Its ribs and wings night. I’m with my husband and eight month old son for two weeks at the camp where my husband and I met and fell in love. He’s the rabbi in residence and I’m playing and relaxing for most of the day with the baby. Camp is peaceful and is mostly how I remember it. Except for ribs and wings night.
Campers are exiting the kitchen with trays laden with spicy buffalo wings and what, I must admit, are some of the best barbecue ribs I have ever eaten. Each time a camper reaches his or her table the entire bunk erupts in mad applause and then sets about the task of even more madly devouring the meat as fast as possible, only for the camper-waiter to return to the kitchen and start the process over again. The salad bar, roasted sweet potatoes and crispy fresh cabbage slaw are on the whole being ignored, and by the end of the night the bones strewn about the tables and heaped into trash cans make the dining hall looks somewhat like a very productive archeological dig.
As my son happily plays on the grass after dinner (after all, his tummy is filled with delicious wings and ribs as well) I ask myself: What’s with the meat mania? There is meat almost every day at camp, and while the wings and ribs that the kitchen turns out are truly exceptional, they are no more so that the amazing roasted cauliflower or the Indian quinoa and tofu veggie meal from Friday night (yes, camp food really has improved!). Why does my otherwise peaceful camp go insane every time there are wings and ribs?
Like brisket, potato latkes, homemade birthday cake, fresh matzah brei and turkey with stuffing, the wings and ribs served at camp are delicious, eaten infrequently, and aren’t exactly the healthiest meal around. The combination of these three factors creates the aura of a superfood (different from the kale and blueberry type of superfood) that is the stuff of legends. There is nothing wrong with indulging in a rarely procured, fatty and entirely delicious food, but there is a way to do so that we don’t get carried away.
To take a line from Pirke Avot (The Ethics of our Fathers), “In a place where there are no men [human beings], strive to be a man [human].” (Pirke Avot 2:5) In other words, enjoy the wings and ribs, but try to have some of the sweet potatoes and veggies with them. Check in with yourself every once in a while to see if you really are still hungry, and eat slowly, enjoying each delectable bite. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with applauding the arrival and consumption of a great plate of food, but I encourage you to do so with mindfulness of why and how the food attained such an elevated, important status.
Keep in mind as well that not all meals at camp (or elsewhere, for that matter) are as special as wings and ribs, but that they can be just as delicious and satisfying in their mundane-ity. The “profane” comforting breakfast of unsweetened oatmeal and banana I consume every morning at camp, including the morning after the “sacred” wing and rib night, reminds me to try to appreciate the continuum that is camp food.
There is definitely an amusing sub-genre of literature to be found in the letters kids send home from camp (anyone interested in a book called “Sh*t My Kids Write From Camp”? Drop me an email). Let’s just say that it is fairly clear that we no longer live in an epistolary society in which people pour out their thoughts and feelings on tear-stained pages. I mean, I did as a kid, but we have clearly established that I am a freak.
No, instead we live in the era of the tweet, in which children seem to think that three sentences, tops, can distill the essence of experience. And sometimes, surprisingly, they can.
I asked my friends who are parents of overnight campers for their favorite camp letters received from their children. None of this, note, was ever mentioned in What To Expect When You’re Expecting. Here are some of my favorites:
“Our bathroom smells HORRENDOUS. If you could please send Febreze Thai Dragon Fruit, I would love camp even more.” (Parent notes that said aroma is discontinued.)
“OMG Lebron went to the Cavs. Could you throw that poster of Lebron away. Love you.”
“Where is my package?”
“Dear Mom, I have no time to write.”
“I will miss you.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t take a picture with [sibling] because his poison oak is very contagious.”
“Dear Mom, you forgot to pack me a toothbrush. Can you bring one on Visiting Day?” (Note: Visiting Day = four weeks from date of letter)
“I have good and bad news. Good news is I found my lost flip flop. Bad news is in chess I lost a pawn and a knight.” (This was the entire letter)
“I learned how to light a fire with a lighter.”
And, my personal favorite:
“Dear Mom and Dad, Your last letter was too short. Love, David.”
Later this month, my fifteen-year-old son, Jonah, is off to Camp B’Nai Brith (CBB) in the Laurentians, about an hour north of Montreal. He’ll stay for a full session, three weeks, longer by far than he’s stayed before. Naturally, I’m feeling some anxiety on his behalf. Or projecting, as my wife Cynthia calls it. She has a point. The idea of being in an isolated place for a prolonged period with strangers and nature (i.e. mosquitoes and a lack of air condition and Wi-Fi) has never been my idea of fun. That’s why my case of cold feet will be getting colder as the day of Jonah’s departure approaches. It’s in my nature, as a person and a writer, to find inspirational quotes that may be appropriate to any given situation. Inevitably, though, the quotes end up being inadequately inspirational. Like this one from the British writer Julian Barnes: “Time… give us enough time and our best supported decisions will seem wobbly…”
I also find myself wondering how much Jonah really wants to go. Projecting again, no doubt. In any case this kind of information would probably be hard to pry out of any teenager. Still, I know kids must get cold feet about sleep-away camp, too. Cynthia enjoyed her time as a camper and later a counselor, but she also remembers her decades-old “Y” camp song word for word. The first couple of lines, alone, are a model of adolescent ambivalence: “I go to YCC, so pity me. There’s not a boy in the vicinity.”
Measuring Jonah’s mixed feelings can be tricky. Jonah has autism and he can have a hard time making it clear how he’s feeling. Cynthia and I know him well enough to read between the lines of his sometimes off-topic conversation. But we also look to his behavior for unspoken clues. The other day, for instance, my sister, Marilyn, and I took Jonah shopping to pick up some of the extra clothing he needs for camp. When he and I got home we showed everything we bought to his mother and then I put them on his bed so he could put them away as he does with all his clothing. We’d bought some pretty cool t-shirts and shorts so I figured he’d want to wear them till he left for camp in a few weeks. The next day though I couldn’t find any of the things we’d bought. I looked for them in every drawer. I quizzed his mother. Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place. I asked Jonah where all his stuff had gone.
“In my bag,” he said.
“What bag?” I asked.
“The one for CBB.” And, indeed, there they were. All stuffed into one of the gym bags he will be taking with him to camp. It seems he can hardly wait.
His keenness is reassuring. Never more so than last weekend when Jonah, Cynthia, and I visited the CBB’s pre-camp Open House. Jonah was happy to see everyone, including counselors and staff he didn’t know. If my son has a philosophy, it’s cornier than mine but a lot more, well, inspirational. Summed up, it’s something like: “A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.” But he was really excited to see the counselors who were at CBB for his shorter stay last year. In fact, he seemed to have nicknames for all of them. “Hi, Quiet Wyatt,” Jonah shouted to one young man, who shouted back, “Hey Jonah, great to see you back!” He hardly looked like the quiet type, which was what made the nickname funny, of course. “Max and the Yaks” was what Jonah told me he calls the fellow who runs the camp’s circus program.
Jonah loves animals, especially unusual ones, so when he met his unit head, Mike, the two immediately hit it off, discussing animals from Mike’s native Australia. I volunteered kangaroos and received a look of disappointment from both Jonah and Mike. Mike seems to have had his fill of kangaroos as the iconic but hopelessly clichéd symbol of his country. Instead, he provided Jonah with a great deal of information about the platypus. “You know it’s one of the only mammals that lays eggs,” Mike said. Then he told Jonah it was from the small family of animals known as monotremes. “Like horses are equines and cows are bovines?” Jonah asked. “That’s right, mate.” Mike seemed to know just how to talk to Jonah, which was reassuring. Cynthia also found out that in Australia he was a teacher and had a class of kids with autism. Driving home, I already felt my feet warming up. Jonah and I also brainstormed about nicknames for his newest stranger/friend. So far, though, we’ve only settled on what Jonah won’t call him—Kangaroo Mike.
The following post is the second in our summer series hearing from the camps that were launched as a result of FJC’s Specialty Camps Incubator.
In an often-told story, Rabbi Hillel was asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot. His response was, “What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow person.” This is the foundation of the most basic rule of Jewish ethics: We should do no harm to other people.
Most of us don’t think of skipping the gym or choosing fries over salad as ethical decisions. These are personal decisions, the rationale goes, because they don’t harm others. But before deciding on your next snack, you might consider a very new perspective on Jewish ethics: Making unhealthy decisions is unethical because of the impact those decisions have on our peers.
Let’s use a brief thought experiment to understand why: If I were to tell you that most of my friends are health-conscious gym members, what would be your most reasonable conclusion about me? If you answered that I am also a health-conscious gym member, then you have successfully learned something about me from a statement about my friends.
Some recent research actually provides scientific backing for this conclusion. Social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found a correlation between our personal health choices and the choices made by members of our social circle. Their study, which relied on data from one of the longest health studies of the past 100 years, The Framingham Heart Study, led to the theory that seemingly-personal decisions about health influence the behavior of others. When one person in a community is active and eats healthy foods, everyone around them is more likely to do the same.
The Talmud teaches that “all of the people of Israel are responsible for one another.” Based on this ideal, we all might do a little more to make good choices and inspire healthy living in our community. This is why my wife and I decided to launch Camp Zeke, the first Jewish camp where kids celebrate healthy, active living.
Our inaugural summer is off to an amazing start. Campers are choosing from action-packed electives like running, yoga, strength training, dance, gymnastics, Krav Maga, and sports. They’re also putting on aprons and cooking healthy, gourmet dishes with a professional chef. In the process of making lifelong memories and forming amazing bonds with new friends, our campers are making very real connections between Judaism, nutrition, and fitness. When they go back home as ambassadors of vibrant good health, they will bring all of us one step closer to a healthier Jewish community.
Papers were flying and staples were clamping, stickers were delivered, and DVDs were organized. Another summer, and therefore, another fast day was upon us. It was dinner on the 14th of July in Cleveland, GA, and it was time to frame Yom HaPartisanim, or, as we’ve been calling it, Yom Partisans.
For the past two years at URJ Camp Coleman, we have done a dedicated day of Jewish learning to commemorate the holy, solemn days of Tisha B’Av (9th of Av) and/or Shiva Asar B’Tammuz (17th of Tammuz). Last year our campers learned about a non-Jewish man who wrote visas to allow Jews to escape from Lithuania during the Holocaust. You can read about it on last year’s day of learning blog entry!
This year, as the cheers for Letter Lotto (a beloved write-mail-and-you-might-win-you-a-towel program) quieted down, I spoke to our population of 650, introducing Ruth Bielski Ehrreich, the daughter of Tuvia Bielski (played in the movie by James Bond, Daniel Craig in the movie Defiance):
“Tomorrow is a Jewish holy-day called the 17th of Tammuz, not a holiday, that commemorates bad things that happened to the Jewish people, like the beginning of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem thousands of years ago. On the 17th of Tammuz, traditionally, we fast and learn about Jewish history. At URJ Camp Coleman, we have a dedicated day of learning. Tomorrow, we’ll be learning about the Jewish Partisans who fought against the Nazis during the Holocaust, during WWII. We have a visitor here with us who is going to help us learn about her family, the Bielskis, that led a group of 1200 Jewish Partisans during the Holocaust. There was a movie called Defiance about the Bielskis’ story. Check out the trailer:
Throughout the day of the 17th of Tammuz (July 15th), there was Partisan learning happening around camp, thanks to Ruth, thanks to our unit programmers and staff, thanks to our faculty, and thanks to the help of the Jewish Partisans Education Foundation. Unit programming that day was about the Partisans and the realities of living in the forest for three years. Younger campers learned about what it was like for the Partisans to live in the woods and how they decoded messages and confused the Germans, our middle school kids learned about leadership, history and ethics of the Partisans, and our oldest campers learned about the women in the Partisans. Every meal featured at least a video, if not a discussion question, about different parts of Defiance or short films about the Partisans. Evening services were leadership and heroism themed, and every group in camp had a chance to listen to Ruth telling her story over the course of the day.
For our oldest 3 units’ evening program, groups were divided with kids in every grade, counselors, faculty and other staff facilitated debates about tough moral choices and leaving ghettos to join the Partisans. As the sun set, our oldest campers were conversing respectfully, and listening carefully as Ruth told her family’s moving story.
Over the course of Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, the Bielski story was shared with 650 people in the Coleman community. Each learned something age-appropriate, and each will walk away from this summer remembering that while bad things happened to the Jews, we always fought back. Another day of learning has come and gone, but the lessons will remain. We will never forget.
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I have received at least seven e-mails proclaiming that they have the GOTTA-HAVE items that I NEED to bring to my camper on visiting day!!!! MUST GET THEM NOW!!! If you don’t spend at least $100 on this stuff showing that you love your child, then you are a crappy, crappy parent! (Okay, maybe that last part was just implied.)
Isn’t it weird that we spend so much money to send our kids to a comparatively bare-bones environment to teach them “what’s really important”—and then, on Visiting Day, we are supposed to land back in their lives with a dramatic splash of materialism in the form of personalized M&Ms, autographable t-shirts and light-up, dancing toys?
Here are some of the items that I am told that my camper will go into cardiac arrest if he does not receive them on visiting day:
- Collectible small figurines with crazy hair that will dance when they ‘hear’ music. “Get the whole set for the bunk!” If things are going well, I’m assuming my kids will dance when they hear music. Props not necessary.
- Cookies with the camp name on it, or a photo of your family! Is that not encouraging the child to eat their feelings?
- Plastic crap. Okay, it’s not called “plastic crap” explicitly—it is called things like “camp name bottlecap necklaces,” or “camp name ponytail holders.” You can buy 3D stickers with camp iconography that, mysteriously, say things like “Roughin’ It!” Hmm.
Maybe I’m a killjoy, but really—enough. Without even knowing you, I’m pretty sure your kid doesn’t need more stuff, much less disposable stuff that is going to be filling a landfill in under four weeks. In fact, I’m willing to bet that you already sent your kid to camp with a ton of stuff. Do they really need a $55 candy version of their bunk?
If you’ve sent your kid to Jewish camp, the camp has done good and hard work over the past few weeks teaching your kid what is really essential. They’ve taught your kid explicitly in Jewish-oriented classes and services, and implicitly in the form of daily values. The sages once said, “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid.” They did not mention anything about an autograph pillow, or color war nail polish.
Your child has spent the past few weeks learning independence and joy in a Jewish context. You can augment and supplement that lesson your visiting day with hugs, kisses and words, not stuff. Not only will it be more consistent with the wonderful things camp is trying to teach your child, but it will also last a lot longer and be much more memorable.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) launched the second cohort of camps this summer through the Specialty Camps Incubator. We asked all of the specialty camps to tell us about what it looks like to be Jewish at a specialty camp. The following post is the first in our summer series.
Our director, Rabbi Eliav Bock, often says that our most impactful area of camp is not the rock climbing, backpacking trips, kayaking, or anything else—but rather the food choices that we make as a specialty camp. This is one aspect of what sets us apart as an outdoor adventure camp. We really strive to lift the veil on the food preparation process and involve our campers in it.
As a longtime Ramahnik, and recent transplant to Ramah Outdoor Adventure, I have had over 2000 camp meals in my life. While I have many fond memories of camp meals and routines, none have been quite like the dining experience that happens here at Ramah Outdoor Adventure. The first and most easily noted difference is the routine, which begins with a siur haochel (food tour) delivered by one of our tzevet mitbach (kitchen staff) upon entering the chadar ochel (dining hall).
This food tour includes an announcement of the menu and a discussion of what nutritional features or special ingredients the day’s meal might have. Past tours have focused on the anti-inflammatory properties of coriander or how quinoa is a complete protein, just to name a couple. Whatever the fact of the day, it helps everyone present to understand and appreciate the meal.
Our meals are longer than I am used to having in a camp setting, which allows for deeper conversations with tablemates as well as a more leisurely eating pace. Due to the more relaxed nature of the meals, we are able to fully understand the processes the food went through to reach our table, as opposed to simply wolfing down our food.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the meals at Ramah Outdoor Adventure is the lack of red meat or poultry. Tasty and more sustainable alternatives such as quinoa, tofu, seitan, and salmon have frequently graced our tables, however. As a part of Yom Wild Wild West, we brought in a shochet to discuss the ritual slaughtering process with chalutzim (campers/pioneers) who chose to attend. He discussed his process of going from vegan, to vegetarian, to kosher meat eater with everyone, and how his food process informed his Judaism.
These conscious decisions enable everyone to think about the environmental, moral, and social effects of the consumption of such foods. Much of our meat now comes from a kosher farm run by a camper’s family. Also, all of our fish and dairy, and much of our produce, is sourced locally.
Our Jewish values teach us bal tashchit; (do not destroy, coming from the Biblical commandment not to cut down fruit trees in times of war) at Camp Ramah, we take this commandment seriously. We follow the maxim “take what you want, and eat what you take.” Food left on plates is weighed as a part of a competition between age groups to have the least amount of food waste, and we compost as much as we can. Because we are “guardians of the earth,” we do as much as we can to minimize our impact via the choices we make about food consumption.
I have been continually impressed in my time here so far with the quality, intention, and effort that go into providing three daily meals. As I continue to learn my new home here at Ramah in the Rockies, I discover more and more about the camp and food culture here.
Every aspect of our nutrition here at Ramah in the Rockies is geared towards increasing awareness of the process undergone to get food on the table. Our campers leave camp imbued with a strong sense of responsibility with regards to their food and an extensive understanding of the importance of environmentally friendly nutrition. I look forward to seeing how the food education at this camp will transform the lives of all of our chalutzim and their families.
Full disclosure: I feel like running a victory lap right now. My son, who had a terrible overnight camp experience last year, just came home from two weeks at another overnight camp—and LOVED IT. So much so, that he made me sign up for next summer. Knowing that your kid had a great time—and overcame demons of homesickness fought unsuccessfully last summer? Priceless.
And in this process, I’ve learned come to realize a few things—about sending my kid to camp, but also important reminders to me as a parent.
1. You can’t control everything.
You just can’t. You can pack everything you think they’ll need in the bag, but that’s about it. They might have a fight with their best friend. They might get sick. There is nothing you can do.
And that’s a valuable lesson as a parent—that is LIFE. They’re going to be rejected by a date or a college, at some point. They are going to do poorly on tests despite intense preparation. They are going to get sick just before the prom. As Elsa wisely says, you’re going to have to learn to Let It Go. These things happen—and as a parent, you need to be able to dig into a sense of self and self-confidence to know that…
2. There are a lot of reasons why a kid might not like a given experience; it’s up to you to test the variables.
If your kid doesn’t take to overnight camp like a fish to water, that does not mean that you, as a parent, have screwed up irreparably and completely, or that the dream of overnight camp has to die. It actually can mean a lot of things.
Just like a doctor has to evaluate the entire range of symptoms before making a diagnosis, so too does a parent have to really examine their kid—and know their kid—before determining that “he just doesn’t like camp.” Maybe your kid just doesn’t like THAT camp.
Maybe sending your dance-oriented daughter to a soccer-oriented camp because her best friend is going there wasn’t the best idea. Maybe a camp of 500 kids is overwhelming to a kid who is more of an introvert. As in all of parenting, you need to test every element of the experience before writing the whole thing off completely. This is time-consuming but is well worth the effort.
3. Your kid will surprise you.
I thought I knew my kid pretty well, but I have to say, I was floored by his answer when I asked him, “Why did you love camp this summer and not last summer?” See, I was expecting him to say something like, “Because last summer was a more camp-camp, and I loved being at a camp where everyone was an artist like me this year.” Or “I went for a shorter session, and that gave me security – I knew I didn’t have to miss you too long.”
But you know what my kid said in answer to that question?
“It was really nice that I didn’t have to go to the same camp as [my brother].”
I said that I was surprised, because I always kind of thought he liked his brother. He was quick to say he does—but that it was really nice being in a separate place, where he could be totally on his own and independent. And while that was surprising, I completely understood. And I thought it was amazing that here he’d just come back from an experience that made him confident enough to be able to admit it.
At each of the three camps I attended, I only knew one person in my bunk the first year I went to that camp. I went to camps which mostly attracted kids from different neighborhoods, schools and synagogues. It was a chance to re-invent myself, to have a different identity. And having different girls around, who knew nothing about me, unlike the girls with whom I attended school from kindergarten on, was, looking back, liberating.
I was a “smart” girl in school but that didn’t really matter in camp since there was only one period of shiur (learning Jewish subjects) which was, of course, my favorite even though most everyone else slept through it. I was not good at sports so I experienced being really, really bad at something which had never happened in school. I can’t say that was fun but it did help me figure out how to negotiate difficulties. I admit it: I lied. I pretended I had ear aches, had my period four times in eight weeks, sprained my finger.
I did like arts and crafts and eventually I helped do scenery for the camp’s plays and then for our school productions. I also became the art editor of my high school year book a few years later.
My all-girls high school didn’t give us much opportunity to hone our flirting skills. But camp did. Apparently, I was a natural.
The girls in my bunk were much more interested in clothes than I was, knew the latest songs on the radio which I didn’t, and came from suburban areas, rather than the big city that I was from. For the most part, they were less religiously observant. It was good to be with a different group and each time I changed camps, I chose not to go to those that most of my school and neighborhood friends went to.
So it was very interesting to me that when my twin grandsons went off to camp last week, and learned that they knew 10 out of the 16 other boys in their bunk, one shrugged but the other was distressed. He told his mom that he “wanted to be with some friends, but also wanted the chance to make new friends – because that’s what camp is all about!”
I was surprised that he really “got it.” That camp is, indeed, an opportunity to stretch, to get to know different kids, try different things, form new friendships.
But I don’t think he yet realizes that meeting new people helps you meet yourself in a different way, too.
Do you think you could sum up your camp experience in just six words? If not your entire experience, what about a summer? How about a session? I’m sorry if it sounds like a pretty impossible task. (To be honest, I completely understand.) After all how do you sum up weeks (or years) of memories in just six words?
You see I pose this question to get at a larger question … how do we tell stories at camp? How do we use these stories to build friendships? One of the absolute best things we do at camp is help kids build friendships with one another. Same thing goes for our staff too … ask any counselor why they come back to camp summer after summer, and rarely will they say the food. Sometimes these friendships burn hot and fast for a summer, and sometimes they last an entire lifetime. Regardless of their longevity, how our kids create these friendships is almost as important as the friendships themselves. Staff, counselors, specialists … friendships are what keep everybody coming back to camp summer after summer.
However these friendships don’t just magically appear out of thin air. We create them by sharing stories of ourselves. This can be really difficult for even the most seasoned camper and staff, let alone new ones. Last week I wanted to get our supervisors thinking about the importance behind sharing stories, so I asked if they could sum up one of their camp experiences in just six words. This particular project, which is based off the Six Word Memoir on Jewish Life project from Reboot and Smith Magazine, takes an inherently Jewish concept (asking questions and telling stories) and re-imagines it in a way that would challenge even the most Twitter-savvy person.
Some of them were funny, “New Facebook Profile Picture. Shabbat Shalom!” Some of them were personal “Felt Invisible. Cried. Found A Home” and all were in some way universal “Here For Summer, Home For Life.” 25 supervisors participated in this program, and I felt like I got a glimpse into a hundred different camp stories. All it took was six little words. What’s yours?