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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There is a cold bite to the air in the Northeast US that’s very much at odds with the blooming cherry trees and forsythia bushes. The wind has been whipping around my New Jersey house at night with an un-springlike vehemence. And maybe that seasonal incongruity is partially why it is so hard to believe that my kids will be going away to camp just about two months from today.
The cold makes it seem odd to commence all the “behind the scenes” parent prep work for camp: scheduling the physical checkups at the doctor’s office, sending all the forms in (if we count “mommy and me,” 4 of my 5 kids are going to camp this summer—that’s a lot of forms, people), getting everyone bathing suits and summer clothes in their new sizes…the list goes on and on.
But it’s time to start getting ready—and starting getting ready on the physical level can serve as a prompt for the equal necessity of emotional getting ready. Judaism’s calendar is very savvy about getting ready for momentous events. In the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Elul, we are supposed to take the time to devote ourselves to preparing for the new year. We do so through introspection and taking stock of ourselves, gauging how far we have come in the year about to end, and where we want to go in the year to come. And similarly, we are now in the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot, where we prepare ourselves for the holiday commemorating receiving the Torah from God. We anticipate the gift of the Torah, and take each day to demonstrate how much we want to take Torah into our own lives.
We need to not only start finding our Sharpies, but to start evaluating what we will be packing and what we will be missing as we start the countdown to summer. As parents, we need to take this time to talk to our children about camp. If they have concerns, we need to help our children to address them. Just as we wouldn’t send a kid to camp without underwear, we shouldn’t send him without the security that even if he will miss home, he can still have a wonderful experience away from it. And as parents, we need to look at ourselves and to evaluate how to counterbalance missing our children with encouraging them to take their first steps, however small, away from us.
Use this time to find web resources like Packing for Jewish Camp: 10 Tips and Packing Tips, Tricks, and Things that Aren’t on the List. Ask your camp for veteran parents in order to figure out what is the best way to pack and to communicate with your child – maybe you can even arrange a pre-camp playdate or two so your child will see familiar faces on that bus.
Camp may seem far away, but it really is just around the corner. The question is what we do with this time until it begins, and how we use it to best prepare our children and ourselves.
There has got to be something between Speedo and slutty.
I would love to meet all the girl and tween bathing suit designers out there. Just five minutes—so they can explain to me why it is necessary for there to be a bright pink hang tag that says “Fab fit feature…REMOVABLE PADS! How cool is that!” on a tankini in a girls size 8? Besides still playing a little dress-up in my bras, my 9-year-old is blissfully unaware of her chest (as she should be!). Please tell me why this is remotely necessary? And I’d love to know why there is a plethora of string bikini options for the elementary school set and very little options for those of us that prefer to keep our girls a tiny bit more covered, yet stylish.
I realize some girls develop earlier than others. My 12-year-old is an early bloomer—but would rather die than see that tag on a bathing suit. If you ask her, she doesn’t see why any kid would want to make her breasts look bigger.
Being the mom of 9- and 12-year-old girls, I have some pretty hard and fast rules for bathing suits. No string bikinis (there needs to be a serious band holding that top on!) no bra style or push up tops (yup—they are out there) no tie bottoms, no cut outs, no low cut bottoms—you get the picture. There are slim-pickings out there. Over the past month—a slew of boxes from Delia’s, Target, Nordstrom and Zappos have arrived on our doorstep (complete with huffing from my husband…) promptly to be repacked for returns after they turned out to be skimpier than they appeared to be online.
It is a given that one of us leaves the dressing room with tears in their eyes when we are bathing suit shopping. Them for being disappointed I won’t give in to the Roxy string bikinis that all the surfer girls wear—or me, thinking about how crazy it is that we have sexualized our children so much—in the way they dress and the media they are exposed to. I am far from a prude. You’re an adult? The more cleavage the better. Go for it—rock that string bikini. Maybe there should be an age restriction on this type of stuff like there is on voting and driving.
I am raising my girls with the hope that they are comfortable in their own skin—both physically and emotionally. Which is hard enough when “thigh gap” and “airbrushing” are part of their vernacular. They’re summer experiences at camp plays a big role in this for my girls. For seven weeks every year, the media and celebrity influences fade into the background. They test out new personas, new friendships and even new outfits (no bikinis are allowed at camp though!). They have a place where the pressure cooker of the everyday is a little less intense. Sure I cringe when I see a picture of them at camp in a pinney with just a bandeau underneath—and then I remind myself how glad I am that they are comfortable enough with themselves to pull it off. Yet, I plead with you Mr. and Mrs. Bathing Suit Designer—remember us moms that are trying to keep our girls little just a bit longer.
There are plenty of reasons I became a social worker and a camp director within the Jewish community. Recently, there have been a chain of events that have shown me that I had no idea what the true benefits of my job choice would be. I mean, I knew I was pretty fulfilled with my life; I enjoy waking up to go to work and feel somewhat valuable in the daily life grind. But there have been instances recently that have led me to believe that this job I chose might have this incredible side effect: this job gives me HOPE.
Hope, as defined by good old Webster’s, is: “a desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.”
Hope is perhaps the single greatest benefit that could be bestowed upon another person, and this job allows me to hope so very much. There are a lot of negatives in a daily CNN viewing – people seem to be pretty messed up on this planet. here are so many people fighting for freedoms, against violence and just for the right to gain more education that it is actually heart-breaking. I look around at times and wonder: WHAT IS GOING ON? People can’t shop at a mall safely. Countries are maiming and killing their own. Schools spend so much time trying to answer to the state that they don’t get an opportunity to create a love of learning. I could go on and on … and sometimes, for just moments, I do. I get so discouraged. It all feels like it is never going to get better.
But then it happens. I talk to one of my staff members from the summer and I realize that there is so much ahead. I know that working with children allows most people to gain some wistful thoughts about the future, but I am not talking about that. I am talking about being so blessed as to meet the next generation of people who are going to make this world a better place. I am talking about the letters I get to write to City Year, Avodah, Teach for America and other year-long volunteer programs that my staff are hoping to get into. I speak to them and they talk about taking a year off to work in organic farming, volunteer for an environmental company, or take a year to live in another country to educate people and gain knowledge about what is “out there.” These 20-somethings are not getting arrested for DUIs or creating havoc, they are not blasé about the world around them; they are creating change and working towards the betterment of others.
As camping professionals, we use the term “role model” for our staff. We talk with them about how the kids need to look up to them. But I don’t think it ever dawned on me that they are my role models too. These young people are what keep me positive and aware. They inform me about things that I sometimes have stopped paying attention to in my cynical views of the world. These young adults keep me HOPEFUL. They don’t let the world beat them down; they fight it, they know they can make a difference, and they give me back my idealism. Who would have thought it? I spend hours in a year creating an orientation for them to know how to work with children and all along they are giving me one of life’s greatest gifts just by being themselves.
Whether it be a video sent to me where ten of my former staff are celebrating Shabbat together and just wanted me to know that camp made a difference, or a staff member from 20 years ago posts a Facebook message that they are working with children who learn differently and that camp made the difference for them to chose that career, or even when I reconnect with my own peers from my days of being a camp counselor and I realize that, well, these people are the good ones, the ones who are doing things that make this world a more productive, compassionate, and better place. My staff call during their own time to let me know that two campers are having an issue on-line and how can they help. They ask me about what the adulthood thing is really like and are there any secrets to making it all work. They care for and about each other and others. They make me proud. With that pride comes a realization that something good is happening in these summer homes. We are not merely helping families and children through their search for a Jewish connection or a place where kids can be better than they get to be in their everyday lives. We are allowing these staff to create glimmers of positivity. They are learning and being and creating HOPE.