Our Common Purpose

staffcircleOur staff have arrived for training and summer is soon underway! All year long I work hard to recruit staff, interview them, and hire the most exceptional applicants to work with our campers. This process comes to a climax on the first day of staff training week, when all the individuals who I have hired over the course of the year arrive to camp and gather in our Commons. There we circle up, and I get to see the team I have worked to form.

I love that moment when I look around the circle of staff for the first time. All of these faces that I know from the interviews that I conducted, along with little facts about their lives, goals, and interests. I know them all as individuals and now during this training week, I will work to transform this a group of unique individuals into a strong, united staff team. It is a phenomenal process, one that is only topped by the arrival of our campers.

I can’t wait to see how these staff members grow over the course of the summer and work to change the lives of our campers. They have so many talents to share, stories to tell, and skills with which to enrich the camper experience. For some staff members, this summer is a goal they have been working towards for years as a camper that grew up at camp. For others, this is an entirely new experience and one they are taking on with an open mind, open heart. But no matter our various backgrounds, we are all here for a common purpose – the kids.

We are really looking forward to the arrival of our campers so that we can work to change their lives in positive ways! I once attended a seminar where the presenter said something to the effect that without our campers, camp staff would simply be a collection of very trained, talented, and enthusiastic adults with nothing to do. As much fun as we are having this week, the magic isn’t created without our campers. So enjoy your final days of camp preparation at home and make sure to fill out all of your pending camp forms! We are waiting for your children and can’t wait to have the best summer ever.

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Posted on June 9, 2014

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Packing Up

110707.CampJRF.-508 - CopyYes, yes, I know…there is a woman in Manhattan who will pack your kids’ bags for camp for around a thousand dollars. No, seriously. I read about it in the New York Post here. They’ll get the “right” sheets of the appropriate thread count, as well as all the bunk-decorating paraphernalia/crap one could possibly imagine. Gotta use up that $1000 somehow.

In the piece, “social researcher” Wednesday Martin says there’s a new crop of professionals who hyperfocus on catering to the administrative aspects of child-rearing.  “Women who are Type A, hard-driving, competitive career moms—that is, being a mom is their career—can hire staff, assistants, professional organizers to help them do it better,” she said.

Isn’t it strange how it’s a mark of status in our culture to outsource things? Rather than cooking a delightful dinner for ourselves, a truly fancy celebration is marked by going to a restaurant – or, to take it up a notch, by hiring a personal chef to come in and whip up magic. There are tons of industries set up so as to take advantage of our latent insecurities—”I can’t cook an amazing meal, but some person who trained at Le Cordon Bleu can!”—and, of course, our latent laziness.

If you look at camp as a whole through this kind of lens, it might even seem that we are outsourcing our parental duties for the summer.

But this isn’t the case.

Camp is a testing ground for our kids to be themselves in a way that they simply can’t be at home. Their friends, their families, and even we, have our own perceptions of our kids that aren’t so easy to shake. “Oh, he’s the oldest—he’s the responsible one.” “Oh, she would NEVER take a leading role in a musical: she’s so shy!” At home, they struggle with their regular roles in family, activities and school, and with parental expectations. In contrast, camp is a place to experiment with one’s self, free of preconceptions and expectations, and to have fun.

So why, then, do I think it’s important for kids to be involved in packing for camp, rather than outsourcing it to someone who can do all the dirty work? Because believe me, I’ve been Googling the “right” socks on the Internet for about a week now, and definitely have better ways to spend my time.

Camp is perhaps the most independent your child has ever been, up until this point. And packing for camp is a chance to teach them that independence comes with responsibility.

Don’t get me wrong—my kids are 9 and 10, and I’m not prepared to let them pack entirely for themselves. I am, however, prepared to let them do the first round and to check their work, as it were (“Yes, soap is not an optional item.”).

Packing together also provides the opportunity to talk about any questions or concerns about camp, and to address them with your child. And when it comes down to it, I’d say that’s worth well over $1000.

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Posted on June 6, 2014

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Camouflaged Education

photo2How could I try to hide in plain sight? Well if I was well camouflaged I might use any combination of materials, coloration or illumination for concealment. In the wild I might do this by making myself hard to see in my environment or by disguising myself as something else. In terms of education I might do a great job by simply not announcing what I am doing as educational. I was thinking about this during a recent conference for the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Israel History. Thanks to generous support of the Lillian and Larry Goodman Foundations with contributions from The Marcus Foundation and the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the iCenter brought together representatives from 27 camps to have their staff explore how they might animate Israel in their camps for their campers.

It was in this context that one of the fellows remarked, “I used to think that there are Jewish camps that taught about Judaism and other camps that were fun. Our camp is a fun camp. And now I get it. You are asking us to make learning about Israel fun.” All of these mostly college aged fellows came together with many Israeli counterparts to enhance the Israel educational programming at their camps. The goal is to get them serious content through activities and materials in a way that they can customize to fit naturally in their camp environment. I am confident that fellows get it. Israel education can happen with rich content and subtle complexity, but at camp it needs to be camouflaged as fun.

Camouflaged education might be the essence of Shavuot, which begins tonight. The premise of our getting the Torah was our promise first to observe the laws of the Torah, and only afterward to study these laws. We received the Torah at Sinai because we said, “na’aseh v’nishma- We will do and we will hear/understand.” (Exodus 24:7) If we needed to study it in a formal setting first we might never have committed ourselves to the venture. There is a lot of anti-Israel rhetoric out there today, especially on our college campuses, and it gives me peace of mind to know that we can create a utopia of Jewish camp in which Israel education can hide in plain sight.

Posted on June 3, 2014

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Camp-moon!

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©Next Exit Photography www.nextexitphotographyThere always was the honeymoon. Then people started taking babymoons—a trip when they were pregnant, before their world was turned upside-down by a kid. Now I am getting ready for my seven week long CAMP-MOON. Obviously, I think camp is the best thing since sliced bread for all the right reasons—kids come home more independent, they develop new skills like leadership and community building, they’re better swimmers and can zipline with the best of them. They are more engaged Jewishly, may have led a service or sang a blessing, or were just in the company of great role models. And then there are a few more reasons, selfish ones, that we often don’t talk about.

I love my kids—with every ounce of my being. I love kissing their heads after they are fast asleep, I love how they cheer me down a ski mountain and I return the favor by cheering from the sidelines at umpteen softball and soccer games a year (we won’t mention the trips to the ER , really, I could live without those). I even love the late night questions. Tonight I got hit with “Mommy, we don’t believe in Jesus but we believe in Chinese medicine, right?” and “If twins are born at 11:59 pm on Monday and 12:01 am on Tuesday are they still twins?  What if those days were New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day?” (Thank you, Google for confirming that they still are twins.  Apparently my saying so just wasn’t enough).

Even though I long for all of this when they’re gone, I love sending my kids off to camp so I get the chance to reconnect—with myself, my friends and my husband. Who are we kidding? By reconnecting I really mean, eating. That bus pulls out of the parking lot, and my husband and I whip out our restaurant wish-list and start making reservations. Come on, anyone that just packed two kids for camp (while holding down a full time job) definitely deserves a cocktail. We have been waiting 10 months for this (live 10 for 2!).

So maybe it is a little more than a gluttonous journey through NYC’s finest. It is the time my husband and I have to actually have a conversation that doesn’t revolve around logistics, grades and rules for texting that we can barely enforce. We fall in love with each other all over again. These few weeks give me time to carve out real conversations with my girlfriends, not just a call them from the train to confirm that one of us is pawning off our kid on the other that weekend so we don’t have to pay for a babysitter.

Sure I miss my kids, miss their sleepy morning faces and shuttling them around from place to place. Even though I swear I won’t, I scan those camp pictures like every other Jewish mother. But I cherish the time I have with my husband.  I love not having to make a train and run through the station, praying I make it to a game to see my 10 year old pitch. Each day will inevitably start the same “Honey I can’t possibly go out again tonight” A green juice for breakfast, a salad for lunch and by 3:00…”a two-top please!  We are on our camp-moon.”

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Posted on June 2, 2014

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Teach Your Children Well

Camp_0053“The world we build tomorrow is born in the experiences we give our children today.”

Our Jewish tradition is centered on our children. On the long journey from slavery to freedom, which we symbolically started at Passover culminating soon at Shavuot, it is amazing how many times in the narrative that Moses keeps returning to the subject of raising Jewish kids.

“When your children ask you this, you should answer them that.” “Teach your child on that day.” “Say to your child …” Four times Moses speaks about the duty of parents to educate their children, handing on to them their people’s story until it becomes their own. Giving our kids the gift of identity. Knowing who they are. This is a central and recurring plank in our tradition.

How do we do this in this day and age? I believe the answer is Jewish camp, a fundamental necessity in the journey of our children to find out who they are.

Camp is unique. The world literally stops at camp’s gates. Each and every summer at camp our children get the chance to re-create their universe. Camp is “kidcentric” in a way that the outside world can never be. Camp is a community dedicated to ensuring that our children have the best time that they can. Camp is the antidote to the pressures that our kids are faced with at home. What do I mean by that? We live in the age of instant gratification, immediate convenience. Everything is there for us at the touch of a button and the flicker of a screen. We live in the “Me” age. Everything is there immediately. iPod, iPad,  iPhone (in my family IPay…). Literally, we can’t turn off our phones, and our children are glued to the devices that we have made them hostage to. Even our friendships are instant, making friends at the click of a button and deleting them in the same way. We can’t seem to leave our kids to their own devices anymore. The pull of the tablet is too strong.

At camp our kids get the chance to switch off, and in doing so get switched on to the “We” as opposed to the “Me” world. The friendships made at camp are real not instant, based on sharing and living together. Time spent at camp is like doggy years. 2 weeks at camp is like 3 months in the outside world. And the lessons learned are life lessons. The opportunities for our children to discover their talents, to nurture their skills, to develop friendships and to see the world from a different perspective to the pressurized “Me” world at home. Camp is life changing. Camp is a gift.

The Jewish concept of tikun olam, or healing the world, runs through the Jewish camping experience. I spent over 20 summers at a Jewish camp in the Deep South, working first as a counselor, then as a song leader and then as teen camp leader. I was lucky. I was able to give my wife and kids the Jewish camp experience. It was at camp that the Jewish values of tikun olam, healing the world, were re-enforced for all of us.

Camp is a place where our children learn that their actions can make a difference. A place where we can “say to our children,” to borrow the words of Moses, “that you can make a difference.”

Camp is a place where we can “Teach our children well.”

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Posted on May 29, 2014

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Why I Don’t Send “Nice” Things to Camp

©Next Exit Photography www.nextexitphotography“WHAT is that SMELL?”

It’s been almost a year, yet I still can’t quite forget the odor that permeated the car as we drove my son home from camp last year. He’d been away for almost four weeks, and though the day was pleasant up in the Hudson Valley, he requested air conditioning in the car. We obliged and closed the windows. Not five minutes later, the smell presented itself.

“What smell?” my son responded. I looked in the rearview mirror at him to see his smile, but saw none. He was genuinely curious.

“Hon, is it possible that you packed a dead animal in your bag?” I asked. “Or maybe an animal crawled into your duffel bag and died there? Because it smells unbelievable.”

“I don’t smell anything,” he responded, without a trace of sarcasm. “And no way, Mom, nothing died in my bag.”

“You realize,” my husband muttered to me as he turned off the air and cracked the windows, “that means this is a smell he is USED to.”

I turned around in the front seat to get a better look at him. And was immediately sorry I had.

The boy had taken off his shoes. Correction: he had taken off shoes that I didn’t recognize. These were shoes that were gray and hideously disfigured, pockmarked by holes, stains and unidentifiable sticky things. I’m sad to say that the socks underneath them were similar in both color and condition.

“My GOD! PUT THOSE SHOES BACK ON!” I said as I held my nose.

“You think it’s the shoes?” my son said with genuine curiosity. He leaned forward to sniff them, like a patron at a fine dining establishment presented with a particularly esoteric vintage.

“DON’T SMELL THEM!” I practically yelled. “Yes, it’s the shoes! Or maybe the disgusting socks! Didn’t the camp have laundry?”

“Yes,” he replied. “But I only used it for my dirty stuff.”

I shuddered, thinking of what awaited me in the “clean stuff” duffel bag. “But whose shoes are those?” I asked. “What happened to the shoes we bought the day before you left for camp?”

“Huh?” he responded. “Mom, these ARE the shoes we bought the day before camp.”

Reader, I can assure you that the sneakers I had purchased for camp were bright blue with a streak of orange. These shoes looked like they had emerged from Pompeii. And then fallen victim to a mudslide.

I tell you this story as a reminder to both you and I as we prepare to Pack for Camp, an activity involving multiple Sharpies and often multiple trips to Target and online shopping locales of your choice. The morals of this story, which we should take to heart in these times:

1. Assume nothing you send to camp will return anywhere near the condition in which you sent it.

2. Except, in my case, the unopened shampoo bottle. But that is another disgusting story for another day.

3. Therefore, there is no real point to getting “nice” things for camp. Camp isn’t supposed to be about things anyway.

4. When they eventually come home from camp, do yourself a favor and open the duffel bag outside. While wearing a hazmat suit.

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Posted on May 27, 2014

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My Favorite Camp Clothes

©Next Exit Photography www.nextexitphotographyHere 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.

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Posted on May 20, 2014

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The Four Parents

shutterstock_140757514“Does anyone have any questions?”

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.

Posted on May 13, 2014

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Easy Money

0413_138014-FJC_x_x - CopyFor 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.

Find out if this program is available in your area here

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Posted on May 12, 2014

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What Makes a Summer Camp “Amazing?”

friendsAmazing camps are made by amazing people. Not amenities.

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.

And visit One Happy Camper and BunkConnect for ways to make camp affordable.

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Posted on May 9, 2014

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