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  • Writer's picturejamesbriankerr

All are Welcome in Nature’s Garden: Reflections on a Diverse Labor Day Weekend Camping Trip

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

Random musings on my vagabond existence in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania and wherever else life takes me.

Rachael and I spent the Labor Day holiday on an extended camping trip at Promised Land State Park in the Poconos.

It was our first time at Promised Land, which is one of the largest and oldest state parks in Pennsylvania. Promised Land was officially designated a state park way back in 1905 when Pennsylvania, under then-governor Samuel Pennypacker, was just beginning a conservation push to protect state forestlands that were devastated by logging, mining, and other commercial pursuits. (Fun fact: State parks today represent 1% of PA’s total land area.)

Rachael and I were impressed by the pristine beauty and spaciousness of the park and the adjacent Delaware State Forest, which offer dozens of well-maintained hiking trails in a combined area of more than 15,000 acres. Kudos to the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for the great job it does managing Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests for the enjoyment not just of residents but out-of-towners as well.

When we arrived at the park early last Friday afternoon, the campground was just starting to fill up. By the end of the day, every site in our loop was taken as campers got ready for the holiday weekend. Along with the Pennsylvania license plates, we saw plenty of plates from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The Pocono Mountains, being just a two-hour drive (on a good traffic day) from New York City, are a popular destination for city folks wanting to get away to the country for a weekend trip.

Now, let it be said that I like peace and quiet when I’m camping, and there wasn’t much of that to be found for the first few nights of our trip. Any ambient birdsong was drowned out by the throng of blaring radio music, barking dogs, and shouting kids from surrounding campsites. One site had a blow-up bounce house for the kiddies. Another was doing a public showing of a Disney movie on a huge projector screen draped between two trees.

Yeah, not exactly my definition of peace and quiet.

And yet, I was aware that the people camping with us over the holiday weekend saw things quite differently. For them, having a chance to get away from the noise and commotion of the big city to camp under the stars was very much the definition of peace and quiet. For the most part, everyone was quite friendly and respectful. At night, the volume of noise and music came down and the darkness was filled with the buzz of conversation and the crackle of logs in campfires. This is what makes camping special.

As we walked the campground, Rachael and I heard a good deal of Spanish being spoken, not to mention a fair number of unmistakable New York accents. Then on Sunday afternoon, a huge van the size of an Amazon Prime truck entered the loop.

The van, being driven by a middle-aged bearded man in a hat, moved uncertainly through the loop before pulling into the site next to us, which had been vacated a couple hours earlier by the family camping there. The van backed in and out poured a horde of young men, also bearded and hatted.

Almost as soon as the group unpacked their things and set up their tents (three of them), the radios came out and the music began. I didn’t recognize the music or the language it was being sung in, but whatever it was, it sure was loud. Adding to the noise, one of the young men retrieved a guitar and a drum from the van and alternated between playing songs and thrumming away on the drum.

By now, it was getting dark and Rachael and I worked on starting a campfire. As we sat by the fire, struggling to hear each other talk, I commented that it was going to be a long night with our new rowdy neighbors. She nodded.

Just then, the middle-aged man, who I assumed to be a father of some of these young men, approached our campfire.

“If the music’s too loud, just let us know and we’ll turn it down,” he said.

Wanting to be polite, I told him it was fine, but within a minute, the music level had come down to a whisper. The young man playing the guitar moved into the woods and soon we heard him singing quietly in a melodious voice. Another young man was reading passages from what looked to be a Bible. Yet another was working on lighting a charcoal fire.

“Does anyone here know how to cook?” we heard him say.

Just then, the young man reading Scripture verses came toward us, offering a can of Truly spiked seltzer. I politely declined, but Rachael, being the more social of us two, gladly took the can. She, in turn, offered the group one of our bottles of shandy.

Before we knew it, we had struck up a conversation with them. They were, we discovered, Orthodox Jews from New York. The middle-aged man introduced himself as Rabbi Moishe Feiglin, director of the ALIYA Institute, a non-profit Chabad house in Brooklyn that runs programs for at-risk teens and young adults in the Brooklyn Jewish community. (ALIYA stands for “Alternative Learning Institute for Young Adults.”)

The young men in the group were not his sons, Moishe told us, but rather members of the institute out for a night of camping. They’d rented the van and driven two and a half hours to get here. It was their first time at the park, the rabbi told us—indeed, the first time most of these kids had ever camped.

“I hope we’re not disturbing you,” he said.

“Not at all,” I said.

We went back to our trailer and enjoyed a night of peaceful sleep. In the morning, our neighbors went off to do some hiking. Later in the morning after they returned and were breaking down their tents to leave, Rachael and I wandered over to say goodbye.

What followed was a most pleasant half-hour of conversation with Moishe and the young men. We spoke about our different religions, Judaism and Christianity; how we were all children of God; how important it was not to allow religious doctrine get in the way of our common humanity.

One of the young men, whose name was Josef, regaled us with a guitar version of Psalm 121, which he sung in Yiddish while Moishe interpreted for us in English.

We took pictures. Moishe asked us if we wanted the group's charcoal grill—they’d bought it for the trip and were unlikely to use it again. He also offered us a few leftover steaks that were likely to spoil otherwise on the long ride back to Brooklyn.

We exchanged phone numbers, agreed to stay in touch. One of the young men asked about my book and how to get a copy of it.

When they drove away, I was struck by how wrong I was in my initial impressions of the group. They weren’t rowdy at all; they were peace-loving, spiritual creatures like us, just of a different stripe.

Is this not the promised land of this country, that people of different backgrounds, religions, and beliefs can all coexist peacefully in the great melting pot that is America?

By noon on Monday, Labor Day, most of the campground had cleared out as the campers went home. Rachael and I stayed on for another day. As I reflected on all the diversity we experienced over the trip, of regions and ethnicities and languages, all camping together under the same set of stars over the holiday weekend, I was reminded of one of my favorite Cat Stevens songs, “All Kinds of Roses.”

All kinds of roses are welcome in Nature’s garden. All that she requires is kindness and mutual respect.

If you're interested in donating to the wonderful work being done by the ALIYA Institute, here's the link. Shalom!

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Nov 04, 2023

Little did you know after this lovely moment that, just one month later, these young men would be living in fear here in their own country. The country we share.

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