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Adding up the lessons from Jewish-Russian math camp

Jewish-Russian math camp. Credit: Courtesy of Diana Burmistrovich.
Jewish-Russian math camp. Credit: Courtesy of Diana Burmistrovich.

By Diana Burmistrovich/

Camp is not unlike a cult. The same songs are sung every year almost religiously, traditions are obeyed almost ritualistically, and previous generations are responsible for passing down myths of years past. I have yet to meet someone who has gone to the same sleep-away camp for multiple years in a row that would disagree.

Here’s the thing: I went to math camp. Russian math camp. Run by Jews. Whenever American friends mocked me for subjecting myself to rigorous math in the summertime, I found myself explaining that I couldn’t imagine going anywhere or doing anything else.

An extension of Boston’s Russian School of Mathematics, this camp was filled by students who had realized the war against parental will and math lessons was best fought together. We were told that knowing math prepared us for the future. At some point, we bit the bullet. We wanted to spend more time with our peers than the time we got during breaks in math class. Because discovering our individual genius took up a lot of time, we decided to kill two birds with one stone and all go to math camp during the summer.

At the time, most campers were first or second generation Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. No, we didn’t don fur hats and chug vodka every evening, but we were taught that the cooks deserved a loud spasibo after every meal. No one cleaned the bathrooms and showers unless we did it ourselves. When we had evening activities, we impersonated KVN with our own skits and songs. When weather was particularly horrible, we’d watch a movie exploring our Jewish identities. I will never forget the room full of sobbing campers during our viewing and discussion of Everything is Illuminated.

Otherwise, the camp looked like any other. Up a dirt road and through thick brush sat a brick-colored garage. What might otherwise have looked like a decrepit abandon was saved by a massive garage door, almost always open, revealing a well-stocked arts & crafts area teeming with children. Some sat on a wooden bench braiding what would eventually become friendship bracelets. Others sat by the clay spinning wheel, others were guided by pottery teachers in molding intricate figurines. Camp Sunapee was very much like any other camp, but it was served with a side of mental butt-kicking and community building.

This is where I tell you about the lessons I learned throughout the years. Not only did I learn that the proper attire for Shabbat dinner was not a tube top and jeans,that every day should start with a workout comparable to jazzercisingor that mice are extremely attracted to contraband raspberry Milano cookies, but I kind of learned some math as well. (Granted, anyone who knows me knows my mathematical prowess was only mildly honed after years of diligent instruction from expert mathematicians—I went to journalism school for a reason.)

What’s most important is not the stories themselves, but what we did with the knowledge afterwards. Camp director Inessa Rifkin and her husband Victor provided the outlet, but we ourselves built the experience. In turn, we were creating our own place among the greater Russian Jewish community of Boston. Our roles evolved from camper to adult. Most of us remained friends after the session finished, and we became involved in activities that strengthened the Russian Jewish identity.

Some used the knowledge they gained to become lawyers, doctors, financiers, and even journalists. Others strengthened their connection to Jewish culture on a larger scale: Camp Sunapee became a sister camp to the Children of Sderot program, allowing campers in the war-torn region next to Gaza to have a few weeks of solace every summer.

Surely, each vignette from camp was memorable. But looking back, it is clear that my identity correlates to the sum of those stories from Camp Sunapee. The fact that I had to do math during the summer was well worth it, in exchange for being surrounded by such an amazing, smart, and supportive community—and I wasn’t just brainwashed to say that.

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