This is the last in a series of four blog entries called “Why Camp?”
Part 4: Spirituality and Positive Jewish Experience at Camp Tawonga
Summer camp is the ideal environment for positive Jewish engagement because it is the place children experience what sociologist Emile Durkheim coined, “collective effervescence.” This is the uniquely powerful shared group phenomenon in which a certain “electricity” is generated that transports the participants to a higher level of spirituality. It happens when campers stand with their arms around each other watching the sunset. It happens when children’s voices are joined in joyous song. It happens when a touching story is shared around the campfire.
Such experiences require the confluence of three elements, all of which camp provides: immersion in an intentional community; removal from the mundane distractions of home; and the absence of inhibiting factors like parents, school mates etc. This combination enables enduring positive associations with whatever ritual behaviors are incorporated, thus making the camp director’s content choices extremely important. These choices are driven by the underlying mission of each camp.
At Tawonga, our mission is to create positive associations with Judaism and the global Jewish family. This goal is primarily about FEELINGS, so our choices in program, staffing and liturgy are always made with their affective value in mind. Although we hope children also pick up some knowledge of our custom and culture, our priority is to build emotional ties. There is a tradition amongst Hasidic Jews to give children a taste of honey when they start to read Hebrew so that they associate Torah with sweetness. In a parallel way, Tawonga aspires to be the experiential equivalent of that honey.
In our first blog post for The Canteen, we wrote about the first goal of Tawonga’s mission: building children’s sense of self-worth, pride and confidence. This works synchronously with our spiritual goal because a key component of self-esteem is knowing one’s own heritage. When these goals are pursued by staff who fully embrace the mission, children return from their time at camp with a new sense of personal identity, group belonging, and connectedness to their people, their history, and to the greater global community.
As you would imagine, the staff at FJC has packed and unpacked a lot of camp trunks – as campers themselves, parents of campers, and of course, as counselors. This is no small task. Parents, I know that over the next few weeks you’ll be packing up your happy campers so I’ve come to offer some help (unfortunately, only via this blog, not literally).
By now, you have picked out your trunks (they may look big now because they’re empty, but just wait) and ordered your name labels. I spend weeks thinking about the piles of clothes hoping that if I wish it hard enough CampMinder or Bunk 1 will figure out a way to pack your bags for you, not just schedule a pick-up. But of course, that never happens.
First and foremost, be organized! If you really knew me, this would make you laugh – really, really hard. I don’t know how to be organized – except when it comes to packing for camp. So, here is the best of my advice and those from my colleagues, wrapped into a nice care package for my fellow parents out there:
- Live the list. I take the camp packing list and create an excel file, then I add all the “must-haves” my kids come home “needing” year after year. If it is your child’s first summer, talk to other camp parents about their kid’s favorite clothing items, games, bunk decorations, etc. that you may not think of or know about. Each camp has certain traditions and “nice-to-haves” that aren’t on the official packing list and some items that may be prohibited at one camp are all-important at another. (For example, my girls love their Crazy Creek chairs and other camps don’t allow them). I also mark down what items I send more of than the list asks for – somehow four bathing suits just doesn’t seem to be enough.
- Read carefully. Make sure you really read the list and the parent handbook before your start packing. Many camps only allow one-piece or tankini bathing suits for girls, or ask for special clothing for Shabbat. Make a note of your camps technology policy and plan accordingly.
- Label! Label! Label! There are a zillion different options out there – sew-in, iron-on, stick-on. Figure out what works best for you (confession – I just use a Sharpie– a black for most things and a silver metallic for dark items). Make sure everything including all shoes, sports equipment, and towels have a name on them. It is shocking that one sneaker can find its way into a Lost & Found bin, or that kids don’t recognize their lacrosse sticks when a camp director holds it up from the front of the dining hall.
- Talk to other parents. Seek out parents and ask about what their kids wear at camp. Many camps are in the mountains or by a lake, making mornings and evenings cool. We have seen many kids wear rain boots and Uggs to breakfast with their sweats and PJ bottoms. Some camps have post-Shabbat dancing with crazy costumes. That doesn’t mean run out and buy stuff – look around your house for fun wigs and crazy t-shirts, they always come in handy. Each camp is different so find out what clothes the campers at your child’s camp wouldn’t leave home without.
- Pack with your child. Make sure they know exactly what is going in the trunk and what isn’t. If there is a favorite item going to camp with them, make sure they know where to find it and drill into their heads that certain things need to come home. Also explain to them what isn’t allowed or if there are rules for certain items (such as electronics) that are going with them.
- Make it easy for everyone. At some camps, the trunks arrive early, counselors unpack for the kids and voila – your kid is ready to go the second they step off the bus. Others, you do the unpacking when you drop your kids off. Either way, a little pre-thought goes a long way. USE ZIPLOCK BAGS. I pack all the socks in one, shorts in others, t-shirts… This way, whoever is doing the unpacking has a little less work to do and nothing is floating around in the trunk. If your child needs a special outfit (Shabbat, banquet, whatever) pack that in a separate, labeled Ziplock bag so they know where to find it.
- Get sock laundry bags. These could be one of the best camp inventions ever. Teach your child to put their socks in a smaller laundry bag and put that right in the camp laundry. Then on laundry day, they are not sorting and pairing up socks with 15 other kids. (Perhaps they will use this extra time to actually write you a letter…)
- Under bed storage. Some camps suggest you bring under-the-bed boxes or plastic drawers. If you send them, pre-pack the boxes how you envision your child using them. I also pre-pack the shower caddy, toiletries, whatever I can. I show my kids what is where and how I packed the extras like soap, shampoo, shoelaces, and sunscreen (again make sure you are protecting the things in the trunk from leaks by using Ziplock bags).
- Batteries. Don’t forget to pack lots of these essential little items – and show your kids how to change the batteries in their flashlights and fans.
- WE WANT COLOR WAR! Pack a shirt in each color of the color war/Maccabiah/Olymics team that the camp has. This way your child doesn’t have to search around when color war breaks (I never had anything green and always ended up on the green team). I send some face paint, bandanas, and mustaches in different colors as well. Party City has a great section with all sorts of fun stuff by color if you want to send some extras.
- Costumes. You may be told to send your child to camp with a costume for a special event but I always also pack a white t-shirt and a Sharpie – instant costume for any occasion.
- Be organized! Organization really starts the day the kids come home from camp. Make a note of what got used and what didn’t. If half the sweatshirts are still folded just how you sent them or the socks are still paired up and white, don’t send as many the following summer. I make note of what I need more or less of and leave it in the trunks so I find it each spring (consider it a love note to yourself).
Well now that I’ve shared some packing wisdom with you, I think it is time to get off my tush and take this advice. Anyone want to come help?
While I enjoy being in the water, backyard swimming pools mostly, I’ve had less success being on it. This is probably attributable to the fact I never went to sleep-away camp as a kid. In fact, when I learned that my son, Jonah, got up on water-skis last summer, albeit briefly, while he was at Camp B’nai Brith in the Laurentians, an hour north of Montreal, I was surprised the apple had fallen so far from the tree. Of course, I blame my camp-free childhood on my parents. I like to think the reason my parents insisted on keeping me around was because I was so much fun, but as a parent myself now, I know that can’t possibly be true. In retrospect, I can see that the reason my parents never sent me to sleep-away camp was because they’d already gone to so much trouble – like so many Jewish families of their era – to move us out of the big city and into the suburbs that they convinced themselves suburbia was nature enough for any kid, theirs included. After all, we had a park down the street, a lawn. There were trees and birds chirping. There was, eventually, a swimming pool in the backyard. To be fair, I agreed with them at the time. I had no desire to be shipped off to camp. Woody Allen once said that he was at two with nature and you can double that for me. Never comfortable in the great outdoors, I still get a little antsy when I am more than a half-hour drive from a shopping mall. The way I looked at it back then was: who needs camp?
Now, I’m thinking I did. Take my ineptitude with water craft, for example, which has plagued me for as long as I can remember and which led to one of the worst fights my wife, Cynthia, and I ever had. Also, one of our first since it happened on our honeymoon. We were staying at a swanky hotel up north, not far from where my son now goes to sleep-away camp, and Cynthia rented a pedal boat for us so we could leisurely make our way around a nearby lake. Once on the water, though, it became apparent that I couldn’t steer the thing. “Really?” Cynthia said. “It’s like driving a bike with training wheels. A six-year-old could do it.” At which point, I grumbled something about having never gone to sleep-away camp and then angrily announced I was going back to the hotel to sit by the pool. A premature announcement, as it turned out, since I had to wait for my wife to steer us back to shore.
We never mentioned the pedal boat incident again. But a few years ago when we had the chance to take a canoe out on the lake near Cynthia’s parents’ cottage it looked like we were headed for another fight. It’s been said that “a true Canadian is someone who can make love in a canoe without tipping it” and by that measure I was barely Canadian at all. As a matter of fact, I was in my late 40’s at the time and had to admit to Cynthia that I’d never stepped foot in a canoe. Coincidentally, the first lesson Cynthia, who attended sleep-away camp all through her girlhood and was also a counselor for several years, had to teach me was that you don’t step into a canoe, at least not the way I was about to do it, like I was stepping onto an elevator. Instead, you stay low, hold onto both sides of the boat, centre yourself, and proceed with extreme caution. Evidently, canoes tip. As it turned out, there were a lot of instructions and I grumbled through all of them. But then a surprising thing happened once I was in the canoe: I stopped grumbling. I loved it. Nature was in evidence everywhere and, for once, it wasn’t bugging me. It was a crisp fall day: the air was light and the leaves were turning. I watched the dragonflies skid over the surface of the water and even spotted a beaver working away at a dam. My wife showed me how to paddle but even that effort felt, well, effortless. It felt like we were defying gravity, gliding across the lake like it was frozen. The experience was at once exhilarating and serene and a little sad, at least for me. For the first time in my life, I found myself wishing I’d gone to sleep-away camp. I also wondered how I might go about asking my son to take me with him this summer when he goes.