At the Jewish summer camp I grew up at in the finger lakes of western New York, the big sport was speedball, a madcap combination of soccer, basketball, and football that campers and staff alike enjoyed. I, a deeply uncoordinated indoor kid, routinely grew frustrated by my lack of ability at speedball and would occasionally refuse to play, electing instead to sit on the bench on the sideline. Once, in a fit of boredom, I wandered into the A&C barn next door to the field on which we played, stole some feathers and tape, wandered back to the sideline, and began taping feathers to my arms and legs.

My counselor, an effortlessly cool older-brother figure who was an excellent speedball player, wandered off the field and approached me.  Without addressing the fact that I wasn’t playing, he asked if he could borrow some feathers and tape. Nodding my head, he sat down next to me and quietly began to tape feathers to his arms and legs.  Fellow campers, coming to the sideline to take water breaks, joined us; my counselor obtained more feathers; eventually my counselor invented “chicken speedball” – speedball, played on your knees and using only your elbows, and with communication limited to chicken calls. In this version, we were all equally hilariously inept. I had a blast.

There is a tremendous power in camps adhering to an ethos that says that every camper deserves to be met by camp exactly where they are, and to do their very best to help each camper forge their own path to the transformation that the independence (with training wheels) of camp offers.

It is my sincere belief that our work in the camp kitchen should mirror that ethos. Like the rest of the camp experience, campers should be able to dive in to camp food head-on, discovering new flavors when they are feeling adventurous, and relying on old standbys when they are not.  And while camp food has long strived to hit that goal, the story was not always the same for our community members with special dietary needs.

Years ago, Greene began the process of attempting to be more welcoming to our campers with special diets.  Non-dairy milk made its way into the milk fridge. Gluten-free bread became available; the entire camp kitchen became nut free. No matter the advancements, a problem remained: Greene’s kitchen is built to make a lot of the same dish.  Our gigantic deep fryers, so perfect for frying hundred of chicken nuggets an hour, would cross-contaminate any attempt to fry gluten free nuggets, and so community members with a gluten allergy had their nuggets oven-baked.  Our 6 foot wide griddle, upon which we so lovingly grill twelve hundred grilled cheese sandwiches for a lunch, carries the remnants of cheese that would send our lactose-free friend’s stomachs into fits.

And so, last year we applied for and received an incredibly generous grant from the Houston Jewish Community Foundation to convert a room we had been using as a storage closet in our kitchen to become our dedicated special diets kitchen. We redid a few electrical panels in the dining hall to power a new commercial grade oven, induction burners, griddles, exhaust fan, even a toaster.  We got a dish wash system set up in there so dishes wouldn’t be cross contaminated for even the most sensitive members of our community.

Every part of camp can and should be for every member of our community.  I feel so excited and honored to get to do my part to make that true.

Shabbat Shalom,

Eli Cohn-Wein

Executive Chef and Rental Business Manager