AHUVA & MEIR BALOFSKY
When/how/where at camp did you meet?
We met at Camp Moshava Ennismore in 1995 – she was a CIT and I was a second year staff. We were just friends for the first summer but the second summer she was a first year staff and I was a unit head. I specifically asked that my good friend be on my staff/in my unit. It worked out and that summer I ended up asking her out.
Was it love right away?
No. Were just friends for the first year and most of the following summer.
What happened between you when camp ended that summer?
She went to Israel for a year in Seminary and I was in University in Toronto. We did the long distance relationship thing – back before phone calls were free and were still around a dollar a minute.
Will you send your kids to your camp?
Ahuva and I made Aliyah in 2004 with our three children, Moshe, Ariel and Shoshana. Then for the following summer we ended up applying to go back to camp for the first time since the summer that we got together in 1996. Long story short, it worked out and we’ve been going back every year since with our children. Our daughter, having been to camp every summer of her life since she was 1 year old, is finally old enough to be a full session camper this year!
Meir and Ahuva Balofsky were both raised in Toronto and attended Camp Moshava as campers but their paths never really crossed until they met in 1995. They were married in September of 1997 and both graduated from York University’s Jewish education teacher training program. They lived in Toronto, teaching in Jewish day schools, and raising their three children until 2004 when they made Aliyah. Meir currently works for the Israel Experience at Bar Ilan University program as the Informal Education Director and Ahuva teaches at a seminary in Jerusalem as well as teaches English.
It’s hard to believe that we’re now less than 50 days away from the start of another summer! Many campers have been counting down the days with excitement since they returned home from camp last year. “OMG I get to be a CIT this year!!” is one example of a recent Facebook post. And, to be honest, there were many more exclamation points than that.
Indeed, Facebook and other virtual spaces are used more and more by kids, parents, and alumni to connect with one another and build Jewish community. But camp works in part because it gives kids opportunities to feel connected to something larger than themselves. This connection can happen, and increasingly does happen, for more than a few weeks each year.
We recently posted something on our Facebook page that asked folks to complete the following sentence: “Camp Alonim is where I _____.” The range of responses was extraordinary, as was the range of respondents – campers, staff, parents, and alumni. Here is what some of them said: Camp Alonim is where… “I found out what makes me Jewish.” “I started my first band.” “I learned to love Shabbat.” “I feel safe leaving my kids.” “I met my first boyfriend.” “I cowgirl up!” “I developed my Jewish identity and danced!” “I want to be right now.” “I am home.”
Because a picture can be worth a thousand words, we also recently ran a photo contest during which folks shared all sorts of images on our Facebook page that they felt best represented camp. Sprinkled throughout this blog post are some of the pictures that were submitted.
At this point, you might be asking yourself: why all this talk about Facebook when camp is about unplugging from electronics and getting away from the always-on world in which we live? I think the answer is best illustrated by the following story. A few days ago, Jamie, who was one of our teen program advisors last summer and who currently is studying abroad in Israel, posted on Facebook that she just “casually ran into her children” at the Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv. The “children” to whom Jamie was referring are her former campers (by the way, don’t you love how staff refer to the campers as “their kids”?). Jamie shared a surprise reunion with some of her teens, which generated “likes” and “comments” from campers, staff, parents, and her other “children.” This chance encounter in Israel involved generations of camp, and the connection and reconnection extended further than it ever could before.
The connection has to start somewhere. For many kids, camp can be the first link in a lifelong connection to deep, meaningful friendships and active communities infused with the joys of Jewish living. Much of my job as a camp director is to help that first connection form, and then to help incubate all sorts of budding connections so that they can grow and thrive for a lifetime.
As I write this, staff members are being hired to “give back to camp;” parents are searching for white Shabbat clothing; alumni are reuniting with camp friends to celebrate life’s simchas and to support one another when life throws its curve-balls; and new and returning campers are counting down the days until summer. It’s community. It’s connection. It’s camp! And, when it comes to camp, there’s no such thing as too many exclamation points.
After my son, Jonah, was born, our family – Jonah, my wife, Cynthia, and I – became a self-sufficient little island. We were busy; we were also besotted with each other. Our motto, if we’d had one, could have been lifted straight from the classic swashbuckling novel, The Three Musketeers. That’s right: “One for all and all for one.” And while we were lucky enough to have lots of support and help in Jonah’s first few years from immediate family – Cynthia’s parents and my sisters, in particular – we were, for the most part, on our own and liked it that way. Then, just before Jonah turned four, he was diagnosed with autism and our little island was transformed, practically overnight, into a complicated and crowded place, a place we would soon realize we could no longer manage on our own.
Any parent of a child with autism knows the feeling: suddenly, you’re at the mercy of a growing list of so-called experts – psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, educators, speech therapists, occupational therapists, you name it. There are also books to read, organizations to join, bloggers to follow. All of this to say that the notion that it takes a village to raise a child isn’t always as reassuring as it sounds. Eventually, though, you grow used to it. You are now a part of the autism village. Eventually, you also come to appreciate, often treasure, those individuals in your child’s life who are making things easier for him and, by extension, you. Mike Picciuto is such a person. We met him last year when he became the assistant teacher in the class Jonah attended at Summit, a special needs school in Montreal. Actually, before we met him, we’d already heard a lot about him, from Jonah, who talked about this “Mike-fellow” practically non-stop. Parents of children with special needs learn to be pretty good judges of those rare people who can connect with their kids and it was obvious, from the start, that Mike and Jonah were a good fit. We also got lucky since Mike had just the kind of skill-set we were looking for, in addition to patience, kindness and firmness, he’s a pretty good musician and, with him, we found the guitar teacher for Jonah we had been having some trouble finding. The two play together one hour a week, but Jonah is constantly calling Mike on the phone for his practice instructions. In fact, the calls are probably a little too constant, but Mike has yet to complain.
We also found, in Mike, a shadow who could attend sleep-away camp with Jonah. Cynthia and I were understandably nervous when we took Jonah to the bus last summer to send him off for what would be his first real, extended time away from home and I doubt we could have done it if it weren’t for the fact that Mike was going too. It’s probably important to add, here, that sending a shadow to a sleep-away camp with your child can be prohibitively expensive. You have to pay his salary as well as the camp tuition.* Indeed, it is one of those areas where help from “the autism village” might also come in handy. Cost notwithstanding, though, Mike made it possible for Jonah to have a great time at the Camp B’nai Brith near our home in Montreal. And when Cynthia and I picked Mike and Jonah up after the week was over, it was also clear Mike had a great time, too. He was quickly accepted into the camp’s structure and activities and, to hear him tell it, he learned an awful lot – especially about being Jewish.
A Canadian-Italian and a Catholic, Mike admitted to me he wasn’t sure what to expect from a Jewish summer camp, but, in the end, he added, it turned out to be “one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had outside my comfort zone.” He had a crash course in Jewish traditions and rituals, everything from the Wailing Wall – “I’d never even heard of it before” – to Shabbat dinner. “There was a rabbi at CBB who I asked an awful lot of questions. He never hesitated to answer me. I learned something new every day,” Mike told me. “And that one Friday night, the Shabbat dinner, I spent at CBB with Jonah was a real education for me. It was a reminder of how important it is to hold onto your heritage. And not just by saying you have to do this or that, but by explaining all the rituals and all the reasons for doing them. I also liked how much Jonah enjoyed that evening. We sang a lot on that night and I was glad I could be there to help him be a really important part of the Jewish camp experience.”
*Please note, each camp has their own policies and this may not be true for every camp.
This third 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. To read part two click here.
Part 3: Tikkun Olam- a partnership with nature
It is fitting that Earth Day was recently celebrated since a huge part of a camper’s experience of going to camp is being outside, going on adventures with friends in the outdoors and learning to love the natural world with all the benefits it provides.
At Camp Tawonga and countless other camps, simply being there is a literal breath of fresh air. Campers leave the city and suburbs, where they spend 90% of their time, far behind and arrive at a bucolic, peaceful oasis where many of the other goals this blog series has highlighted are allowed to blossom and flourish. Removed from the constant pull of technology and returned to a comfortably rustic style of living, children can connect to more timeless truths. They can appreciate a refreshing dunk in a natural body of water and marvel at the beauty of a sunset, produced not by special effects but simply by the gentle brushstroke of the creator.
Beyond simply enjoying being outdoors, an experience at camp can help campers connect to the deep and ancient Jewish traditions of shomrei adamah (guarding the earth) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). When campers go with their bunks on backpacking trips in the incomparable backcountry of Yosemite National Park, they not only forge deeper bonds with each other but also learn from our staff about the wilderness ethic of “leave no trace” as a way to take care of all places they visit.
Campers also learn that nature is not something that can be taken for granted. More than twenty years ago, Tawonga led a fight in the national forest that surrounds our camp to hold off aggressive logging companies and preserve the land for generations to come. Campers help our maintenance staff with forestry and fire suppression work to learn about responsible management methods.
Campers will come home unconcerned with a grass stain on their shirt and some dirt under their nails. Campers will tell their parents about their most spiritual moment at camp, often not at a formal prayer program, but rather on a solo sit at sunset, spread across a ridge overlooking a valley side by side with their bunkmates, silently staring in awe at the majesty of creation laid out before them, and contemplating their place in it.
What a camp experience can help a child realize is that we are not apart from nature, but rather a part of nature and that there is so much to be gained from engaging in outdoor experiences.
As the Foundation for Jewish Camp shared with the community earlier this year, “Think Outside, No Box Necessary!”
I have been fortunate to be on faculty for something called The Cornerstone Fellowship for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. And one of my favorite moments at Cornerstone is the first meal when everyone is gathered in the dining hall, finishing up their dinner, and a staff member gets up to make announcements. There is a phenomenon at Jewish summer camps to create a ritual around the announcements at meals and each camp has their own unique way of marking the moment.
Some camps repeat everything said by the person making announcements. Some camps bang on the tables. Some camps do all their announcements in Hebrew. Some camps start with birthday announcements that include a room full of people cheering and singing until said birthday-kid ‘skips around the room.’ My favorite, though, is the camps that, upon hearing the word “announcements” bust out into a quite annoying chant about announcements being akin to an unfortunate form of death.
It is that cheer, and that moment, that I look forward to at the end of the first meal of Cornerstone every year. Why? Because we always put a first time staff member in charge of making announcements at the end of the first meal. Whereas us veterans know how to handle the crowd (and avoid saying the dreaded ‘announcements,’ opting for other less lampoonable synonyms), the new person invariably makes the big mistake, launching the room into a good 45 seconds of uncontrollable mayhem. Rookies.
But truly, hazing is not the real reason I love that moment. I love that moment because of all the wonderful things that come from spending a summer at camp, I think one of most important is the instilling of self-confidence. Would a random eight year old kid, in a room with 300 other kids, most of whom are older strangers, stand up on a table and shout silly songs about announcements at the top of her lungs without inhibition? Only at camp. Would a twenty year old jaded college student, majoring in mechanical engineering at an Ivy League school, eating lunch at a conference in a room with 300 other 20 year olds, most of whom are strangers, stand up on a table and shout silly songs about announcements at the top of his lungs without inhibition? Only at camp. And Cornerstone.
Returning counselors are the “cornerstones” of their camp. Each spring, these staff members from Jewish camps varying in denomination come together from all over North America for a several days of professional development consisting of learning not only from the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s seasoned faculty, but also from each other. Fellows share “magic” and ideas between camps, creating a new type of camp community. Over the last 10 years, nearly 1,600 fellows have participated in the transformative experience of The Cornerstone Fellowship. This year’s program will take place May 19-23, 2013 at Capital Camps in Waynesboro, PA.