Shifra and I had crossed paths our entire lives, a charm (or consequence) of growing up in Winnipeg — all Jews seem to know each other. Our babas are great old friends; our mothers see each other at the grocery store every week. Everything with us seemed to click.
And it did, in the summer of 2017 at Jewish camp.
I had attended a Jewish summer camp for the past eight summers of my life. I fell in love with camp — the kids, the songs, the stars.
But that summer, I also fell in love with a girl.
I became a camp counsellor for the first time in the summer of 2016, when I was just 18. It was my first year on staff after being a camper for six years. Shifra was my co-counsellor and we were in charge of a handful of 11-year-old girls. The hilarity of their prepubescent shenanigans and apparent affinity for dance parties kept us on our toes.
On top of this, Shifra, who is a year older than me, was the leader of my activity group. We spent the days doing activities with the kids and even more time at night planning programs.
Shifra and I also shared platonic late nights and fantastic conversations. Speaking only in whispers to not wake up the campers, we could talk until three, four or five in the morning; time was a concept that neither of us were willing to abide by. We discovered our mutual ineptitude in pre-calculus and our appreciation for analyzing poetry and literature. We discussed being atheists but loving our Jewishness nonetheless. I felt profoundly understood during these nights, and my insecurities were met with validity. That summer, we instantly became great friends.
But the following school year, I blew Shifra off.
I was so excited for my senior year of high school that it became my sole focus. I needed top marks to get into my university of choice, and I was busy joining and creating new school clubs. My youthful disinterest in a new friendship founded on my desire to succeed academically and socially was something Shifra did not understand at the time; even if she too was busy academically, she took it personally. We rarely saw each other that year.
But as camp approached, I attended a few parties she was at, too, that made me confront an unfamiliar feeling. Our friendship rekindled, and I suddenly found myself lusting over Shifra. When I saw her at parties, all I wanted to be was all over her. It made me feel ashamed around the guys I wanted to impress and my straight girl friends who could never understand what I was feeling towards another girl. I was comfortable in my queerness individually, but whenever I felt I had to present myself in a certain way or explain my feelings about someone of the same gender, I was often embarrassed and confused.
It was a sense of internalized homophobia I was too naive to recognize and a genuine discomfort with who I truly was.
Camp offers an atmosphere unlike any other. You’re surrounded by like-minded individuals and you have unparalleled fun together. You’re sleep deprived, hormonal and hungry — circumstances that push teenage counsellors to emotional peaks.
Shifra and I liked to talk and overanalyze, a lot. When camp began in 2017, we were immediately open about our feelings for one another, but our actions said otherwise. Talking with our friends, we assured them nothing was going on — we both didn’t want to get hurt. I remember one night, one of us outrightly affirmed we should get together. The next night, we did.
I never had someone look at me with such trust and passion before.
Shifra and I had an unwavering bond of culture, values and faith. Everything was ostensibly perfect with nights spent sharing music — Cleopatra by the Lumineers was our album of the summer — spilling secrets, evading suspicion and dodging questions about the future.
We were also pretty crazy about each other.
Every moment we were together exemplified this exciting new bond. Years, and relationships later, it is difficult to put my finger on one specific moment when I knew what we had was special.
However, there was one evening when the kids were gone and the sky was grey, and I asked her if she loved me. We had just turned off the music playing in the background as we devoured the remaining Oreos in the box. Silence ensued as we turned off the light — I could see her thinking, not wanting to open herself up to the inevitability of a heartbreak. She answered in a few convoluted sentences, flustered, as I sometimes made her, but it was clear her answer was yes.
Camp is also a highly concentrated environment. Not only do we all know each other, we know everything about each other and everybody has their opinions.
Most of us partake in a relatively harmless culture of gossip. Intentions are always good, but the results? Not so much.
Knowing this, Shifra and I decided that in order to protect ourselves and the fragility of a first relationship, we should keep our “hook up” a secret — and we did. It’s not that we were fearful of homophobic rejection; rather, we knew judgment, stemming from a lack of understanding, was inevitable. Perhaps there’s a connection between the two.
We were able to live in a blissful, secretive bubble, alone, for more than half the summer.
One night, I told Shifra to leave her room and pretend to throw something out in the garbage. I waited outside her cabin. This way we would be able to sync our footsteps on the way back inside and fool everyone — we found this hysterical.
It turns out we weren’t as slick as we thought, and others figured out what we were doing. But when they did, they responded with support and a sense of normalcy — a welcome surprise.
One of our best friends and Shifra’s co-counsellor told us that she had a strangely realistic dream that Shifra and I were kissing in the cabin. The three of us laughed it off as we attended an activity that the older campers put on for the staff. Shifra and I repeatedly stated, “That is so funny, we would never do that,” until our friend’s eyes got wider and wider, and she confirmed it for herself. She yelled: “I knew it,” but couldn’t say more with the campers around.
After the campers leave, there are a few days for staff to clean the camp and prepare it for winter, called closing.
Closing that particular summer was bittersweet. The weather became cooler and there was a persistent drizzle. I was moving to Ottawa to start my first year of university. Although I had an indescribable life change on the horizon, it was impossible not to soak in those remaining moments. One morning of closing, we woke up to find a bird caught in the small opening of Shifra’s window. Simultaneously enamoured and concerned for the bird’s life, we fled the room to fetch our friends from a neighbouring cabin. What ensued for over an hour was the four of us, coaxing the bird from one place that it flew and hid, to another, laughing as we tried to save its life before finally releasing it back into the wild.
As bizarre as that morning was, I recognize how it was the first time we were outwardly together, out in the open. With this accomplishment and a newfound sense of maturity, we were able to deal with the unexpected challenges that lay ahead.
Later that morning, Shifra received a call that her grandfather had a stroke. I was there when she got the call. Leaning on her bunk, I watched a look of shock creep upon her face. As she stood there, overlooking a pile of garbage we had just swept up, I was at loss for words.
That moment, I realized the reality of the liminal space we were entering. It was such a stark and sudden reminder of our impending reintegration into everyday life — “returning to civilization” — as we said at camp. I held her, but I knew I had to leave her in a matter of days.
How can you be there for someone if you are not physically there?
On the last day of camp, Shifra and I signed the wall of her room, commemorating our summer together. It was small, casual and comically blunt: “lots of great lesbian sex happened here . . . we’ll let you guess who.”
It was something I hoped another LGBTQ2 kid could find on the corner of the wall and laugh about in the future. This is not a suggestion that Shifra and I had to fight for our rights or experienced any blatant homophobia; I think that our initial secrecy was us struggling to accept it for ourselves.
The notion of change is something I have grappled with and had a hard time understanding, especially last year. Locations change, circumstances change, needs change and people change; we hope that these changes can offer some degree of nuance to our lives.
I had an incredible first year of university, but Shifra and I went from speaking several times a day to not at all — a deafening silence.
I realized that in love, it is important to cherish the early moments filled with innocence and mutual understanding.
When I returned to camp this past summer, the change our relationship underwent during the year was illustrated no clearer than the absence of the message we had left. The wall was either destroyed or moved somewhere else. Nothing remained except our memories.
Looking back, that time in Jewish summer camp was a season of discovery, trust and intimacy. It was intense and condensed — and we fooled no one but ourselves.