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On Camp Kesem and Magic

November 15
by
James Williams
in
Health
with
.

Speak with anyone within the Camp Kesem community- counselor, camper, benefactor, family member, or friend of the organization- about “what Camp Kesem means,” and you will almost certainly hear the word “magic” within five to ten minutes of conversation.


I’m being generous with my estimate. More likely it will tumble out of their mouths, as if involuntarily, within the first few breathless, beaming seconds of their response.

I have found this to be an uncommonly reliable phenomenon: those who have experienced Camp Kesem will talk about Camp Kesem, and those who talk about Camp Kesem will talk about it in terms of the word magic and all its derivative forms (i.e. magical, magically, #MagicMonday, etc.). This has something to do with the fact that Kesem, roughly translated from Hebrew, means magic.

It has more to do, it seems, with the emotions the community inspires in people and the feeling that something supernatural is driving the relationships and experiences born of a week-long summer camp for children whose parents have or have had cancer.

I have been a Camp Kesem counselor for three years but have been deeply suspicious of the maudlin and melodramatic for over twenty-two. So I feel qualified to comment on this subject of magic as it relates to Kesem.

My hope is to respond to these questions honestly and thoroughly: among hundreds of philanthropic organizations and charitable causes, how can Camp Kesem be considered unique? And if it can be, does this uniqueness have anything at all to do with magic?

Of course, trying to answer these questions inevitably calls to mind scenes from camp. Most people who have participated in Camp Kesem would feel compelled to rely on something to the effect of, “you just have to be there” when challenged about the magic of camp. And while the effect of camp is probably more profoundly understood firsthand, I realize that not everyone can or will experience it.

So for the purposes of this piece, I’ll do my best to describe two personally impactful moments from camp and explain whether or not I find anything magical in the memory of them. Camp Kesem is a lot of fun. Watch our videos on YouTube if you need convincing. There are songs, sports, crafts, kayaks, rope courses, relay races, zip lines and zorbs. There are entire afternoons dedicated to covering people in shaving cream. The phrase “ice cream dance party” is used with surprising regularity.

But what is arguably most fun about camp are the small moments, the frequent chances to laugh and interact with kids who are happy to be alive in the moment and place they are in.

I watched one of my fellow counselors start to eat a cracker just as one of our ten-year-old campers asked him a question about the day’s schedule. He seized the opportunity and spat out most of the cracker as he answered her. She started to laugh and told him not to speak with his mouth full.

He stuffed in another two crackers and insisted over the sound of his chewing and spewing that there was nothing in his mouth. She started laughing harder, and he immediately added another. More flying cracker bits, more laughter. A simple formula.

Half a dozen saltines later (this the epitome of dry humor), the joke had only become funnier to our camper. She was hooked on the bit and this little girl- her mother’s body riddled with tumors- was unable to stifle her joy.

She managed to catch her breath long enough to gasp something that even now strikes me as especially meaningful: “I just can’t stop laughing.”

The great majority of interactions at Camp Kesem are similar in tone to the one I just described: lively, lighthearted, and characterized by joy. Given the nature and purpose of the camp, however, there are also those moments that feel very different: deeper, weightier, and perhaps more difficult to understand. In these instances it isn’t always clear what to say or how to behave, other than to convey some sense of sympathy and support.

At last summer’s camp, I was woken up one night by one of my kids crying. This particular camper was eight years old at the time, perfectly happy and good-natured in all the time I had spent with him. His crying wasn’t loud or labored enough to make me think that he was in physical pain. It sounded soft and steady, as if it had been dammed up for some time and was now flowing out naturally.

I went over to him and asked him what was wrong. He said he didn’t know. I asked if something had upset him that night. He said that nothing had. I asked if something had scared him. He said that he didn’t know what he was scared of. I asked if there was anything I could do for him. He told me he wasn’t sure.

I stood next to his bed for a few more minutes while he continued his almost inaudible cry. Eventually he seemed to tire himself out, all of his emotional energy spent. When I thought he had fallen asleep, I started to walk back to my bed. He called my name very quietly.

“I don’t know.” He sounded like he was trying to explain himself to me. “I just don’t know why I was crying.”

Much of what people involved with Camp Kesem mean when they talk about magic is captured within these two stories and others like them. Now, of course, there’s nothing magical about laughing or crying per se. It’s certainly remarkable to see kids face their parent’s illness with cheerfulness, resilience, and grace. And it is jarring to feel so emotionally connected to someone you might have known for only a few days.

But those feelings themselves aren’t necessarily otherworldly or magical. For something to be considered supernatural, it must transcend the ordinary in such a way that it belongs to a definitively different state: what is becomes something wholly different than what was.

When we talk about cancer, we know we’re talking about a disease of abnormality. There are cells growing abnormally in a person’s body. By definition, it isn’t right, and it’s not the way things are supposed to be. And it is the task of doctors and scientists and lab technicians and tens of billions of dollars to return the body to normalcy.

But what can be done to oppose cancer if we’re not researchers in a lab and our donations are subject to limitations?  I believe Camp Kesem has provided something close to the perfect answer to that question. We recognize that cancer affects more than just cells and tissue.

Grief is the illness; despair is the disease. So what do we do? We strive for normalcy. We make things right again.

That means we laugh if we want to. That means we cry when we need to. That means we make memories and spend time with the people we love. It would seem, after all, that these are the things we should be doing.

And if Camp Kesem can really, authentically, absolutely change the abnormal qualities of a child’s life and return them to something resembling normalcy, then one must start to wonder what kind of work this organization is doing. What words can we use to describe such a change?

Ask any Camp Kesem camper what they would do with just one magic power and the answer (after a few obligatory comments about becoming a billionaire, invisible, or able to fly) is sure to be the wholesale eradication of cancer from the face of the earth. The disease would simply be no more.

With magic, they might tell you, we could finally beat cancer.

It would not have been obvious to me, before attending camp, how their desire for some magical relief from their concerns might be realized. It was only in forming relationships with campers and other counselors that I started to understand what was really happening at Camp Kesem. This was the instrument by which wishes became reality.

It was the process of empowering our kids with some of the magic they hoped and prayed for.

If they couldn’t rid the world of cancer, then at least maybe they had a chance to rid themselves of its devastating incidental effects: feelings of fear, loneliness, and helplessness in childhood.

Witnessing and participating in this process feel just a little bit different than any other charitable cause I have been a part of. It feels something like magic. And so it feels like Kesem.

Some of the more pragmatic readers of this piece will be disposed to stop short of invoking the supernatural and will instead invest in the wonders of oncological research. While I commend those efforts, I can assure all of my fellow skeptics that this organization is as important in the fight against cancer as any other.


Our fight is taken up on the front of childhood, of innocence, of peace of mind, and of a normal way of life. As we continue to battle, we look to the care of the wounded.      

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