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?
My life is as a voyeur. In fact, social media has turned us all into complete voyeurs. We follow blogs of people we have never met, are cheerleaders for Team Ethan, and wait for the next post from Superman Sam’s mom. Who hasn’t clicked on the Facebook page of the first person that broke their heart way back when? Not to mention trying to keep up with the Instagram pages of our kids and their 617 friends. Oh and all those beautiful “how to get beachy waves” tutorials—I keep watching, and it ain’t working. And, it is about to get much worse…
I am about to become the biggest voyeur of them all. It’s time for camp pictures. Every year I promise myself that I am not going to be tied to my CampMinder, the pictures can wait until morning. Yet once my kids leave, every night as it nears 10pm, I find myself reaching for my phone, the iPad, or fighting my husband for the computer to catch a glimpse of my smiling girls at camp. Or at least a pic of a kid in a t-shirt that I think could possibly belong to one of my kids (that means they have friends, right?), or a corner of one of their towels as they zip by the background of the picture (if they are wrapped in a towel, they aren’t lost on the lake), or a lost flip-flop that found its way into a picture (inevitably, things won’t make it home).
I am a pro at this. I preach it: camp is the best thing to happen to kids since, well, ever. I know they are having the time of their lives and there is no greater gift I could give them. I also know the camp sifts through the pictures before posting them so even if there was one of someone having a questionable moment, I would never know it from the 548+ images posted each night. Yet, I just need to see one picture.
I’ve made some progress though. The first year my daughter was at camp, I would wake up at 2am and look at the pictures through very sleepy eyes if they weren’t posted before I fell asleep.
So, here are some promises I made to myself that I can keep this summer: I won’t call the camp freaking that they lost my children if they aren’t in pictures for a few days. And I won’t laugh at you that you did call the camp (and we will all know that you did when the first 7 pictures the next day are like a Bar Mitzvah montage of your kid)—I get it. I won’t give my kid a signal—it is really annoying to every other parent.
And I will apologize in advance for my behavior. If we happen to be out for dinner and I am in the bathroom for a few minutes too long, and slip my phone into my husband’s hands when I return to the table, sorry. Maybe by next year I’ll be able to wait for morning. But for now, my kids “live 10 for 2,” and I live for 10pm.
The kids are at camp…now what? Time to write them letters! But what do you write? Never fear: here are the only five tips you need to write great letters to your kid at camp.
1. Shorter is better.
The kid doesn’t want your long exposition about that jerk who cut you off on the highway, or how the copier jammed at work. The kid wants one sentence—tops—about your life, and you should make it a funny one (“Today, the baby vomited all over me—there might even be some left in my ear, not sure I got it all when I showered.”). Questions about camp, friends, etc. are good but again, limit yourself to a few per letter.
2. Use your judgment.
“I miss you so much I fall asleep crying every night – Daddy thinks I’m ridiculous, but I had no idea how much I would miss you! I sit in your room every night and close my eyes and imagine you are there with me” is something to tell your therapist, not your kid.
3. Take postal time differences into account.
Bear in mind that the first letter you get from your kid might say something about your kid being homesick—and that that letter is from at least 48 hours ago, which is about twenty years in camp time. Until you get a few letters, correspondence will be stilted. Keep it light and casual and fun: “Is the food good? Over here, Dad burned dinner last night—you were lucky to miss it.”
4. Funny beats flowery.
I’m mom to two boys at camp. I found out the hard way that they don’t appreciate the kind of letters I personally would like to receive. My multi-page epistles last summer—which were pretty well-written, if I do say so myself—might not have been unread, but I certainly didn’t get answers to any of my questions I posed therein. You know what these kids like? Stupid stuff. Cards with dumb looking pictures of dogs, printed out Far Side comics and idiotic jokes are much appreciated. I just bought the boys cards that, when you open them, a chicken dances to the tune of ‘I Like To Move It, Move It!” I am pretty sure that will be the one thing they remember about my correspondence the entire summer.
5. Postcards ROCK.
There are a ton of apps out there which make mailing your own picture postcard—that is, a postcard with a picture you’ve taken on it—quite easy. Some are easier than others. I personally prefer Postagram, which takes about one minute to do and is reliable, but others include Postify, Postcards on the Run and Touchnote. Again, go for funny—an amusing picture of small siblings will always work—or timely—like a picture of you clutching your face after watching the USA World Cup match, if that interests your kid. Postcards are great for the generation with the attention span of a Tweet, and the pictures will also double as bunk decoration for your kid. Everyone’s a winner.
Jewish camps across North America have opened, or are preparing to open, their gates to over 75,000 happy campers this summer. Whether you’ve already sent your trunks up to camp, or you are just starting to gather items on your packing list, remember that some of the most important things to bring with you aren’t things at all!
I recently received a pre-camp note from one of our camps. In it, was a suggested “Packing List” from Rabbi Joel Seltzer, director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. I’d like to share it with you.
Don’t worry – this packing list will not require another run to the store, more labeling of clothes, or any added concern about how any person is going to be able to lift the bags into the car!
So please remember to pack your kids with:
- A Helping Hand – Don’t forget to bring a caring spirit, always willing to help out a friend in need.
- An Open Mind – Remember that camp is built to offer new experiences, some of them challenging, but bring an open mind and you might just discover you found a new talent.
- A Love of Learning – Ramah is about growth; expanding horizons, and learning about Judaism, about Israel, and about the modern Hebrew language.
- A Mental Camera – Because sometimes the best moments and memories in life are captured in our minds, and shared with our friends; and not posted on Facebook.
- A Desire to Make New Friends – As you are packing, don’t forget what camp is all about – friendship! Make sure you bring a welcoming smile, a good joke, and who knows, you might just make a new best friend this summer!
I love this message. Yes, sunscreen and sneakers are necessary items, but instead of focusing on actual things we should be bringing, let’s focus on the things that allow us to get the most from our summer. After all, while it’s common for kids to forget their towel or socks at camp, they always bring their experiences home with them. And unlike material things, those experiences are irreplaceable.