Jamie Simon and Aaron Mandel are the director and assistant director (respectively) of Camp Tawonga in Groveland, CA.
This second in a series of four blog entries, “Why Camp?” will examine some of the benefits that Jewish residential camping can provide for children based on the four part mission of Camp Tawonga. To read part one, click here.
Part 2: Creating a Cooperative Community
“The friends you make become a part of you.”
These words are sung as part of the classic camp song “Stars in the Sky.” Ringing out from the voices of children around the Camp Tawonga dining hall, they speak to some of the most profound benefits that camp can provide for children: friendship, connection to others and the skills needed to participate in community.
When a child first comes home from camp they’ll talk excitedly about how high they climbed on the ropes course and show off a lanyard or a friendship bracelet made at the art studio. These material takeaways from camp are exciting and important but as the passage of time fades them away, the more permanent truths of camp emerge: the friends.
The weeks and years at summer camp teach young people some very important skills about how to live together in a group. We emphasize this through the “group centered” camping model to which Tawonga subscribes. This model allows our counselors to deeply get to know each of the campers in their bunk and the group as a whole, as they are not asked to also double as activity specialists. Their only jobs are supporting the campers and leading the bunk. The counselors are trained in camper management, building the group, leading bunk discussions and facilitating consensus-decision making.
Spending these weeks together in such close community forms a bond between camp friends that is unlike any other. The mere weeks spent together at camp create a bond between friends that far surpasses that which is formed in the endless months of school. Why is this? It is because the time at camp is a time where you are living for more than yourself. You are part of a group, in good times and bad, your failures and successes interwoven with those of your bunkmates in an intricate latticework of solidarity.
The world we live in is a communal one; to have successful and fulfilling lives almost everyone needs to participate in various communities and groups. As noted journalist David Brooks said, “Creativity is not a solitary process. It happens within networks… when talented people get together, when idea systems and mentalities merge.” Friendship plus group skills is a simple equation for success. Beyond the skills to simply succeed remains that timeless truth of camp, friendships that last a lifetime. We have seen countless friends who met at camp standing hand in hand under the chuppah together, sharing a freshman dorm room in college or calling each other for parenting advice, tapping forever into that sense of community and camaraderie that is such a treasured part of camp.
For many summers, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin has had a robust theater program where, like many other Ramah camps, campers mount productions of Broadway musicals in fully translated Hebrew. The Ramah camps also happen to have a unique program called the Tikvah program, which provides opportunities for campers with intellectual, physical, and/or developmental disabilities to attend Jewish summer camp. In the summer of 2002, counselors at Ramah Wisconsin decided to try creating a platform for Tikvah campers to perform in their own, self-written Jewish play for the camp community. There were many in the camp who were nervous about this idea for several good reasons. But the green light was given and a project was born.
The idea was to create a play based on Breishit, the creation story in the book of Genesis. There were 12 campers.The campers were split into six groups with each group consisting of two Tikvah campers and one counselor. Each group focused on a different day of creation. And each group was tasked with not only writing a skit, but creating a visual image of their day (a sun, a tree, etc.). The performance itself was presented in a low-key atmosphere as a ‘lunch theater’ in the auditorium at camp. Just the oldest campers were invited to the performance and as they came in to the auditorium, everyone grabbed plates of spaghetti from the buffet and sat down to eat their dinner and watch some theater. One by one, each group got up to perform their scene, and then placed their visual image on the back wall of the stage and then sat back down to continue eating. It felt like a casual series of cute performances. And then for the last day of creation (Shabbat – God’s day of rest), all the campers came back on stage and fell asleep. The show was a huge success! Everyone talked about it for days and the campers felt so proud of themselves.
The next summer, a new idea was hatched. The counselors decided that for that summer’s Tikvah Lunch Theater, the rehearsal process would be opened up to several camper volunteers who wanted to work with the Tikvah campers to help them create their show. The only problem? 15 campers listed Tikvah Lunch Theater as their first choice activity. There were only 15 campers in all of Tikvah! So what did they do? They let them all in, and 30 campers performed in that year’s Tikvah Lunch Theater. No counselors had to help write the scripts or perform. The campers did it all themselves. It was a show about superheroes in the Torah (Joseph, Miriam, etc.). But it could have been a show about superheroes at camp. That’s what it felt like.
Fast forward to 2012: the 11th annual Tikvah Lunch Theater had a standing room only crowd. It has become a marquee event in the camp calendar. What is most exciting to me is that the staff members who were working on it this past summer had no idea that there hadn’t always been such a program as the “TLT.” They just assumed it was something that always existed at camp. This was culture change at its best. This is why people like me choose to work at Jewish summer camp. So we can watch campers and staff members become superheroes before our eyes.
Joel Yanofsky is the author of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.
We figured we were all set. The fellow at the music store near our house assured my wife Cynthia that someone on staff could give my then 12-year-old son, Jonah, guitar lessons. But when she added that Jonah has special needs, he quickly retracted the offer. “We don’t do that,” he said. There was nothing particularly new about this response. Jonah has been disinvited to more than his fair share of parties and had play dates cancelled at the last minute with lame excuses. It doesn’t take long, as the parent of a child with special needs, autism in Jonah’s case, to internalize the word “no.” You’re continually coming to terms with the things your child will probably miss out on. Things other parents take for granted: like finding your child a guitar teacher.Meanwhile, that “no” inside you thickens like a callus. Still, when the rejection comes from outside, especially from someone who doesn’t know your child, the hurt is mixed with an element of surprise. The sting feels fresh all over again.
Of course, the word “yes,” when you do hear it, also comes as a surprise and is all the more gratifying for it. We’d thought about sending Jonah to summer sleep-away camp for a few years, but with no real success. Then, last year, we met Josh Pepin, the director of the Montreal chapter of Camp B’nai Brith and that all changed. Jonah spent a week at the CBB sleep-away camp, an hour’s drive north of Montreal, and the experience was so good, he intends to return this summer for two weeks.
To hear Pepin tell it, his accepting attitude is just part of the camp’s longstanding tradition of diversity, of integrating all kinds of kids. “If you look at the mission of CBB, our special needs program fits it perfectly,” says Pepin, a big, gregarious man in his thirties, who you can’t imagine saying no to anyone, “Our idea is that kids, no matter their background, or where they come from, what language they speak, what socioeconomic background they come from or how they function, deserve a summer camping experience. I’m no professional in the special needs milieu, but I know we have to keep integrating special needs kids. Not just for them but for all our campers and our staff. Kids like Jonah are such a beautiful part of our camp.”
Pepin never went to sleep away camp himself, not as a camper – “I’m a mama’s boy,” he confesses – but when he was 18, he lost a bet with a friend and ended up as a counselor at CBB. He continued to work there summers for a decade, met his best friends, and also his wife there. After taking on a few other jobs in Montreal’s Jewish community, he came back to CBB as director in 2010. Along with the emphasis on diversity at CBB, Jewish identity is paramount for Pepin. “That’s why we exist,” Pepin says, “to offer kids opportunities that they may not otherwise have if they don’t go to Jewish day schools or belong to a synagogue. As camp director, I consider myself an informal educator. And I have an opportunity, here, to shape young Jewish minds and identities.”
He also gets the chance to say “yes” a lot more than “no.” For which my family is grateful.
Incidentally, we found a guitar teacher for Jonah. He also turned out to be Jonah’s shadow at CBB last summer. I’ll be writing more about him and about the importance of shadows in an upcoming blog.