I often wonder if all roads lead us to the place where we are supposed to be. I don’t mean this to sound quite as philosophical as it might come across; I merely mean that there are so many moments in my life that are meant to be. The Chinese have an idea about this: it is called the red thread. This is the notion that when a child is born an invisible red thread connects the child to their past, present and future. As time passes all that is fated to be will happen.
I have a special place in my heart and soul for this thought. It started when I was 14 and a family who was Jewish asked me to babysit their adorable little girl. April had been adopted from Korea two years earlier and she and her parents were in the process of adopting her sister. I was babysitting for their family when little sister Jenna arrived and I continued to babysit for them through high school and well into college. The fact that their children were Asian and Jewish was something I noticed in a celebratory way. I loved the combination of the Korean masks that they had in their house and the menorah that sat right by it. It all made sense to me and seemed perfectly “normal.” I remember the girls going to Korean camp and having their bat-mitzvahs and recently have been blessed enough to watch April stand under the chuppah with her new husband. Asian and Jewish … it just seemed to fit.
Fast forward 20 years and my husband and I are talking about the choices we have in child getting. I have to be honest, for me the decision to adopt was very easy. I had this great example and well, it seemed to me that all the work in trying to have a child biologically was not really worth it if there were children who needed a home and we needed to be parents…. So adoption was the route we took… For my husband and me, this meant going to China in the winter of 2005 and adopting our Madeline Rose Hai Yan Chaya Shifra Nowack.
Fast forward seven years. I consciously chose a place to work that had a good deal of racial diversity for the Jewish community. And let’s be honest, racial diversity and American Jewry do not always go hand in hand. So, I chose to work at Camp JRF because there were other kids who looked like my daughter. There are kids of many races, and many different family styles at Camp JRF so I knew our daughter would fit in at this camp as much as she could in any place where most of the people look nothing like you. I was not prepared for Amy though.
Amy is a stunning 15 year old girl who was adopted from China in the 90s. She is part of the chalutzim, the early families who went to China when things were not as open as they are now. Amy is a smart, easy going girl who never really seemed phased by much at camp. A kid from the Midwest who never got caught up in the drama. So when she walked into my office and closed the door and started to cry I was shocked. She told me how I was the only one who could understand: someone had said something rude about Asians in her presence, not even connecting that she was Asian since, as this person said, “Well I mean you are Jewish…” And she was upset. Not even because her feelings were hurt but because she did not know how to feel. I looked at her and thought: “Oh …. This is that moment… When the red thread brought you to my office…”
We spoke for a while and we tried to solve all the racial issues of the Jewish community. We came up with the idea that nothing was going to be solved for a while. We spoke about how stupid people can be and how confusing things are and how even in the safest of places, like camp, reality is always there.
When Amy went back to her bunk she was better. Nothing was solved, but she knew she had a place to come to when she felt a bit weird about all of the stuff.
I, however, shut the door to my office and cried. I cried for all the kids who look different in one way or another and we as a Jewish community don’t remember that they are part of us. I cried for the moments when someone says something in front of me about others and assumes because I am Jewish I am going to agree with them. I cried because, truth be told, this was exactly what I had feared, that my decision to adopt our daughter and raise her Jewish would somehow leave her on the outside. Then I composed myself and celebrated. How great is it that my daughter can look to older campers and see someone who looks like her. That in her Hebrew school class there are three Asian Jewish girls – not all adopted. That the world gets smaller every day and that there are places all over where she can feel comfortable.
Mostly, I celebrated that the red thread had lead Amy to my office and Maddie to our home and that somehow this puzzle of race and culture and religion was going to be okay.
Sheira Director-Nowack is the associate director of Camp JRF in South Sterling, PA.
As a Jewish camping professional for the past 20 years, I have been cheer-leading, encouraging and convincing parents of the benefits of sleep away camp for their children. I have been proudly telling people how almost all of my wedding party went to camp with me (and there were eight bridesmaids…don’t ask); that when my father passed away (I was 15), the first people at his funeral were my camp friends and they made sitting shiva a less awkward experience for such a young person. These young women and men changed my life. They taught me about being proud of who I was/am, they lived through the struggles of adolescence with me and I am VERY proud to say I keep in touch with the 30 women from my age group in camp.
At 40, I am now the proud mother of the most amazing 8 1/2 year old ever to walk this planet (no bias there of course) and she will be going to sleepaway camp for the first time this summer. I mean, she has been at camp her whole life: she learned to walk at camp and when we adopted her from China, the whole camp and all the parents of our campers cheered. The Jewish camping community has been a constant in helping me and my husband raise our daughter. This summer though, it will be different… She will be living in a bunk, away from us, for the first time. (By “away from us” I mean less than a mile from my camp house…) This has been a HUGE learning experience!
I think to all the parents over the years who gave me their child’s specific regimen of face washing as I smiled and told them it would all be ok. To the parents that tried to explain every detail about their child to me so we could encourage their son to swim or their daughter to enjoy art. I think to the parents of a child who had special needs and going over their child’s medication regimen for like 40 minutes while I wrote the information down … even though it was all given to our medication distributor and our nurses. I think to the parent who had to ask me for financial aid to try to give their children a Jewish experience in an otherwise not so Jewish world. I think of all the hopeful moments when parents wished that this camp experience would help their child become a better person, a better Jew, a better anything, and I am humbled.
Truth be told, I am petrified for my daughter and for our family. My husband and I waited for three years to adopt her from China and now someone else is going to be taking care of her for the summer? Someone who might not know that she likes ketchup on her hotdogs and BBQ sauce on her chicken nuggets? Some wonderfully intelligent young woman (who I interviewed and hired!) who might not be aware of what “that face” looks like… the one right before she starts to cry. WHAT AM I DOING?!?!
Then the other part of me comes into play… the part of me that is THRILLED for her to come into her own surrounded by loving and caring Jewish values. The part of me that knows that the people she will meet will influence her to become someone more than who she already is. She is going to learn to LOVE to be in a Jewish world, share her identity, her interests, and her ideas with other kids. She is going to gain more independence, learn about others and herself and have influences that I could never provide her. She is going to have strong young men and women to look up to and to role model. She is going to learn to brush her own hair, make her own bed, clean up after herself, pick her own food, laugh at what SHE thinks is funny, roll her eyes at the people in charge, dance in the rain and ignore the adults as she giggles with her friends because of something RIDICULOUSLY silly that someone said.
The notion that others will have an effect on her is what I think I get a tad nervous about for a moment. I think to the gorgeous little girl who they put in our arms in an orphanage, and I am teary-eyed about her growing up. I mean, I knew it was going to happen but it seems to have gone EXTREMELY fast. The reality is that someone once told me everyday your children are growing away from you and into themselves. This step into the sleep away camp world is just a more concrete way of seeing that. I think again to all the parents who are crying as they roll out of camp. I think to how happy I am when they leave and we are just us…the camp world…ready to do all these incredible things for children…and I think perhaps I have been a tad hard on them. I think that I am going to have more patience and more unconditional love to my fellow mommies and daddies who really just want their most precious and loved child to just be ok.
I think the most important lesson I have learned in this is that we are all always growing. I trust my camp sooooo much. However, I will never again think that a parent is giving me too much information, I will never again wonder why Mr. So-and-So is calling me for the fifth time this week, I will never again giggle inside when a parent tells me they only got three letters this week from their daughter or tells me that the counselor looks awfully young and am I sure she/he can handle their child. I have made myself a promise that I will share with all of you: I will not call myself everyday to see how my daughter is doing (as I am the person who speaks to all the parents); I will not ask her rosh eidah (unit leader) if she is washing her hair; and when I see her at breakfast in some outfit that looks like she got dressed in the dark, I will not cry … well at least not in front of her….