Sometimes, camp is about more than friendship. Sometimes, you make a true love connection that really does last a lifetime. This was true for Efraim Yudewitz, whose summer took a romantic turn when he met his future wife, Jess Yudewitz, as a 15-year-old camper at Camp Yavneh in 1998. “The Boy Is Mine” was on the radio, “Titanic” was in movie theaters and Yudewitz’s life was about to change forever.
In fact, camp was such a positive experience that he’s a summer camp director at Crane Lake Camp as an adult. This is his inspiring—and magical!—story, straight out of a rom-com. Are any screenwriters reading this?
“I had lived in Marblehead for a few years, but then my family moved to South Florida. The consolation prize for my siblings and me was we could all choose where we were going to go to camp,” Yudewitz says. “I had a good friend from Marblehead who was going to Camp Yavneh, so I followed him there. Jess grew up in Newton and had a lot of friends at Yavneh, and 1998 was the first summer that we were both there at the same time.”
Fast-forward to the fateful meeting…
“I remember being at camp, and I had always done their second session. This was the first summer that Jess had gone full session, so she already had been at camp for about a month. Two or three days into the second session, I had met a couple of kids, both on the girls’ side and the guys’ side of camp whom I hadn’t met before—but I had heard of them, because all of my second-month friends who had been there for the full season had told me about them already. Jess was one of them, and I was very close with two of her friends.
“We’d done icebreakers and we had hung out; it was a small unit. This was the first time that Jess and I really got a chance to hang out—even though we had known of each other, but we didn’t really know each other. We hit it off right away. The way that camp works, especially when you’re a teenager, we’d dated other people, whatever it means at that age. So I think we were both excited to meet somebody new and had heard great things about one another. There was an aura of, ‘Oh, I heard about you!’ And finally we were able to be at camp at the same time, and it clicked.
“It’s funny, because we’ve now been together so long that I don’t remember the first time [I saw her]. But I remember we started dating on her birthday, at a dance, on Aug. 5. I asked her to dance, and we were that obnoxious camp couple who became just inseparable. Our friends always had interventions with us. They were like: ‘We get that you’re obsessed with each other, but you have to hang out with us too!’ We just went everywhere together.
“This is ‘camp time,’ so we spent every second with each other, and it had been like we were dating for a gazillion years. When we came home, we were very much committed to making it work. And in the nerdiest but also loveliest way, we were each other’s best friends. We would talk every day after school. We got each other. We would process things with each other. We had inside jokes, and we were each other’s best friends.
“Actually, this is how I got my first cell phone. Our parents were just done with us being on the phone and hiking up the long-distance bill—this was a time when they still had that! My parents weren’t interested in getting me a cell phone, but there were free nights and weekends, so that was the thing. It would be cheaper for them for us to talk for four hours every night, starting at 8, with a cell phone. My parents used to come into my room, and it’d be 11 at night, and the phone would still be on but I’d be passed out sleeping.
“This was also when AOL Instant Messenger was a thing. I’d get out of class, go to the computer lab and log on to see if Jess was online. I’d send her a quick message and sneak back out to see if she responded.
“On Thanksgiving weekends, we had camp reunions, so I would see her once a year for that. And we’d always look forward to that visit. One year, she convinced her parents that they needed to take their family vacation to the Florida Keys. They had no interest in going to the Florida Keys, but she was able to convince her family. I hadn’t really met her family that much yet. They just knew my voice because I would call every night on the phone. I had just turned 16. My mom had just gotten a new car, and I had just gotten my driver’s license. My mom told this story at our wedding: She said, looking back, that she didn’t know what she was thinking, but she gave me her brand-new car and the keys and said, ‘OK, go.’ From then on, it was like I was part of the family.”
But they took some breaks along the way…
“Our old assistant director takes credit for us getting back together because we were in the friend stage. One summer, Jess and I were nominated to be [team] captains at camp; Jess and I were supposed to be on separate teams. And the director was like, ‘No, no, no, we’re putting you two together.’ And we were co-captains together, and we decided to get back together after that experience. By college, she was finishing her freshman year at Barnard, and I had just come back from a year in Israel. We had this awesome visit, and we both were sort of like, ‘We’re either going to get back together and this is going to be it, or we’re going to do different things.’ It was very clear. Since then, there was never a doubt.
“We got married at 23. About 60% of our wedding were camp people. My co-counselor flew in from London, and he was part of our wedding party. We had cheers. We had tons of camp shirts. We had a lot of our camp friends. Our camp rabbi married us. Camp was very much at the forefront of our wedding.
“We’ve always loved camp, and it was a dream of mine to be a camp director. In 2014, I took over and became the director of a camp called Camp Tel Noar, a Jewish camp in New Hampshire where a lot of Boston-based kids go. Jess and I, and our daughters, lived at camp, and camp was a huge part of our lives. And now I’m the director of URJ Crane Lake. We’re a camp family. I feel so fortunate that my kids get a chance to grow up in the supportive environment that is camp. It’s a regular part of how our own family engages Jewishly, and my kids have grown up with hundreds of camp siblings, aunts and uncles.”
Find a directory of Jewish overnight camps here.