Jewish camp is everywhere, Terry Gross confirmed on NPR the other day. While interviewing filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, she noted that she’d recently discovered that the Coen Brothers had attended the same Jewish camp – Herzl Camp, in Wisconsin – as folk icon Bob Dylan, albeit not at the same time. An excerpt from the interview follows:
GROSS: So I have to know, is this the kind of summer camp where you sing songs with lyrics about how great the camp is, and then there’s team songs with how great the team is?
GROSS: Aw, shucks. I wanted to think of [Dylan] as singing those songs.
COEN: No, you sang – it was Zionist summer camp, and you sang Zionist songs in Hebrew.
Those of us who attended similar camps recall similar activities. Personally, I can’t even read these lines of the interview without involuntarily breaking into ‘Mi anachnu? Anachnu tziirim! Sharim doo wa diddy diddy dum diddy doo!’ Sad, but true.
That overnight camp comes with a form of indoctrination shouldn’t surprise anyone – but in my experience, both as a Jewish camp camper and a Jewish camp parent, I’ve found that it’s less “indoctrination” and more “immersion.”
Camp is a time for children to be separated from their parents – let’s call them the Indoctrinators-in-Chief – and to be submerged in a world unto themselves for the first time. This is an inherently heady experience. For many children, it’s their first substantial time away from ‘home’ in a place that is not a family member’s home. Campers find themselves in a new place, where things are done differently. And without their parents at hand, they look to other sources – counselors, fellow campers, and the camp itself – as guideposts of authority, and as compasses to provide direction.
The world of each camp is carefully curated in order to convey a particular message and meaning. Some sports camps are known as fostering a spirit of camaraderie and teamwork; others are notorious for being intensely competitive. Performing arts camps fairly vibrate with the sense that there is nowhere more worthwhile than the stage. More general arts camps convey the worthiness of aggressive individuality with their free-to-be-you-and-me, anything-goes wild sense of creativity.
And yes, Jewish camps focus on being Jewish. And whether that is being Jewish as manifested by davening (praying) three times a day, by performing “Ata Ish Tov, Charlie Brown” in Hebrew or by learning about Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, a Jewish camp has as its baseline assumption the validity and continuation of the Jewish people.
So yes, Jewish camps are Zionistic and pro-Israel. Jewish camp teaches different ways of seeing the world – but those ways are through Jewish lenses and perspectives. I attended camps which made me reevaluate who I was in relation to the Jewish people. Questions, whether about kashrut or Israel, were not only tolerated, but welcomed.
Yes, I learned from camp that I was fundamentally, unalterably pro-Israel. But I also learned that ‘Israel’ means ‘to struggle.’ Immersion in a Jewish environment fundamentally differs from indoctrination: Jewish camp, whether through teaching text or history, teaches kids that being Jewish is a struggle, and one to which they should devote their entire lives.
Every summer “my camp” posts their Top 10 song session songs. And each year I look at it in great anticipation and then amazement that eight out of 10 are on my list of ultimate camps songs. The others, I have come to know and love from my camp visits every summer.
Each song – whether it by written by Pete Seeger, James Taylor, Debbie Friedman, or long forgotten color war generals – has a special spot on the soundtrack of my youth. It never fails to bring me back to a dining hall song session, standing on a bench, or a campfire belting it out, arms around my besties.
At 9, 10, 11 years old I didn’t understand the politics behind “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” or “If I Had a Hammer.” All I knew, was I just couldn’t get enough of them. Well, Pete Seeger, thanks for the memories for me, my bunkmates, and Jewish campers wishing everyday ended with a campfire, a guitar, and s’mores.
To everything there is a season – except maybe for the soundtrack of my youth, I’ll keep that in heavy rotation all year round.
Having a well-stocked pantry means being prepared for the unexpected, being organized, and giving yourself the best possible tools to make the best possible decisions. This is what healthy eating is all about. Most of the time we know what the healthiest choices are, but don’t make them because it’s not convenient or easy for us. When potato chips are the only thing available, potato chips are what we have for a snack. If we are ready with frozen veggies, a jar of tomato sauce, lean ground beef and whole wheat pasta we enable ourselves to easily make a healthy dinner rather than taking out from a local Italian restaurant because the cupboard is bare. If we provide ourselves with the right tools just at our fingertips, we will be more likely to make healthy eating choices.
Judaism is big on preparation, and kids learn that first hand at Jewish summer camps. Most notably, there is an important Jewish concept of Hachana l’shabat, or preparing for the Sabbath. At camp, kids do all sorts of things to prepare for Shabbat. They clean up their bunks, pick out (and usually trade) clothes and learn new songs and prayers. At home, other Shabbat preparation occurs, usually in the form of cooking and cleaning. In both settings, Judaism teaches that another type of preparation should occur- a spiritual preparation that entails readying one’s mind for resting from the craziness of the week and allowing oneself to stop for long enough to appreciate the joy in quiet, community, restfulness and some extra-delicious food.
With our busy lives it can sometimes be hard to find the time to prepare ourselves, whether that preparation be the kind of nuts and bolts actions of organizing a pantry, or the more spiritual actions needed to prepare for Shabbat. But, the reason preparation is so difficult to do is exactly the reason its so important to do- once you perform a few simple “preparatory actions” you are literally set-to-go with the ability to make healthier decisions and find spiritual rest and quiet. If you take the time to organize and prepare ahead of time, the actual work will be short and you can spend more time reaping the rewards of delicious food and the joys that Shabbat can provide. In that spirit, try this delicious from-the-pantry lentil soup recipe for your next Shabbat meal!
Straight from the Pantry Lentil Soup
1 large yellow onion
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons ground cumin
4 cups vegetable stock
1 14 ounce can small diced tomatoes
1 cup brown or green lentils
10 ounce box frozen whole leaf spinach
Salt and pepper to taste
- Dice the onion and mince the garlic.
- Heat the olive oil over high heat in a large sauce pot. Add the onions and cook until browned and softened, 5-7 minutes.
- Add the garlic and cumin and cook 1 minute longer.
- Add the stock and tomatoes and lentils and bring to a boil. Taste the broth and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Cook 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils have fully softened.
- Add the spinach and cook just until heated through.
I first thought that I might be different when I was in sixth grade.
I went to Jewish day school, and I was horribly bullied for being different. My reaction was to revel in the negative attention, to try to act like I liked it. It was the only way I knew to fit in. My only friends were two girls. And by friends, I mean they were willing to hang out with me at school, and we talked on the phone a couple times. Not a couple times a week – a couple of times. One day at school, these girls asked me who my crush was, but I had never really thought about it before. When I started to think about it, I realized it was Danny. I was confused, so I just stuffed it down and lied to make it easier. I said it was one of them.
Years later when I was seventeen, I was searching for something to connect to, a place to feel comfortable. A friend in USY convinced me to work at Camp Solomon Schechter for the summer. I was hesitant, but I figured, why not? At Jewish camp, I found the home I had been searching for, the acceptance I had been longing for. People loved me, no matter what. In the worst of times, Schechter was my refuge. I would always look forward to summer, for moments of serenity and happiness. I have worked at camp every summer since, and as of four years ago, I work there full time—my dream job.
Let me introduce myself. My name is David Furman, and I am the Assistant Director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington. And I am gay. I came out one month ago at twenty-nine years old. And I came out on Facebook, so the whole world would know. (I didn’t tell a single person before I posted it on Facebook. Scary!)
So why now? And why Facebook?
I came to grips with the fact that I was gay (fully gay, not bisexual, although I so wanted to be) in college, yet I stayed in the closet for seven more years. Why? Partially fear, that many of the people in the Orthodox community I associated with in college would shun me. But also, it just didn’t seem like it mattered to come out or not.
Then this summer, there were multiple occasions in which I almost revealed my true self. I held back both in private conversations and once in front of the whole camp when I heard one kid call another kid gay. I know how much that hurts. I wanted to reach out and say, “Stand up and say that to me. Call me gay. Because I am gay.”
Then in December, something happened that solidified my decision. One of my staff members (who is just 18), posted on Facebook that he was in a relationship with a dude. My emotions went crazy! How am I so scared to come out and be brave if this 18-year-old kid can come out? How can he have a relationship when I can’t? And really, how much easier would it have been for HIM if I was out all of these years, so he knew he had someone he could talk to? How can I consider myself a role model to campers and staff if I’m not honest and public about who I am? Not out to my friends, not out to my family, but out to the community. The Pacific Northwest Jewish community is small, and I knew if I came out on Facebook, everyone would know. The one caveat I should mention, is who I accept as friends on Facebook; I will only friend campers after they have “graduated” our Counselor-in-Training program and are no longer campers. However, with Facebook you can set restrictions on your posts: to just your friends, friends of friends, or public—i.e. to the world. I chose public. I wanted young people from my camp, who were struggling with the issues I struggled with for nearly 30 years, to be able to see that there is hope.
And the response I got blew my mind. Over 350 people liked my status. Over 70 comments. I got dozens of Facebook messages and texts, all supportive. It told me that nothing had changed. And as the comments kept pouring in, I was grinning.
I feel happier, I feel freer, I don’t find myself thinking through everything I say with the “will that make me sound gay” litmus test. I feel like I can honestly share everything that is me. I still have the same great friends and the same great family. I still have the same great job. I’m just me.
And so now I can say it. IT GETS BETTER.
What will I say to those kids who are feeling like I did, who feel like they have to hide who they are, who think maybe it’s just not worth it? I would say: be strong. Life can seriously get you down sometimes. You will run across people that make you feel like crap. But for every dip, there is a peak. Gam zeh ya’vor. This, too, shall pass. Life can be so good. You just have to have faith in yourself, and surround yourself with good people. There are lots more good people out there than people who will judge you or care who you are. And remember, if they don’t like you because you’re gay, dump ‘em. Optimism is so hard sometimes, but I can tell you the world is on an upward spiral. It does get better. I mean, we can get married! The tide is moving forward.
It does get better. Check out the It Gets Better Project for some inspiration.
I also want to say again how lucky I am to work for Schechter. All I have gotten from my community is love, support and respect.
And I hope to pass it on ten-fold. I want Schechter to be a place where everyone feels comfortable to be whoever they are, openly and honestly, and I hope that my coming out might play some part in changing kids’ minds about what’s acceptable to say. Or maybe just give one camper hope.
If you are one of those kids or counselors reading this, please contact me, I am always available.
Gilad and I welcomed our baby girl into the world on January 1st. Sivan Amali Shwartz arrived just in time to help us celebrate one of my favorite Jewish holidays, Tu Bishvat, which began last night.
Tu Bishvat is known as the New Year of the trees, or Jewish Arbor Day. It is an opportunity to celebrate trees and all their fruits, as well as the beauty and wonder of Nature. There are many different ways to celebrate Tu Bishvat – planting trees, participating in a Tu Bishvat seder, writing prayers for the trees, decorating trees with personal prayers and/or psalms, or simply eating fruit!
During camp each summer, it feels like a 10 week Tu Bishvat celebration in many ways. It is amazing to see campers arrive to camp and become immersed in the natural world around them. Free of their video games, computers, smart phones, and other technology, campers return to picking up natural materials and playing with them. Many of these materials come from the plethora of ponderosa pine trees that are situated on the Ranch Camp property. Sticks, pine cones, and pieces of bark transform from something that campers may not even take notice of at home to exciting toys and building materials here at camp.
For the last two summers, one of our most popular chuggim (electives) has been Fort Building. Boys and girls eagerly venture out into the forest, collect tree branches and construct natural structures with the help of staff members. I love to walk out and observe campers doing this activity. It never ceases to amaze me how really little it takes to make kids happy when they are given a mission and are turned loose in nature to use their imaginations and make it happen. The children play with and amongst the branches of our forest and in turn, become reconnected with the natural world around them.
Sivan is a little too young this year to truly celebrate Tu B’Shevat but I’m grateful that she will share her birthday roughly with that of the trees each year. Tu Bishvat is a great opportunity for us to get out in nature with our children and share with them the wonders of Creation.
Chag Sameach! Here are some resources to help you celebrate Tu Bishvat with your family this year:
1. Punk Torah’s Tu Bishvat Ideas
2. Make a Fruit Mandela With Your Kids, From Kveller
3. Creative Jewish Mom’s Tu Bishvat Crafts
4. MyJewishLearning’s Tu Bishvat Recipes
I recently saw “Matilda” on Broadway. Let me tell you – the kids in that show are incredible! I was truly in awe of the way they sang and danced with such energy, enthusiasm, and excitement; their talent was almost overwhelming.
Besides the amazing actors, the awesome and colorful sets, and the wildly imaginative staging, I was really touched by the story. (I’m not sure I ever read the bookand it’s been more than a decade since I last saw the fantastic movie version.) From a young age, Matilda is misunderstood, under-appreciated, and shockingly unloved by her parents. In a school with a horrifying headmistress, she is seen for who she really is by a kind, gentle, loving teacher. The friendships and new families that form throughout the story are inspiring and remind us of the incredible power of positive connections.
Along the way, some magic happens and so does some “magic.” If I tell you the first, it might give away too much of the story. The latter, on the other hand, is well worth sharing. In one song that stayed in my head for days, the kids sing what has been clearly drilled into their heads over and over again: that they are “revolting children living in revolting times.” The magic of Matilda is in the realization that nothing could be less true: despite (or, perhaps, because of) the revolting tyranny of the adults around them, these kids really know how to act. Maybe this is the kind of revolting they mean – revolting against a view of the world, and of childhood, that is itself revolting. These kids know how to treat one another, how to celebrate differences, and how to work together for the common good.
After a few weeks of break (or, at least, a change of pace), we recently headed back to school. In the course of our regularly scheduled lives, it can be easy to miss the magic. It’s all too easy to see the revolting times and tell ourselves – and our kids – that we are a product of that kind of a world. But if we look more closely, we know better. We know that there are incredibly talented children out there. We know that they are taught by teachers who are caring, passionate, and creative. We know that they can build communities that will help to make the world a better place. And, even if it’s easy to forget when the lights go back up in the theater, we know that there is magic in the world.
SHIRA & NOAH MENCOW HICHENBERG
When/how/where at camp did you meet? I arrived at staff training at Camp Ramah in New England my junior counselor summer two days late, having just come back home from a trip to Israel. Shira had recently returned home from a year spent studying in Israel. After a training session, I was showing my Israel pictures to a friend and Shira asked to see. We initially bonded over our recent Israel experiences. Though we had been at camp at the same time as campers, we are a year apart so never got to know each other. Luckily that summer we did! Shira was a counselor for the edah (age group) that my younger brother was in, and my parents were in camp that summer, which made for some interesting social situations. Shira likes to point out that she knew my family members before she even knew me!
What happened between you when camp ended that summer? Sadness. I was leaving for Israel for the year on Nativ and Shira was headed to her freshman year at U Maryland. We split up briefly facing the daunting distance, only to stay in close touch over the phone and shortly decided that we wanted to continue our relationship despite the distance. After that I went to college in NYC, so we visited each other a couple times a month. Each summer we got to spend time together as we went “home” to camp. We wound up spending the same semester abroad together in Israel finally. After Shira graduated college she moved to NYC and we were finally living in the same city. Shortly afterwards, we were married.
Will you send your kids to your camp? Yes! Shira’s parents, and aunt and uncle both met at different Ramah camps also so we know it is in the blood.
Shira & Noah Mencow Hichenberg were married in November 2009. They currently live in Manhattan and are expecting their first child next month! Shira is a Clinical Research Coordinator at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Noah is the Director of the Nursery School at the JCC in Manhattan.
On New Year’s Eve, my wife, Cynthia, our son, Jonah, just turned fifteen, our new puppy, Phoebe, five months old, and I gathered around our dining room table to make our resolutions for 2014. The easiest to come up with was Phoebe’s. She resolved to be house-trained by the end of January at the latest. Okay, we came up with that one on her behalf, but I didn’t see much difference between us wanting her to realize her full potential and Cynthia, for instance, wanting to receive more foot massages and back rubs in the coming year. Both are cases of wishful thinking being imposed on others. Both seem, even in the hopeful glow of the New Year, like long shots.
“And what’s your resolution?” Cynthia asked me, as if she really had to. In fact, she and Jonah could both guess mine correctly. “I resolve to be less crabby,” I announced. Even Phoebe looked skeptical.
“A lot less, man,” Jonah added.
Jonah’s new habit of referring to everyone as “man” – that includes his mother and the dog – is, I confess, one of the things making me crabby these days. Jonah is on the autism spectrum and, as a result, he’s always been more likely to pick up verbal tics (or stims, as they’re called in the world of autism) and sustain them for longer than most other kids would. I should be used to this sort of thing by now, but being called “man,” instead of daddy or dad, is driving me a little crazy. It’s like sharing the house with Jack Kerouac. I mean if Jonah has to talk like a 1950s beatnik, can’t he at least call me daddy-o?
Cynthia doesn’t like this new term of endearment much either, mainly because it doesn’t sound that endearing. Still, she reminds me to let Jonah express himself the way he chooses to. Self-expression is hard for a kid with autism so you take it where you can find it. In fact, we take it as a sign of the thing we want most for him nowadays – independence.
His mother and I were terrified the first time we sent Jonah to sleep-away summer camp three years ago, but the main reason we did it was so we wouldn’t always be around to do things for him. To a surprising extent, this plan worked. He became resolved to do more things on his own; we became determined to let him. We remain grateful to his experiences at camp for allowing him and us to see our interconnected resolutions through.
Lately, Jonah insists on going to the corner grocery store on his own whenever we are out of milk or orange juice or green beans. (What can I say? The kid is different; he loves green beans.) The first few times he left for the store I followed him, ducking behind parked cars and recycling bins, as if I were a private detective trailing a criminal suspect. Now, I still worry, but I manage to stay in the house. By the time I finally decide I must head out and find him, he’s invariably on his way back, happily swinging the plastic bag of green beans he just bought.
The other day I also let him take the dog out for a short walk as far as the grocery store. I watched anxiously from the window as Phoebe, still very puppyish, jumped all over him, but eventually they did some walking. Phoebe also did what she was supposed to – some peeing. As for Jonah, he brought her back safe and sound. I couldn’t have been prouder of both of them. When my son got back into the house, I asked him how it went as if I hadn’t been watching him every single moment. “No problem, man,” he said.