Carine Warsawski first went to sleepaway camp at 13. Her age made her an “elder” in the girls’ bunks, but, it being her first summer, the title came with little distinction. The other girls navigated the unspoken codes of camp with ease, sporting matching Baby-G watches and Tiffany bean bracelets — only the hottest bat mitzvah gifts for tri-state tweens. But until that summer, sleepaway camp had been a foreign concept to Warsawski and her Peruvian-Israeli parents. She was an obvious outsider. But she caught on quickly.
Before long, she was trading Steve Madden platform sandals and Delia’s catalog clothes with the best of them. She learned that even though camp staff says to wear all white for Shabbat dinner, most kids don’t. And she established herself as a leader, organizing “singles nights” on the soccer field at 3 a.m. — be there or be square.
“It felt like this amazing place of freedom,” she said in a recent Zoom call. “But also people who Got It, like, capital G, capital I. You just felt your bunk was your family and your counselors were the coolest people in the world. I totally drank the Kool-Aid.”
That was at Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, on the same leafy campus where she now runs two annual sessions of Trybal, her own four-day Jewish sleepaway camp. Except hers is for adults. Trybal brings millennials together to experience the golden days of childhood summer camp all year long, powered by a potent mix of nostalgia and Jewish community spirit. She also has summer sessions in California and Wisconsin, and is rolling out a new slate of year-round programming in Boston this October.
Though attendees range in age from their mid-20s to late 30s, Trybal itineraries have more than a little childlike influence. Summer campers choose from close to 50 electives like human foosball, friendship bracelet–making, zip-line paintball, and archery tie-dye. Year-round events include the annual “erev Xmas Eve” dinner at Kowloon and a ski trip in Vermont. The most adult thing about Trybal is the alcohol: Summer campers can break from rounds of slip-n-slide kickball to attend an Ashkenazi mixology workshop or sip from Bubbe’s Beer Garden. Last fall, Trybal organized a Shabbat-inspired “kiddush crawl” that involved a wine tasting (wine), Dunkin’ munchkins (bread), and glow sticks (candles). Just as the Torah intended.
And though adult summer camps have spiked in popularity, Trybal claims to be one of few “socially Jewish” experiences. Before founding Trybal in 2017, Boston native Warsawski worked in Israel travel. She surveyed Birthright alumni, who would often return from their trips “super energized with their Hamsa necklaces” (she pointed to the little opal hand pendant hanging from her own neck) “but after three months start to assimilate back into their everyday pattern,” she said. “I wanted to find a way to sustain that energy and make people feel connected to their Jewish roots close to home.”
Since then, Warsawski has not stopped collecting data about her campers. From various surveys, she’s determined 67 percent of summer attendees identify as “reform or culturally Jewish”; 50 percent are now Trybal alumni returning for another season; and 70 percent of first-timers come not knowing anyone else. She’s also categorized the Trybal community into four subgroups: “Nostalgics,” “Do-overs,” “FOMOs,” and “Tagalongs.” Nostalgics want to re-create their camp days of yore. Do-overs are the “Hebrew school dropouts.” FOMOs never got to experience camp in the first place. And Tagalongs are the “I’ll go if you go” crowd.
Sumner Lewis, who described herself as a “nostalgic-do-over hybrid” in a recent phone call, attended her first Trybal camp this August. The Manhattan–based musical theater performer and climate action organizer adored camp as a kid. When she outgrew it, she went to work for two summers as a counselor at Eisner. Still, to take the Trybal plunge, she needed some convincing.
Lewis, 24, identifies as a Jew of color, and said some Jewish spaces leave her feeling “burnt out” doing “constant advocacy for myself and my sub-community.” But Trybal reminded her of the magic of a healthy Jewish community. “This is my culture and my heritage, these songs are the songs that inspired me to become a musical theater performer, and [being Jewish] is an intrinsic part of who I am,” she said.
Somerville-based HR manager Nikki Ellis, 27, who was one of Lewis’s bunkmates, loved that Trybal was not “religious or pushy.” Instead, “it felt like this really interesting masterclass in Jewish culture and community,” she said over the phone.
Mark Maltz, 37, attended his eighth Trybal camp this August and is still trying to squeeze in electives that he hasn’t gotten to in previous summers. Launching this October, however, a new grant-funded ambassador program will allow Trybal community members to design their own events and experiences around Boston, so Maltz and other campers will be able to keep the spirit alive well after the season ends.
“We provide a place for young adults to experiment with living Jewishly on their own terms, in an environment where people are leading with Jewish joy. We’re like Jewish glitter,” Warsawski said. “When you come to camp, you get covered in it, and when you leave, it’s like you can’t get rid of it. It’s everywhere.”
Each summer session, Warsawski throws campers a dance-filled Saturday night soiree fueled by a full bar. The theme for this year’s first Berkshires crowd was Barbie, complete with pink decorations and a life-size toy box photo-op. Ellis recalled the floor erupting into a 10-minute hora — a traditional Israeli group dance — followed by the Cupid Shuffle. “It was cheesy, amazing middle school dance vibes” but without the grinding, she said.
“You can go to any bar in any city and find someone to sexy-dance with,” Ellis reflected. “But you don’t have a lot of instances to dance like you’re a kid and hold hands and swing around in a circle. It was just wholesome.”
In 2018, Maltz said he initiated an impromptu post-party karaoke jam in the dining hall that lasted until 2 a.m. It’s since become a staple event, with its own gourmet cereal bar setup. Crowd-surfing and group renditions of Backstreet Boys hits are not unusual. Maltz, a soft-spoken accountant from Waltham, almost always performs a country song; this year it was “Your Man” by baritone Josh Turner. In a video taken by an audience member, Maltz can be seen in a broad-brimmed cowboy hat, crooning. The crowd went wild.
The following day, camp came to a close. Before they were dismissed, campers sat in reflection circles and went around the room tapping the shoulders of someone who made them smile, or made them think about something differently, or made the best challah, or played the best pickleball.
When the room was asked who surprised them most, Maltz felt a tap on his shoulder. Must have been the cowboy hat.
Rates for the Berkshires camps ranged from $695 to $975 in 2023. For more information and upcoming events, visit www.trybalgatherings.com.