Camp Harlam’s pay phone a relic with a story to tell

This post originally appeared on Camp Harlam’s Summer Central blog.

It’s a relic. Not a fancy relic or an obvious relic, but a relic nonetheless. Outside of the office, just to the left, sits a curious metal box. You could easily miss it. Most people walk right past it. A few days ago I heard a Carmel camper point to it and actually say: “What’s that??!!” “That,” I wanted to tell her, “is the pay phone.”

Every object, every building, and of course, every person at camp has a story to tell. That story, sometimes beneath the surface, can be complex and nuanced, full of emotion and contradictions, and hopefully love. We look up at our beloved Chapel on the Hill and we know that its story is not just: Here lies a large wooden shelter atop a hill. It is so much more than that. It is a symbol of Shabbat. It is a symbol of serenity. It is a symbol of possibility. It is beauty and tradition. It is a towering constant in a world (our Camp Harlam world) that continues to evolve.

At Harlam in particular, the stories beneath every surface are rich and spectacular. We look at places and buildings and we remember times spent there, conversations had there, the learning that happened there. We look at seemingly innocuous fields and pagodas and we see in our mind’s eye a thousand Maccabiah moments or tefilah moments or moments of reflection. What looks like a dining hall or a cabin is in fact much more than that. These things are holy reminders of the life we get to live here, the people we get to be here, the dreams we get to dream here.

Which takes us back to the pay phone. Most of us haven’t used a pay phone in ages. They don’t exist anymore, really. Seriously. When was the last time you used one? Many people I know don’t even make phone calls. It’s all text and Facebook messenger. It’s Snapchat and Vine.

In spite of all of this, the pay phone at camp survives, still. There it is. Right by the office. I’m sure its days are numbered now. There’s something sad about that. To me, its survival symbolizes the fact that we allow for a different reality here. We live on a different level, somehow outside of time.

For me, I see that pay phone and I remember staff members lining up to use it twenty years ago. I remember making collect calls, buying calling cards, or waiting there patiently for a phone call from home. I remember first speaking with my college roommate from that phone on an August night decades ago now. I remember calling my grandparents to check in on them.

That phone somehow united all of us, as so many things at camp do. Now it’s a symbol of what was. It is indeed a relic. And, of course, when they do inevitably take it down, few people will even notice. Some of us will. And that’s fine. After all, what matters most at Harlam are not the buildings or the pagodas, or even the Chapel on the Hill. That’s not why we come here. We come here for the extraordinary people. We come here for their friendship and support and their willingness to laugh with us. We come here because they help us to remember, year after year.

Camp Harlam is a URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) camp located in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. 


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