February 20, 2020

Summer camp love

Every summer for the last three years, staffer Naomi Elman, 23, and her fiance, Mitch Gelfand, 29, have stood on the stage at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley, exchanged rings and said their I-do’s. “Every session at camp there’s a carnival, and at every carnival there’s a fake marriage booth,” Elman explained. “So we’ve gotten married five times on that stage already — three the summer we met, and one every summer thereafter.” 

Naomi Elman and Mitch Gelfand getting practice-married at the marriage booth set up every summer at Camp Alonim. Photo by Tracie Karasik.

Next spring, the couple will go for a sixth try, but this one will be significantly more official: Leo Baeck Temple’s Rabbi Ken Chasen will officiate, and the rings will be made of something a little more durable than plastic. 

Getting married at Alonim has been Elman’s plan as long as she can remember. “Luckily, the groom agreed,” she said. Elman even asked Chasen to officiate when she was 16 — a few years before Gelfand rejoined the summer staff after a hiatus and caught her eye during their orientation.

Camp romances are a hallmark of the American summer. The setting is usually beautiful and idyllic, and with a limited pool of people in constant contact, connections forged are intense and intimate. Not all of these romances last — Gelfand and Elman are both veterans of prior relationships that had succumbed to real-world pressures after the summer’s end — but when they do, the happy couple has a ready-made wedding venue.

The marriage booth at Alonim also played a role in Sara and Hyim Brandes’ 2001 engagement as well — or that was the plan, anyway. Hyim’s idea to get down on one knee with a real ring at the booth was dashed when he discovered that Sara’s coveted time off was scheduled during the festival, and her plan was to be anywhere but in the middle of her campers. Luckily, there was an easy plan B: He offered to accompany her on a hike, and proposed on the ascent.

“I think camp couples get married all over the place,” Sara said. But she and Hyim chose Alonim because of its role in their history as a couple as well as for their families, both of whom have strong ties to the camp. “That we chose to get married there just speaks to the centrality of the place in both of our families’ lives,” Sara said. 

During the ceremony, their rabbi talked about how “this place was created for just this union, just this moment,” she said. “We had that feeling, that it was appropriate in that it was a culmination.”

The camp romance is short-lived much more often than it turns out to be long term: The bonds forged in unusual circumstances and close proximity have trouble adjusting to the strain, distance and business of life in the outside world. But the relationships that do last are often the most resilient ones — and on their wedding day, many couples are thrilled to return to the fantasyland where they first fell in love. 

David Ross and Lauren Schmidt, for instance, said they considered other venues “for about two seconds,” according to Schmidt, before deciding on Camp Ramah in Ojai, where they had met briefly as staffers in 1992. The couple ran into each other again and again over the years, eventually connecting at a different camp, Camp Young Judea near Austin, Texas, nearly a decade later.

“Camp Ramah has always been a foremost source of my identity, my spirituality and my commitment to Judaism. What better place to share this passion than [at Ramah,] with my future bride, our family and friends?” Ross asked.  

One of the biggest threats to the camp romance is simply age — not many people end up married to the object of their tween affections, after all. Not so for Eric and Alexandra Spitz. They met at Camp JCA Shalom in 1993 as 12- and 13-year-olds, respectively, and were each other’s camp crushes — and eventually shared their first kiss. It took another 13 years before they reconnected, but when they did, the chemistry of those early summers was still very much alive. They started planning to get married on their second date. 

When they did, there was no question that the couple would marry at JCA Shalom in Malibu. They also incorporated a few fun camp traditions into the wedding, Alexandra said: “On Shabbat at camp, we would write ‘Shabbat-O-Grams’ to our friends. I found one from Eric from when we were in camp that was signed, ‘I love you.’ We framed it and displayed it with our guest book.” 

There were other festive camp touches as well: “Our tables were numbered as cabins, and each person’s place card was attached to a mini s’mores kit that could be roasted with the lanterns placed on each table. Our favors were flashlights, so everyone could return safely to their cars at the end of the night in the pitch-blackness of camp,” Alexandra said. 

The best of all, though, is when weddings beget more of their kind, as was the case when Rena Kates met her husband Max at the Los Angeles wedding of her cousin, Samantha, to Mike Auerbach in 2009. Mike and Samantha had met at Ramah; Max and Rena, being two years apart, had never had the opportunity to connect at camp. Not so this time. 

“Max saw Rena hanging out with [her brother] Ethan, and casually asked Ethan who she was. Ethan said, ‘Oh, that’s my sister Rena’ and moved on to another topic. But Max didn’t forget!” the couple wrote in an email.

Three years later, Max’s day-long proposal involved printouts of emails he had sent Rena over the course of their relationship, a tour of their favorite places — which, of course, included Ramah — a slice of strawberry shortcake and the joyful blessings of family and friends. When it came to venues, the Kateses agree with Ross and Schmidt: “It was a no-brainer,” Rena said. “What other place has gorgeous mountain views, a special place in our hearts and can accommodate 400 people?”