bond. Though their relationship was only made possible by tragedy, their unconditional support and love for one another serves them both throughout the story.

In an admittedly less serious sense, I see my story of female alliance and support in the Book of Ruth. As I consider the importance of supporting one another in feminist spaces, I know that there is a long history of Jewish women doing just that. This man, who was well aware of the inherent power he had over me in the situation, was more concerned with being right than anything else. He abandoned his task of ensuring the emotional wellbeing of his young campers in order to maintain his pride. In this moment, I believed that there was nothing in the world I could say that he would listen to. I felt completely helpless. But when we’re faced with people who misuse their positions of power and make us feel small, we have the choice to fight back. And even in the moments when we fail, we can find our own power in the community that’s waiting for us at the sidelines.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Ilah, Ilah. "Jewish Summer Camp and The Book of Ruth: The Power of a Jewish Woman's Support." 8 June 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 25, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/jewish-summer-camp-and-book-ruth-power-jewish-womans-support>.