Gabe Goldberg shared his story, about how Camp
changed his life, at The BB Camp Bash on April 22, 2017
My name is Gabe Goldberg and it’s a privilege beyond words to be here tonight with you.
As a 10-year old boy I brought home paperwork from the MJCC and insisted I sign up for BB Camp. That’s how I remember it, my dad tells the same story, so by all accounts it’s true.
What started that summer propelled my life in a far different direction than it could have gone. I would have made friends and gone to college, and had great experiences of course. But what happened that summer and the subsequent summers and months in between…changed, well pretty much everything.
The Fall of my first camp summer my mom died at her own hands; it was a violent death by any standards. I came to grips with her suicide over years, and also the years of abuse I’d suffered from her while she was alive, not to mention being an only child in a divorce I was told in its day was “the longest divorce in the history of Oregon”, and 3 custody cases that finally ended when my mom passed.
So. That’s a lot of information. Why in the world does it matter? Why am I here telling you any of this?
The people I met that first summer as a 10-year old boy would become my foundation and have a profoundly positive impact on the rest of my life. They introduced me to Judaism in a way I could understand. They taught me I was ok. They taught me I had a voice. They taught me I could rely on them. They held me accountable to my word. They made me laugh. They made me not take it all that seriously. And most importantly they probed when they knew I was trying to deflect and pretend it wasn’t serious at all. They saw me.
And they told me they loved me not in spite of my imperfections, but because of them.
They pushed me to be me. Flaws and all.
They stuck with me when their own lives took inevitable twists and turns. Their own rough jobs, challenges with their own families, relationships that didn’t turn out they way they’d planned, divorces, parents getting sick and parents dying.
But when we were younger we joined BBYO together, went on road trips, college, dances, lived together, traveled far together, were in each other’s weddings, and have attended funerals together. And now as a 44-year old with a few reflections in my rear view mirror, I can tell you that the BB Camp family I met, the family I chose and who chose me as a 10-year old, who stayed with me, who expanded my circle, and were my roommates, confidents, brothers, sisters, have taught me the most important lesson of all: how to live in optimism.
And as part of the Jewish practice, studying to live in a love, positivity, confidence, and resilience so powerful, they can push out cynicism and despair…even when they try really really hard to creep back in.
I look around the room and I see many of the people who’ve changed my life. Aaron Pearlman, having you ask me to speak is far more an honor than you realize. I idolized you. You showed me what leadership and fairness looked like, you spoke truth, were an individual, you were always kind, you were always a teacher. Thank you.
Doug Blauer. You showed me what it was like to pour your heart into everything and I think I’ve talked about “love being the answer” with you more than anyone and I love you for that. I see my counselors who guided me, the campers I counseled, my cabin-mates, and clear as day I remember cabin raids, Stephanie Schneiderman and her beautiful smile and gorgeous voice leading services and song sessions, and singing her song “I’ll Be There For You”
And maybe even more I remember Michelle Hasson singing her version of Stephanie Schneiderman’s “I’ll Be There For You” and co-writing terribly awesome poetry together — she still has them printed in 2 books she calls “keepsakes”, but I think Michelle actually means “evidence.” And I remember her teaching me the wisdom of evenhandedness and I love you for that.
By the way, I also remember the game “Escape from Russia” and that was terrifying as a kid. I remember making out with friends because they had strep throat because we all wanted to be in the infirmary together. I see the friends I did everything bad with for the first time with; mostly at my soul-brother Robbie’s beach house who has been a lifelong partner in crime and I love you. And camper, camper… I did go to KOA! (Sorry Jeff Lann, wherever you are).
And I know my circumstances may have been extreme, but the people who stayed in my life from BB Camp, and those I’ve met that have gone, have all learned the same lasting lessons. We learned the power of tradition, trust, questioning, challenging, loyalty, forgiveness, passion, mistakes, embracing those mistakes to learn, and the importance of letting go of what hurts you.
There are those people in your life who are your touch points. And what’s remarkable is that you, and the people I see regularly and even those who I don’t see so regularly have continued to fill my soul and be my family of choice. I’m so blessed to have a really big family. Even if you don’t know it, you’re in my heart.
I could say “camp saved my life” and turn this into a poetic metaphor to keep my guard up. But that would be dishonest to the virtues I learned in Neotsu. Because that’s not what any of you have taught me. That’s not what I learned at Shabbat Walk, or Friendship Circle, or at The Cove, or on overnights or in my long talks with Sheryl Singer when she taught me the value of saying exactly what I meant. And lead by example. And even when we’d have those conversations during Saturday morning services…and Scott Zacks and Mike Laschiver would tell us to shut up and pay attention.
Because the real truth is a that metaphor wouldn’t do this conversation justice. Camp and the people who are in this room today and those who couldn’t make it actually did save my life. I know that to be true.
This was my family before I had siblings to talk to. You helped me become nothing more than just “me.”
And for a gay-boy who didn’t even know what that meant in 1983, who was scared and lonely, and was dealt the hand he was dealt, you taught me how to play the hell out my cards.
You taught me I was enough. And that being enough was worth sharing.
I had my first kiss at camp with Leslie Corey.
I fell in love with a boy for the very first time at camp.
I’m unbelievably blessed. I have the most incredible, smart, generous, and handsome husband Willie Mullins. He is my partner and my rock and I met him in New York where I lived for 17 years before we moved to Mercer Island. We married last summer after being together for over 9 years.
Thank you for voting for our right to marry. It sounds like it’s Willie and my turn to give back and help some other people in this crazy political environment we’re living in.
But that’s exactly the point. And I learned how to dig deep because that’s what camp teaches you
- In those nights when you first leave home and you miss your comforts
- And learn how to cooperate and work together, organize yourselves and clean the boys bathroom, which nobody wants to do
- And you’ve overpacked those ridiculous trunks and need help moving them down those steep cement stairs from someone you’ve just met
- Or you’re homesick and making a friendship bracelet with Spookie helps take your mind off it
Or you ask Michael Shulman to go tell Lisi Mezistrano you think she’s cute as a 10-year old. And she ends up becoming more than just that cute girl, or a friend, or roommate, or now-neighbor, but a soulmate.
- Or when Adam Sussman sits with you on the steps of the dining hall for hours to understand why a song made you sad
- Or you get excited because your bunk-mate finally got the care package he was waiting for
- Or you hear about whatever girl just made-out with Robbie Bodner
- Or your whole Teen Village cabin gets busted for being idiots.
You learn what it means to be a brother.
Because the thing about camp is that is that it’s not like school where you have the luxury of going home at the end of the day and re-presenting the best version of yourself the next day. At camp, for better or worse, people see all of you. And you have to come to terms with your own imperfections and revealing those to other people. And you have to come to terms with other people’s imperfections. And learn to love each other and get along.
And those remarkable friendships carry the weight history when Amy Hornsten, who’s now married to Doug Blauer, ends up becoming a teacher to you younger brothers and blesses them with the lessons of love, joy, and learning she taught me.
BB Camp is nothing short of magic.
So I ask you all to dig deep tonight.
I know many of you have kids who are starting to form those sacred bonds that will get them through the best times and experiences. And also the most trying times and heartbreaks they don’t even know are coming. They’re going to need camp. Because it’s about those summers and has nothing to do with those summers. It’s the first time you get to be yourself and start to figure out what that means . And the openness of BB Camp enables that freedom and celebrates that vulnerability.
BB Camp is worth it. The friendships and family are worth it. The gifts you’re about to give children who don’t even know just how much they need camp yet…are worth it.
They say you’re the average of the 5 people you surround yourself with. I look out and see a heck of a lot more than 5. And if that expression is even close to true, I’m know I’m all good.
Thank you for giving me this distinct honor of telling you all just how much I love you and appreciate the family you’ve given me. I have a box of colors. And I can’t wait to see you again.
Ami. My people.