Our Jewish tradition is centered on our children. On the long journey from slavery to freedom, which we symbolically started at Passover culminating soon at Shavuot, it is amazing how many times in the narrative that Moses keeps returning to the subject of raising Jewish kids.
“When your children ask you this, you should answer them that.” “Teach your child on that day.” “Say to your child …” Four times Moses speaks about the duty of parents to educate their children, handing on to them their people’s story until it becomes their own. Giving our kids the gift of identity. Knowing who they are. This is a central and recurring plank in our tradition.
How do we do this in this day and age? I believe the answer is Jewish camp, a fundamental necessity in the journey of our children to find out who they are.
Camp is unique. The world literally stops at camp’s gates. Each and every summer at camp our children get the chance to re-create their universe. Camp is “kidcentric” in a way that the outside world can never be. Camp is a community dedicated to ensuring that our children have the best time that they can. Camp is the antidote to the pressures that our kids are faced with at home. What do I mean by that? We live in the age of instant gratification, immediate convenience. Everything is there for us at the touch of a button and the flicker of a screen. We live in the “Me” age. Everything is there immediately. iPod, iPad, iPhone (in my family IPay…). Literally, we can’t turn off our phones, and our children are glued to the devices that we have made them hostage to. Even our friendships are instant, making friends at the click of a button and deleting them in the same way. We can’t seem to leave our kids to their own devices anymore. The pull of the tablet is too strong.
At camp our kids get the chance to switch off, and in doing so get switched on to the “We” as opposed to the “Me” world. The friendships made at camp are real not instant, based on sharing and living together. Time spent at camp is like doggy years. 2 weeks at camp is like 3 months in the outside world. And the lessons learned are life lessons. The opportunities for our children to discover their talents, to nurture their skills, to develop friendships and to see the world from a different perspective to the pressurized “Me” world at home. Camp is life changing. Camp is a gift.
The Jewish concept of tikun olam, or healing the world, runs through the Jewish camping experience. I spent over 20 summers at a Jewish camp in the Deep South, working first as a counselor, then as a song leader and then as teen camp leader. I was lucky. I was able to give my wife and kids the Jewish camp experience. It was at camp that the Jewish values of tikun olam, healing the world, were re-enforced for all of us.
Camp is a place where our children learn that their actions can make a difference. A place where we can “say to our children,” to borrow the words of Moses, “that you can make a difference.”
Camp is a place where we can “Teach our children well.”
It’s been almost a year, yet I still can’t quite forget the odor that permeated the car as we drove my son home from camp last year. He’d been away for almost four weeks, and though the day was pleasant up in the Hudson Valley, he requested air conditioning in the car. We obliged and closed the windows. Not five minutes later, the smell presented itself.
“What smell?” my son responded. I looked in the rearview mirror at him to see his smile, but saw none. He was genuinely curious.
“Hon, is it possible that you packed a dead animal in your bag?” I asked. “Or maybe an animal crawled into your duffel bag and died there? Because it smells unbelievable.”
“I don’t smell anything,” he responded, without a trace of sarcasm. “And no way, Mom, nothing died in my bag.”
“You realize,” my husband muttered to me as he turned off the air and cracked the windows, “that means this is a smell he is USED to.”
I turned around in the front seat to get a better look at him. And was immediately sorry I had.
The boy had taken off his shoes. Correction: he had taken off shoes that I didn’t recognize. These were shoes that were gray and hideously disfigured, pockmarked by holes, stains and unidentifiable sticky things. I’m sad to say that the socks underneath them were similar in both color and condition.
“My GOD! PUT THOSE SHOES BACK ON!” I said as I held my nose.
“You think it’s the shoes?” my son said with genuine curiosity. He leaned forward to sniff them, like a patron at a fine dining establishment presented with a particularly esoteric vintage.
“DON’T SMELL THEM!” I practically yelled. “Yes, it’s the shoes! Or maybe the disgusting socks! Didn’t the camp have laundry?”
“Yes,” he replied. “But I only used it for my dirty stuff.”
I shuddered, thinking of what awaited me in the “clean stuff” duffel bag. “But whose shoes are those?” I asked. “What happened to the shoes we bought the day before you left for camp?”
“Huh?” he responded. “Mom, these ARE the shoes we bought the day before camp.”
Reader, I can assure you that the sneakers I had purchased for camp were bright blue with a streak of orange. These shoes looked like they had emerged from Pompeii. And then fallen victim to a mudslide.
I tell you this story as a reminder to both you and I as we prepare to Pack for Camp, an activity involving multiple Sharpies and often multiple trips to Target and online shopping locales of your choice. The morals of this story, which we should take to heart in these times:
1. Assume nothing you send to camp will return anywhere near the condition in which you sent it.
2. Except, in my case, the unopened shampoo bottle. But that is another disgusting story for another day.
3. Therefore, there is no real point to getting “nice” things for camp. Camp isn’t supposed to be about things anyway.
4. When they eventually come home from camp, do yourself a favor and open the duffel bag outside. While wearing a hazmat suit.
Here in New York, the temperature is eking up into the 70s, and after continuous blizzards this winter, I couldn’t be happier! This weekend I celebrated as most New Yorkers with tragically little closet space do—I took out my summer clothes. And amongst the sundresses and tank tops, I found the cutest white skirt that definitely didn’t belong to me. OOPS. You see, last summer’s camp visits brought me to southern California, and I was in need of some white clothing for Shabbat. I was in a bit of a bind, so I happily accepted when a fabulous friend (and old bunkmate!) offered to lend me a white skirt. And here we are, one year later, and I still have that skirt. (Sorry Melissa!)
And then I laughed. How many times did I come home as a camper with clothing that didn’t belong to me? I remember my mom’s frustration when it came time to do post-camp laundry and she’d find shirts and dresses that she’d never seen before. “Why do I even buy you summer clothes?!” she would say. But trading clothing was just a part of camp life. Most Friday afternoons were spent finding a Shabbat outfit from a bunkmate’s cubby before someone else called it. And sometimes, if you liked it enough, if you were really lucky, that friend would let you take it home with you.
Those were my most treasured items of clothing. Looking back at photos, I’m sure it wasn’t that I looked any better in them; I was an awkward pre-teen all year long. But wearing them reminded me of faraway friends and gave me the courage to “try on” something new. And though not always as tangible as a dirty shirt, that’s the important stuff I brought home from camp every summer. At a time in my life where every day was a new (and sometimes scary) adventure of figuring out who I wanted to be, my summers at camp provided a safe place for me to try new activities, practice being “me,” and yes—try out some new clothing styles.
So if you send off your kid this summer with a duffel full of new camp clothes, only to find what looks like someone else’s return, take a deep breath. Maybe those new white sheets were perfect for tie-dying, or the hoodie you bought was the latest victim of paint twister. Or maybe your kid exchanged lucky socks with their new best friend. Whatever comes home in that bag, know that they are the remnants of a summer well-lived. They are the reminders of new skills, new interests, and new friendships. They are the physical proof that your kid tried something new. And no doubt they will be smelly. Wash those things quick.
If you attend a pre-camp orientation session, or meeting with a camp director over the school year, I guarantee you will hear these words. In any audience of such a gathering, along with the cookies and coffee, there will be the following four attendees:
The Wise Parent: The wise parent is the one who has had three children attend the camp in question before for multiple summers. These parents already know that this camp is perfect for their children. In fact, they have already booked tickets for a childless trip to Europe departing within hours of the camp bus pulling out of the parking lot. They will ask questions relating to whether or not the camp’s policy on electronics has changed from previous years, and whether there have been any changes to the campus over the year. Their questions reflect their knowledge, not their lack thereof.
The Wicked Parent: This parent is usually not in attendance at such events, but when he or she is, he or she is 100% sure that their little star is going to be the cream of the crop at camp. They are positive that the child will love the camp, whether it’s because they themselves went there or they too really want to book the childless trip to Europe. They are unwilling to consider that perhaps their child isn’t ready for a full summer away, or perhaps their child has been trying to tell them as much for weeks. They have no questions, because how the camp handles homesickness is something that concerns other people—not them.
The Simple Parent: These parents have never sent their child to this particular overnight camp. They have no idea that they have to fill out approximately 1,000 pages of forms, notarized and in triplicate. They do not understand that packing is not going to be a rush job to be done the night before. They have never sat watching an episode of Game of Thrones while simultaneously labeling 300 pairs of underwear with a Sharpie. They ask naïve questions like, “Will my kid have a good time?” to which the answer is, “Yes.”
The Parents Who Do Not Know How To Ask: These parents have never sent their children to overnight camp, or perhaps have a newborn child at home. In any case, they have no idea what questions to ask. They are stunned when people debate whether or not the camp policy on iPod Touches should change—it is news to them that the camp has such a policy and, also, they also do not really understand what an iPod Touch is. They wonder why there is a packing list—can’t parents just figure out what a kid will need over the summer? At these meetings, it becomes increasingly clear to these parents that they in fact have absolutely no clue what their kid will be doing at camp over the summer, or what he needs in order to do it. Before they leave the meeting, they will take the email address of a Wise Parent, and hope for the best.
For the last few days, I’ve been walking around the house singing and dancing more or less in tune and in time with the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.” The reason is simple and seems, at first glance, rather materialistic.
You see, my wife, Cynthia, applied for a First-Time-Camper Grant for our son, Jonah, from a program called One Happy Camper and she got it. We received a $1,000 credit towards Jonah’s stay at sleep-away camp this summer. His eligibility for the money hinged on four facts. First, he’s Jewish and lives in Montreal where Federation CJA (Combined Jewish Appeal) partners with the Foundation for Jewish Camp in sponsoring the program. (Similar partnerships have been set up in close to 40 other communities across the U.S. and Canada.) Second, Jonah is going to a Jewish camp this summer. Third, he doesn’t attend a Jewish Day School. And, fourth, he will be attending camp for longer than 19 days, or a full session, for the first time. Those are the questions Cynthia spent a few minutes answering the online the other morning at OneHappyCamper.org. By the afternoon, Jonah’s camp had received the money on his behalf.
And while the $1,000 is great, it’s not the money that has me smiling and singing off-key. It’s the fact that it was so easy to get. I’m a writer who has both received government grants for projects and served on juries for other writers applying for those grants. I know how complicated most bureaucratic procedures can be. I know how much time and emotional energy it can devour. I’m also the father of a son with autism, as I’ve mentioned here before, which means my wife and I have spent a fair amount of time, spare and otherwise, jumping through hoops, filling out forms, and cutting through red tape just to get our son the services he requires. With One Happy Camper, the premium that was put on ease and simplicity was what my family appreciates most. Oh yes, my son’s autism was not a factor one way or another in this funding, which was also nice for a change.
“We want to make this as easy as possible for families,” Veronica Klein told me when we spoke the other day. Klein is a professional associate at the Generations Fund Jewish Camp Initiative, Federations CJA, and has been overseeing the One Happy Camper program in Montreal since 2008. “The idea behind the grant is to offer it as a kind of coupon, a spark or incentive for someone who does not attend Jewish Day School but who can still be able to experience that immersive quality of Jewish life at camp.”
Klein describes herself as a product of the Jewish summer camp experience as well as the Montreal community. She started going to camp when she was 12. That led to working with the community and working with kids here in Montreal and in the U.S. Klein could also be the poster person for the proven long-term impact and influence Jewish summer camp appears to have on its participants. Research seems to show that Jewish overnight camp can turn kids like Klein “into spirited and engaged Jewish adults” and “lay the groundwork for strong Jewish communities.”
“Camp is fun,” Klein adds. “But it’s not just flip-flops and canoes. Statistics bear this out. For example, kids who attend Jewish overnight camp are 10% more likely to marry inside their faith and 25% more likely to contribute to a Jewish charity. A program like ours is just another way to invest in the Jewish future.”
For me, it’s even simpler than that. I’m just pleased to know that there’s a good idea out there being executed efficiently. And because it is, my family and I are all happier campers.
For more info on One Happy Camper, visit their website here.
There is a list of the 50 Most Amazing Summer Camps in the U.S. making the rounds on the internet. It is posted on a site about education degrees that has no credentials. And the list offers no criteria. One might think I am a little bitter since none of the camps FJC works with are on it. No, not at all. Just disappointed that such a thoughtless list would garner so much attention (all my Facebook friends can stop sending me the list now, thanks for thinking of me…)
I skimmed the 50 blurbs, they all talk about majestic mountains, facilities, and camp amenities (come on—this isn’t a hotel peeps!). Where is the talk about the soul of the camp? A camp can have the most incredible facilities, but that does not mean that the director and staff are going to have the same values and goals that you do. Skimming through, not one talked about staff training, mentorship, or role modeling. Swap the horseback riding for the pristine baseball diamond and they seem pretty interchangeable to me.
I would hope every place you send your kid—school, camp, art class, football field—is a safe environment where they can grow and try new things. But I suggest that as you start exploring camp options for your child, you delve deeper into the magic of each camp. Ask the director how they make that magic happen. It is in the how and why they make that happen that makes a camp truly “amazing.” Dig in and find out what makes each camp special. I promise you—it is in the people—not the fancy rock wall.
When you talk to camp directors, you should tell them about your child and what type of environment makes him thrive. Ask how they promote community. What type of staff they hire. How they train the staff. What values they promote throughout the summer. I promise that there is a perfect match out there for you and your child. As parents, we sometimes get caught up in the window dressing. Wanting to find the absolute best for our kids. So, take a step back and remind yourself what “best” really means for your family. It is hard to make “lifelong friends” with kids that don’t have the same values as yours.
Want more tips on how to find the perfect camp? Download our guide.
Whether you’re investigating a camp to send your child to in summer 2015 or still figuring out this summer’s plans, you’re definitely thinking about the cost of this experience of a lifetime. It’s on our minds too. We recently saw this video on CNBC.com offering advice to parents for saving money on camp:
While the tips provided in this video are helpful, we have some additional resources to share that may help your family pay for camp:
- Many camps offer early registration incentives or sibling discounts. Most also offer scholarship assistance or you may be able to receive aid from your local Jewish organizations. Visit FJC’s scholarship page and contact your synagogue or federation for additional information.
- Families in the Northeast, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions may be eligible for BunkConnect TM, a pilot program that matches income-eligible families with high-quality nonprofit Jewish summer camps at low introductory rates. Finding out if you qualify is quick and confidential.
- If your child has never been to a Jewish overnight camp before, they may be eligible for a need-blind One Happy Camper grant of up to $1000. Learn how.
Tomorrow on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, I’ll be thinking about Arik Einstein z”l. Einstein, who passed away at the end of 2013, was from Israel’s “Greatest Generation” that built the country. His 1971 classic song Ani Ve’ata became the anthem of optimism for a young nation. I do not recall ever learning the song for the first time, but I am sure it was at camp. It is strange how knowing something by heart means that you hardly ever give it any thought. Inspired by his passing, I decided to take a closer look at this song.
What did Einstein mean when he wrote “You and I, we will change the world”? Why does he need someone else to help him make change in the world? It is popularly understood that we need large groups of people to make change in the world. About this conception the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In terms of bringing about change, quality is more important than quantity, but we always benefit from partnership and support. In the wake of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut we take pause to think about the founders of the state. That small group of people jumped in where others had just talked about it and made the modern miracle of the rebirth of a State of Israel a reality. The sacrifices were serious, but it is noteworthy that none of them did it by themselves.
It was at summer camp where I first formed my connection to the Israel. It was also there that I forged a relationship with a small group of people that thought “You and I, we will change the world.” Maybe a meaningful thing to do on Yom Ha’atzmaut would be to reconnect with your bunk age group. It might be time for a check in to see where we can support each other in making the world a better place.
“At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.” ~ Maya Angelou
When I think about the most significant experiences in my life to date, events that helped propel me into adulthood and that gave me the confidence to venture out on my own, my last year as a camper here at the Ranch Camp always comes to mind. At age fifteen, I participated in Ranch Camp’s TASC (Teen Adventure and Service Corps) program, where I learned a lot about the art of surrender.
Ranch Camp’s TASC program consists of a 10-day trip away from camp where campers go backpacking, whitewater rafting, enjoy a Colorado hot spring, and participate in a community service project. My parents were never especially outdoorsy, so I went into my TASC year as a total backpacking novice having never spent any length of time on a camping trip. We went to a camping store to buy all the gear I needed (most of which I still have to this day) and I headed off to camp that summer facing “the great unknown” both excited and nervous.
During our first day of hiking in Colorado’s beautiful backcountry, we were plagued by heavy rain. One boy on my trip was especially slight of build and was weighed down by a very heavy, ill-fitting pack. He had been headstrong and not listened to the staff when we were packing for our trip as they warned him against carrying so much weight. A few miles into our route, he was visibly weak and was having trouble maintaining his footing on the now slippery trail. Seeing his distress, we all stopped and together unpacked his pack and redivided his gear amongst the whole group in order to lighten his load. By each of us taking on a little more, the boy was able to continue and succeed during the rest of our hiking trip. From this experience, I learned the importance of surrendering one’s pride in order to accept the kindness and help of those around you.
My next big lesson came a couple days later when we arrived at the most memorable campsite of our trip. The site was reached after a long, exhausting day of hiking. The site was located next to a gorgeous circular lake that was nestled beneath a horseshoe shaped mountain. And although we were all tired from the long hard hike that day, seeing that the conditions were ripe for a beautiful sunset, one of our staff members invited anyone who wanted to join him to go on an optional hike to catch the sun as it set across the vast mountain range that surrounded us. About six of us decided to join him that evening and we quickly scrambled up a hill to the high vista above our campsite. There we were rewarded by the most spectacular sunset that I’ve ever seen, even to this day. The views were breathtaking and the colors were so vivid – it was majestic, magical, and memorable. I felt like I was on top of the world that evening and it was there that I learned the beauty that can be beheld when you surrender your bodily exhaustion and push yourself to find your inner strength.
We finished an amazing TASC trip and headed back to camp for the final few days of the session, and suddenly the last day of camp was upon us. Like all last days of camp, I remember there being hugs, tears, and prolonged goodbyes. It’s never easy to leave camp, your friends, and the staff members you grow to love. For me, this particular last day of camp was even more difficult because I knew that I was never going to come back to Ranch Camp as a camper. This chapter in my camp life was ending and the next time I would come back to camp, I’d be returning as a staff member. Nothing was ever going to be the same and I had no choice in that moment but to let go and embrace the future. It was here that I learned the importance of surrendering what has passed for the prospect of what is to come.
Camp has taught me so much over the years but my TASC trip at age fifteen was a profound learning experience. During that summer, I learned that not only was surrendering honorable but also empowering. For giving yourself over totally to an experience is as awesome as it is fulfilling.
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