I learned recently that groups of animals have the most interesting names. Some are well known, like a school of fish or a colony of ants. Others, I found, were quite amazing and yet, somehow, not at all surprising: a stand of flamingos, a tower of giraffes, a prickle of porcupines. For these animals, what they are called in a group is based on their features – how they stand, how tall they are, or the covering of their skin. And some, like a crash of rhinoceroses, may seem to be based on something obvious when, in fact, it may be due to something much less well known (that rhinos have incredibly bad eyesight). Then there are the groups whose name evokes their connection to humans: a plague of locusts (how biblical!) or a shiver of sharks (“Jaws” comes to mind). And there are those, such as a convocation of eagles, with a name that almost personifies them.
In their daily lives, our kids are so often put in groups: a class of students, a team of soccer players, a minyan of Jews. In camp, it is much the same: a cabin of girls, an elective of artists, a unit of 10 year olds. Unlike what we use for animals, these group names lack creativity; they don’t give our kids (or us!) an opportunity to express anything about themselves in the group. What if we were to rethink how we classified ourselves? A learning of students, a goal of soccer players, a belonging of Jews, a strength of girls, a creative of artists, a decade of 10 year olds. If we were to change what we call our communities, perhaps we could change, too, how we see ourselves as part of them. Think of how empowering it could be for our kids if they knew that every group they belong to says something about who they are. We might be able to create a much stronger sense of connection and commitment to each of the groups – and to the community at large.
Perhaps my favorite grouping of animals is a murmuration of starlings. As a collective, starlings move as one, creating a sort of murmur across the skies – it’s truly awe-inspiring to watch! For these birds, being in a group means being part of a unified whole. If I could wish anything upon our campers each summer, it would be just that: an understanding that their individual participation in the Jewish community is essential to creating the whole. That’s worth a whole lot more than murmuring … we should scream it from the rooftops!
I can’t stop thinking about Jordana Horn’s recent post about her son who came home from camp early. I don’t know what camp he attended, what he did to make sure he was sent home, or any of the other circumstances, yet I feel that we failed him. We – the community of camps and the partnership of camps and parents – failed to give him the best possible experience. And that’s a shame.
Certainly, there are youngsters who are not “camp kids.” These are the ones who, for whatever reason, just can’t be in the 24/7 camp environment with its noise, lack of privacy, and outdoorsy living. And, of course, there are the “lifers” who would spend every minute in camp if given the opportunity. (A few parents asked this summer if we would open a camp boarding school, so their children could spend all year with us!)
Just like most things in life, however, most kids are in the middle. Especially in their first summer at camp, most kids enter with some trepidation and are able to soar once something “clicks.” That can happen through a friendship, a connection with a staff member, a particular activity, or locating a quiet place under a special tree. Sometimes it’s easy to find and, other times, it takes some help from the staff. And in some situations, we call the parents in for help. If we do our jobs right, we get everyone involved in the right way and at the right time, so we can help make the magic of camp come alive before it’s too late.
Where we so often go wrong – and by “we,” I mean both camp professionals and parents – is that we don’t really listen to the kids. Sometimes, we are so concerned with our own successes that we don’t hear the kid advocating for himself. And we forget that this advocacy is, in and of itself, a success. Finishing camp is not the be all and end all of life experience; it is possible to have a full and rich life without completing a summer of overnight camp. So if a kid goes home from camp, it doesn’t have to be a failure or a loss; in fact, it can be just the opposite – it can be an opportunity for learning and for growth. If we push too hard and wait too long, we set our kids up to do what Jordana’s son did – something that they know will get them sent home. And then we, as the adults, get angry. But at that point, whose fault is it? Can we blame a child who has been telling us what he really needs for doing something to make this clear when we just won’t listen? Wouldn’t we better off thanking him for knowing his limits and showing him that, sometimes, kids can know better than adults?
One of my favorite songs on the high holidays says: “Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul. Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are born and reborn and reborn.” For tens of thousands of kids each summer, Jewish camp is the land of their soul – it is the place where they can most be themselves. With so many camps to choose from, I believe that there is the “right” camp for virtually every kid. Sometimes it takes a little bit of work to find it, but it’s there. And in the cases when a particular camp doesn’t fit – or camping in general just isn’t right – it’s up to us, as the adults, to help the child return home so he can return to himself, return to the strength and support of his family, and be reborn as (or, at least, reminded of!) the amazing person he is.
A colleague who I trust and admire recently shared with me a New York Times piece she wrote about sending her children to camp. She wondered why it was that her children — one boy and one girl — should have to be separated at camp. They have always shared a room and she was rightfully proud of the connection she and her husband had helped their kids to form. Even though she was committed to the endeavor of summer camp, she couldn’t understand why she would want to put the kids in a situation where they would, by necessity, be separated.
I thought about her post a lot over the weeks after I read it. I kept trying to see if I could get on board with her idea that coed cabins would be ideal for her kids. And I just couldn’t seem to wrap my head around it. I was so impressed by the relationship she described between her kids, but I couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t be apart while at camp.
And then, as so often happens over the long days at camp, I had a moment where it all became clear. I realized that, when siblings come to camp together, they can explore how best to be in a relationship with one another, without having their parents’ influence or input. (I often say that camp is about making kids their best selves. Perhaps it is also about making relationships between siblings and friends the best they can be.) Last Friday morning, our teen campers returned from four weeks in Israel. They got off the bus and, quite literally, ran towards their siblings. After a life changing experience, all they wanted to do was to hug their brothers and sisters. And the next day, when we took sibling and family pictures, we watched kids stand together, help each other comb their hair, and smile for their parents.
We started taking sibling pictures a few years ago because parents wanted to see their kids smiling together. A parent wrote to me the other day that this year’s picture of her kids “made her week.” It’s as if parents don’t believe that their children could really get along as well as the pictures show. But they do get along that well. They do want to see each other. They do want to hang out together. And they do want to share their experiences with each other. Why? Because, at the core, they are family. And we want nothing more than for our kids to feel deeply connected to their family — whether blood relatives or people who are so close that they might as well be part of our family tree. When we send them to camp and separate them from their siblings, we often do so with the desire for them to have an opportunity to be their own person. And that is great. But it’s also great for them to have the opportunity to show who they are in relationship to their siblings in an environment of their peers. Letting kids act this out now will only help them later in life, when they are out in the “real world” interacting with each other. Giving them an opportunity to build a parent-free bond at camp is great training for the future of our families, and of our world.
So do I think we should have sibling bunks? I’m not sure I’m there yet. But do I think it would be great for parents to encourage siblings to strengthen their relationships while at camp? Absolutely!
I was nine years old my first summer at camp. When I came home, my mother (who had never been a camper herself) unzipped my duffel bag and was shocked — everything was wet, smelly, covered with sand, and starting to turn a little green. The next summer, as we packed for what I knew would be the best three weeks of the year, she sat me down and told me that I should remember three things while I was away: have fun, don’t do anything stupid, and, most importantly, don’t mix wet with dry. When I went to college, she put a note in my bag telling me how proud she was of me and reminding me of these same three rules. For my family, these have become shorthand for how to take care of yourself.
Over the past few weeks, there have been blog posts sprouting up about preparing for camp. Certainly there are clothes to buy, envelopes to address, bags to pack. In the midst of all these logistics, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really important — preparing your kids for an experience of growth and self-exploration. As a camp director, it’s my job to provide an environment for your kids to thrive and grow; as parents, it’s your job to give them the grounding they need to make this possible. So, here are some things I’ve learned from parents (and campers) along the way that may help you take a break from packing to get your kids really ready for camp…
Don’t forget family traditions! One Friday afternoon, I was running around camp getting ready for Shabbat. I walked through the office and saw a fax coming off the machine for one of our teen campers. I looked over and was perplexed: on the piece of paper were images of two hands. At dinner that night, I handed the paper to the camper and her eyes lit up. “They are my dad’s hands,” she said, as she turned the paper over and put it on her head. “He blesses me every week for Shabbat, and since we’re not together, this is how he can do it.” As the weeks of that summer and many others followed, I always knew that the fax machine would ring just before Shabbat or the FedEx would arrive on Friday morning. And I knew that, even though they were in different places, this father would always bless his daughter for Shabbat.
Kids love being away at camp, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be connected to what’s going on at home. If you bless your child on Friday night, send her the blessing in a note every week. If you read your child a poem every night before he falls asleep, send it on a card for him to post next to his bed. Showing kids that they can be independent but also deeply connected to you is one of the most important parts of sending them away.
Don’t forget to ask for help! A friend sent her oldest child to camp a few years ago with an instruction: when they take your picture for the website, put a thumbs up if you’re doing okay and if something is wrong, leave your hands at your side. This was their way of ensuring that, if something was wrong, the mother would know to call camp to check it out.
On one hand, I love this: a secret code between parent and child that allows them to communicate “in real time” over the summer when we don’t allow phone calls, emails, or texts. On the other hand, I hope that parents will also tell their children: if you’re having a hard time, make sure you to talk to a friend or a counselor. If that person isn’t able to help you feel better, go talk to a group leader or head counselor. (Think of it kind of like asking to speak with a manager when you don’t get the answer you want from customer service.) And if that doesn’t work — go straight to the top. I know that every camp is set up differently and that camp directors are busy people. But I, for one, want to know if a kid is having a tough time so that we can work together to make things better; as camp professionals, we live for these moments when we can help kids overcome challenges.
It’s good that this mother and son had a way to ensure that both had peace of mind during his first summer away. But it’s also important to teach your kid that sometimes she needs to speak up for herself when she’s unhappy. It’s important for kids to know that there are adults, in addition to their parents, they can trust. Camp is a safe place to try this out.
Don’t forget who you are! Camps are fond of saying that they help children to build character. At Camp JRF, we help campers (and staff) understand that they aren’t building who they are — they just need to be who they already are, being sure to live their values and ideals in all they do. Our staff has heard me tell this story many times: I walked by two 12-year-old boys, one of whom was with us for the first time and had, apparently, just made fun of another camper. The other boy, who was with us for his second summer, looked at him and said: “that’s not how we act here.” This boy took pride in our camp culture, but he also took pride in his role as a friend, an ally, and a member of the community.
Before they leave for camp, talk with your kids about values. Remind them of their deepest held values. Discuss what it means to stand up for someone else. Let them know how proud you are of them for remembering to be their best selves, even in moments where it’s challenging.
So as you finish those last minute preparations for this summer, take a moment to remind your kids of who they are as individuals and as part of your family. Remind them of the blessings you share with them, let them know that it’s okay (even more than okay!) to ask for help, and give them the power to stand up for others.
Oh yeah — and don’t forget to tell them not to mix wet with dry.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is the director of Camp JRF in South Sterling, PA.
When I tell people that I’m a camp director, they often ask me what I do “the rest of the year.” I respond that I spend my time recruiting campers and staff, planning programs, raising money, and preparing for the summer. I also work closely with our board and, especially as we work towards an expansion, spend what feels like an inordinate amount of time thinking about engineering, septic systems, and township approvals.
While all of this is true, I’ve begun to think about changing my answer. I’m thinking about telling people that during the rest of the year, I reap the benefits of what we have sown over the summer. Why the change? Because in both happy moments and more challenging ones over just the past few weeks alone, I have been blessed to see just how true this is.
First, there were the campers and staff members who, when the father of their long-time camp friends passed away, came from far and wide to sit by their sides, lead shiva minyanim, and comfort them during this challenging time. Then there was the rabbi who, when mentioning important people to him during a speech, talked of the two other rabbis with whom he spends a week on our faculty each summer, noting that they are, for him, the “camp friends” he didn’t have in childhood. At our annual spring teen retreat, there was the graduating high school senior who, with tears in his eyes, told younger participants that the thousands of dollars he has spent and the thousands of miles he has flown over the years were far more than “worth it” for the experiences he has had and the deep friendships he has made. And there was his friend who, bringing tears to my eyes, talked about the ways in which he has become more comfortable in his own skin since he first arrived at camp as an anxious ten year old and how, when he isn’t always able to remember how far he’s come, his camp friends step up to remind him.
A counselor once stood up during an orientation session and asked how and when we will know if the work we do has an impact. I responded that, in fifteen years, we’ll be able to see the myriad ways in which the camp experience is reflected in the good work our campers are doing and in the good lives they are leading. The staff member looked shocked and a bit disappointed; he wanted faster and more quantifiable results. But the work we are doing is about quality, not quantity. And it’s about the long view, not just about what happens today. It’s true what they say: camp works. It works not only in creating committed Jews but in creating bonds and connections that help make better people.
So, what do I do during the rest of the year? Forget all of the planning and fundraising and logistics and details … I sit back and revel in the ways in which our joyful and welcoming Jewish youth community transforms lives. And then I jump back into the work – excited, energized, and blessed to be part of making this happen for yet another summer.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is the director of Camp JRF in South Sterling, PA.
Two summers ago, I met David for the first time. Before he arrived in camp, we spoke with his parents about his Autism, how it might impact his experience at camp, and what their goals were for him – both during the summer and beyond. They were incredibly open and realistic, and we were upfront about what we could offer. And while we all hoped for the best, I must admit that I entered the summer with a bit of trepidation, worried that we might not be able to live up to all of our expectations.
Boy, was I in for a surprise.
David jumped head first into the camp experience. He participated in all of the activities, loved the food, and always had a smile on his face. He shared his love of basketball and brought us the tradition of chocolate breakfast (with thanks to our friends at Camp JCA Shalom). A week or so into the session, I showed up in our teatron (theater) to hear David talk with fifty of his peers – our ninth and tenth graders – about autism. We knew his mitzvah project had been on the topic and that he had spoken about it in other places; he came into the summer wanting to share it with us.
Our campers are incredibly thoughtful, kind, and amazingly aware that everyone is different and has their own gifts to bring to the community. Even so, surrounded by a group of teens, I was worried that, after a great first week, David’s positive experience could end when he stepped up to the microphone. And then he began to speak … and you could feel the teens’ excitement. There was laughter at the right times, good and thoughtful questions, and, when he finished speaking, thunderous applause. As everyone got up to leave, I watched David giving high fives, smiles, and huge bear hugs to his friends.
Even David would tell you that kids with autism often have a hard time making friends. But in just three short weeks, he had made incredible friends. He kept in touch with them all year. Last summer, he counted down the minutes until his best friend, who is a year older than him, returned to camp from his trip to Israel. And he got a letter from a friend who had other plans for the summer and said the thing he would miss most about camp was David.
Jewish camp – with values like derekh eretz (character) and kehillah (community) – is powerful. Surrounded by their peers, kids build relationships that they couldn’t imagine at home. The power of camp is that it allows kids to truly become their best selves, no matter how hard that might seem the rest of the year. After this past summer, David’s mom sent us a note: “We are so happy that David has a place he can go and feel comfortable, make friends while being himself – Camp JRF is his home away from home. We believe his camp experience is preparing him in so many ways and we are grateful beyond words to you and your staff for giving him the opportunity.”
To tell you the truth, I’m grateful to her for giving us the opportunity. Learning from, laughing with, and just knowing David is truly a blessing. We are lucky to have him as part of our camp family.