Tag Archives: Camp Directors

“Don’t Forget!” Preparing Your Kids for Camp … and Beyond

I was nine years old my first summer at camp. When I came home, my mother (who had never been a camper herself) unzipped my duffel bag and was shocked — everything was wet, smelly, covered with sand, and starting to turn a little green. The next summer, as we packed for what I knew would be the best three weeks of the year, she sat me down and told me that I should remember three things while I was away: have fun, don’t do anything stupid, and, most importantly, don’t mix wet with dry. When I went to college, she put a note in my bag telling me how proud she was of me and reminding me of these same three rules. For my family, these have become shorthand for how to take care of yourself.

Copy of 110707.CampJRF.-265Over the past few weeks, there have been blog posts sprouting up about preparing for camp. Certainly there are clothes to buy, envelopes to address, bags to pack. In the midst of all these logistics, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really important — preparing your kids for an experience of growth and self-exploration. As a camp director, it’s my job to provide an environment for your kids to thrive and grow; as parents, it’s your job to give them the grounding they need to make this possible. So, here are some things I’ve learned from parents (and campers) along the way that may help you take a break from packing to get your kids really ready for camp…

Don’t forget family traditions! One Friday afternoon, I was running around camp getting ready for Shabbat. I walked through the office and saw a fax coming off the machine for one of our teen campers. I looked over and was perplexed: on the piece of paper were images of two hands. At dinner that night, I handed the paper to the camper and her eyes lit up. “They are my dad’s hands,” she said, as she turned the paper over and put it on her head. “He blesses me every week for Shabbat, and since we’re not together, this is how he can do it.” As the weeks of that summer and many others followed, I always knew that the fax machine would ring just before Shabbat or the FedEx would arrive on Friday morning. And I knew that, even though they were in different places, this father would always bless his daughter for Shabbat.

Kids love being away at camp, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be connected to what’s going on at home. If you bless your child on Friday night, send her the blessing in a note every week. If you read your child a poem every night before he falls asleep, send it on a card for him to post next to his bed. Showing kids that they can be independent but also deeply connected to you is one of the most important parts of sending them away.

Don’t forget to ask for help! A friend sent her oldest child to camp a few years ago with an instruction: when they take your picture for the website, put a thumbs up if you’re doing okay and if something is wrong, leave your hands at your side. This was their way of ensuring that, if something was wrong, the mother would know to call camp to check it out.

On one hand, I love this: a secret code between parent and child that allows them to communicate “in real time” over the summer when we don’t allow phone calls, emails, or texts.  On the other hand, I hope that parents will also tell their children: if you’re having a hard time, make sure you to talk to a friend or a counselor. If that person isn’t able to help you feel better, go talk to a group leader or head counselor. (Think of it kind of like asking to speak with a manager when you don’t get the answer you want from customer service.) And if that doesn’t work — go straight to the top. I know that every camp is set up differently and that camp directors are busy people. But I, for one, want to know if a kid is having a tough time so that we can work together to make things better; as camp professionals, we live for these moments when we can help kids overcome challenges.

It’s good that this mother and son had a way to ensure that both had peace of mind during his first summer away. But it’s also important to teach your kid that sometimes she needs to speak up for herself when she’s unhappy. It’s important for kids to know that there are adults, in addition to their parents, they can trust. Camp is a safe place to try this out.

Don’t forget who you are! Camps are fond of saying that they help children to build character. At Camp JRF, we help campers (and staff) understand that they aren’t building who they are — they just need to be who they already are, being sure to live their values and ideals in all they do. Our staff has heard me tell this story many times: I walked by two 12-year-old boys, one of whom was with us for the first time and had, apparently, just made fun of another camper. The other boy, who was with us for his second summer, looked at him and said: “that’s not how we act here.” This boy took pride in our camp culture, but he also took pride in his role as a friend, an ally, and a member of the community.

Before they leave for camp, talk with your kids about values. Remind them of their deepest held values. Discuss what it means to stand up for someone else. Let them know how proud you are of them for remembering to be their best selves, even in moments where it’s challenging.

So as you finish those last minute preparations for this summer, take a moment to remind your kids of who they are as individuals and as part of your family. Remind them of the blessings you share with them, let them know that it’s okay (even more than okay!) to ask for help, and give them the power to stand up for others.

Oh yeah — and don’t forget to tell them not to mix wet with dry.

Posted on June 11, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Why Camp?

This is the last in a series of four blog entries called “Why Camp?” 

Part 4: Spirituality and Positive Jewish Experience at Camp Tawonga

Summer camp is the ideal environment for positive Jewish engagement because it is the place children experience what sociologist Emile Durkheim coined, “collective effervescence.”  This is the uniquely powerful shared group phenomenon in which a certain “electricity” is generated that transports the participants to a higher level of spirituality.   It happens when campers stand with their arms around each other watching the sunset.  It happens when children’s voices are joined in joyous song.   It happens when a touching story is shared around the campfire.

198_110813-FJC_x46Such experiences require the confluence of three elements, all of which camp provides:  immersion in an intentional community; removal from the mundane distractions of home; and the absence of inhibiting factors like parents, school mates etc.   This combination enables enduring positive associations with whatever ritual behaviors are incorporated, thus making the camp director’s content choices extremely important.  These choices are driven by the underlying mission of each camp.

At Tawonga, our mission is to create positive associations with Judaism and the global Jewish family.  This goal is primarily about FEELINGS, so our choices in program, staffing and liturgy are always made with their affective value in mind.   Although we hope children also pick up some knowledge of our custom and culture, our priority is to build emotional ties.  There is a tradition amongst Hasidic Jews to give children a taste of honey when they start to read Hebrew so that they associate Torah with sweetness.  In a parallel way, Tawonga aspires to be the experiential equivalent of that honey.

In our first blog post for The Canteen, we wrote about the first goal of Tawonga’s mission: building children’s sense of self-worth, pride and confidence.  This works synchronously with our spiritual goal because a key component of self-esteem is knowing one’s own heritage.  When these goals are pursued by staff who fully embrace the mission, children return from their time at camp with a new sense of personal identity, group belonging, and connectedness to their people, their history, and to the greater global community.

 

 

 

Posted on June 7, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Top 10 Ways to Get Ready for Camp

1. Get Outside and Get Moving. Make sure your camper increases their physical activity prior to camp so that they feel ready to be active all day long. If your child is going to be participating in trip camps this summer, be sure to start wearing new hiking boots whenever possible to break them in and avoid blisters on the trail. For those campers who love Maccabiah (Color War) and Capture the Flag, getting in shape now will pay off during friendly camp competitions as well.

0320_120808-FJC_x_x2. Read the Parent Manual. Getting ready for camp should be a family affair, so be sure to include campers when reviewing the camp Parent Manual. This is a great resource to help mentally prepare yourself and your child for what’s in store at camp, including how you will be communicating with one another and what a typical day at camp will look like.

3. Get Psyched, Set Goals. Help your child think about the activities they are most excited to try, try again, and/or learn more about. This discussion will help your camper anticipate all the fun that they will be having at camp and also help them establish some goals that they have for themselves this summer.

4. Keep an Open Mind. Be sure to prepare yourself and your child for the best summer possible by managing expectations and keeping an open mind about the new experiences your camper will have in nature, trying new activities, eating new foods, making new friends, and experiencing Judaism in new ways.

5. Brisket and Babka. Shabbat is a special time of week at camp. Pack a nice outfit for Friday evening and get excited for a beautiful community experience involving fun services, an amazing dinner, dancing and song sessions.

6. Packing Party. Pull out your child’s duffle bag or trunk, clean out their closet, and start picking out clothes to take to camp. Make sure not to bring anything that you or your child would be upset about losing or damaging. Don’t forget to pack different color shirts for Maccabiah (Color War), a white item to tie dye, pre-addressed envelopes to home or other family members, a couple of water bottles, lots of sunscreen, and a flashlight!

7. Plan Pre-Camp Overnights. This is especially important for younger children! Have your kids do pre-camp sleepovers with grandparents and friends to help get them used to sleeping in different settings. Lots of positive encouragement and follow-up praise is helpful in building confidence leading up to camp.

8. Practice Life Skills. Start to encourage your child to make their own bed, fold their own laundry, and just do more in general for themselves. At camp, staff are always there to lend a helping hand but campers are expected to know how to and actually perform many life skills on their own. Now is the perfect time to help your child establish a certain level of independence before departing for camp.

9. Backyard Campout. As a way to get excited for life in the great outdoors and also to help your camper feel comfortable with a possible campout during their camping session, pitch a tent in your backyard on a warm night and have your very own backyard campout! It will make everyone appreciate your comfy bed inside a bit more and is also a fun family bonding experience.

10. Camp Connection. Have questions, concerns, or feedback about camp? Be sure to be in touch with the camp administration staff so that they can help you feel prepared and heard. We are here to serve our families, so make sure to provide us with all the information you can about your camper and their needs by way of forms, phone calls, and emails so that we can prepare to provide your camper with the best summer possible.

Posted on May 30, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Do You Do the Rest of the Year?

I have clear visions of my daydreams from years ago.  Images of clear blue skies, the shiniest sunny days, a megaphone in my hand while my announcements splatter across campus.  These visions would make my eyes light up with the anticipation that one day I would be a Camp Director…

mollyAs far as I’m concerned there was no minor or major in college that helped to prepare for the career track of Camp Director.  I did summer “internships” of working in the battlefields of my industry of interest but when the fateful time came to walk the graduation walk, my dreams of becoming a Camp Director were still somewhat candy coated.  I believed my work life would be filled with summers spent lakeside, green grass under my toes and echoes of spirited voices filling the clean mountain air.  But these are the times that campers and camp staff revel in.  Not necessarily the year-round Camp Director.

I’m sure many camp professionals can relate to the question, “What do you do the rest of the year?” which happens to be a favorite of mine.  Without fail, anytime I meet someone new and share with them my profession, the follow up is “oh that’s awesome, so what do you do the rest of the year?” For me, I like to marinate on the question.  I like to pretend like I’m pondering how original the question is and then rattle off a couple of easy breezy year-round roles of a camp director… recruitment, sales, marketing, communications, social media, permit applications, facility management, logistics, operations, development, fundraising, programming, staffing, staff training, staff development, program implementation, therapy (for families and staff), and all the administrative duties that come along with each of these professions.  Sound awesome now? Awesomely challenging!

It wasn’t until I walked in the shoes of many camp mentors that I learned that being a Camp Director wasn’t all sunshine, sun tans and raspy instructions into a PA system.

This camp world took work.  Actual, year-round, dedicated, long hours, separation from the world around you, travel, meals on the go, phone calls at all hours of the day, coordinated, puzzle-piecing, organizational, programmatic work.  And this work didn’t just happen June through August.  This was a full time gig.

Just like an event planner, we, the camp professionals plan for the big event.  In my case the big event spans over the course of eight weeks.  It is within these eight weeks that I hold my breath, pray I don’t turn blue and sigh when it’s all over and the last staff member has exited the premises.  That feeling is awesome.  The two weeks after are awesome.  The outpour of emails, letters, Facebook postings and voicemails are incredibly rewarding and remind me why working my tuchus off for two months is well worth my while.  If it wasn’t for the rest of the year, what would we have to live for?

As we round the end of the “off season” and head into the “camp season” I wish all my colleagues, camp professionals and those who live vicariously through the year-round work we do and incredibly awesome and successful summer season.  Bask in the day dreams, embrace the hard decisions, recognize the supporters and appreciate that although challenging, we have the most awesome career in the world…

Posted on May 24, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Camp Connects

josh4It’s hard to believe that we’re now less than 50 days away from the start of another summer!  Many campers have been counting down the days with excitement since they returned home from camp last year. “OMG I get to be a CIT this year!!” is one example of a recent Facebook post.  And, to be honest, there were many more exclamation points than that.

Indeed, Facebook and other virtual spaces are used more and more by kids, parents, and alumni to connect with one another and build Jewish community.  But camp works in part because it gives kids opportunities to feel connected to something larger than themselves.  This connection can happen, and increasingly does happen, for more than a few weeks each year.

We recently posted something on our Facebook page that asked folks to complete the following sentence: “Camp Alonim is where I _____.”  The range of responses was extraordinary, as was the range of respondents – campers, staff, parents, and alumni.  Here is what some of them said: Camp Alonim is where… “I found out what makes me Jewish.”  “I started my first band.”  “I learned to love Shabbat.”  “I feel safe leaving my kids.”  “I met my first boyfriend.”  “I cowgirl up!”  “I developed my Jewish identity and danced!”  “I want to be right now.”  “I am home.”

josh3Because a picture can be worth a thousand words, we also recently ran a photo contest during which folks shared all sorts of images on our Facebook page that they felt best represented camp.  Sprinkled throughout this blog post are some of the pictures that were submitted.

At this point, you might be asking yourself: why all this talk about Facebook when camp is about unplugging from electronics and getting away from the always-on world in which we live?  I think the answer is best illustrated by the following story.  A few days ago, Jamie, who was one of our teen program advisors last summer and who currently is studying abroad in Israel, posted on Facebook that she just “casually ran into her children” at the Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv.  The “children” to whom Jamie was referring are her former campers (by the way, don’t you love how staff refer to the campers as “their kids”?).  Jamie shared a surprise reunion with some of her teens, which generated “likes” and “comments” from campers, staff, parents, and her other “children.” This chance encounter in Israel involved generations of camp, and the connection and reconnection extended further than it ever could before.

josh5The connection has to start somewhere.  For many kids, camp can be the first link in a lifelong connection to deep, meaningful friendships and active communities infused with the joys of Jewish living.  Much of my job as a camp director is to help that first connection form, and then to help incubate all sorts of budding connections so that they can grow and thrive for a lifetime.

As I write this, staff members are being hired to “give back to camp;” parents are searching for white Shabbat clothing; alumni are reuniting with camp friends to celebrate life’s simchas and to support one another when life throws its curve-balls; and new and returning campers are counting down the days until summer.  It’s community.  It’s connection.  It’s camp!  And, when it comes to camp, there’s no such thing as too many exclamation points.

Posted on May 7, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Why Camp?

This third in a series of four blog entries, “Why Camp?” will examine some of the benefits that Jewish residential camping can provide for children based on the four part mission of Camp Tawonga. To read part one, click here. To read part two click here.

Part 3: Tikkun Olam- a partnership with nature

It is fitting that Earth Day was recently celebrated since a huge part of a camper’s experience of going to camp is being outside, going on adventures with friends in the outdoors and learning to love the natural world with all the benefits it provides.

Tawonga Summer 2012-4862At Camp Tawonga and countless other camps, simply being there is a literal breath of fresh air.  Campers leave the city and suburbs, where they spend 90% of their time, far behind and arrive at a bucolic, peaceful oasis where many of the other goals this blog series has highlighted are allowed to blossom and flourish.  Removed from the constant pull of technology and returned to a comfortably rustic style of living, children can connect to more timeless truths.  They can appreciate a refreshing dunk in a natural body of water and marvel at the beauty of a sunset, produced not by special effects but simply by the gentle brushstroke of the creator.

Beyond simply enjoying being outdoors, an experience at camp can help campers connect to the deep and ancient Jewish traditions of shomrei adamah (guarding the earth) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).  When campers go with their bunks on backpacking trips in the incomparable backcountry of Yosemite National Park, they not only forge deeper bonds with each other but also learn from our staff about the wilderness ethic of “leave no trace” as a way to take care of all places they visit.

Campers also learn that nature is not something that can be taken for granted. More than twenty years ago, Tawonga led a fight in the national forest that surrounds our camp to hold off aggressive logging companies and preserve the land for generations to come.  Campers help our maintenance staff with forestry and fire suppression work to learn about responsible management methods.

Campers will come home unconcerned with a grass stain on their shirt and some dirt under their nails.  Campers will tell their parents about their most spiritual moment at camp, often not at a formal prayer program, but rather on a solo sit at sunset, spread across a ridge overlooking a valley side by side with their bunkmates, silently staring in awe at the majesty of creation laid out before them, and contemplating their place in it.

What a camp experience can help a child realize is that we are not apart from nature, but rather a part of nature and that there is so much to be gained from engaging in outdoor experiences.

As the Foundation for Jewish Camp shared with the community earlier this year, “Think Outside, No Box Necessary!”

Posted on May 3, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

You’re A Camp Director?

Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is the director of Camp JRF in South Sterling, PA.

When I tell people that I’m a camp director, they often ask me what I do “the rest of the year.” I respond that I spend my time recruiting campers and staff, planning programs, raising money, and preparing for the summer. I also work closely with our board and, especially as we work towards an expansion, spend what feels like an inordinate amount of time thinking about engineering, septic systems, and township approvals.

110707.CampJRF.-427While all of this is true, I’ve begun to think about changing my answer. I’m thinking about telling people that during the rest of the year, I reap the benefits of what we have sown over the summer. Why the change? Because in both happy moments and more challenging ones over just the past few weeks alone, I have been blessed to see just how true this is.

First, there were the campers and staff members who, when the father of their long-time camp friends passed away, came from far and wide to sit by their sides, lead shiva minyanim, and comfort them during this challenging time. Then there was the rabbi who, when mentioning important people to him during a speech, talked of the two other rabbis with whom he spends a week on our faculty each summer, noting that they are, for him, the “camp friends” he didn’t have in childhood. At our annual spring teen retreat, there was the graduating high school senior who, with tears in his eyes, told younger participants that the thousands of dollars he has spent and the thousands of miles he has flown over the years were far more than “worth it” for the experiences he has had and the deep friendships he has made. And there was his friend who, bringing tears to my eyes, talked about the ways in which he has become more comfortable in his own skin since he first arrived at camp as an anxious ten year old and how, when he isn’t always able to remember how far he’s come, his camp friends step up to remind him.

A counselor once stood up during an orientation session and asked how and when we will know if the work we do has an impact. I responded that, in fifteen years, we’ll be able to see the myriad ways in which the camp experience is reflected in the good work our campers are doing and in the good lives they are leading. The staff member looked shocked and a bit disappointed; he wanted faster and more quantifiable results. But the work we are doing is about quality, not quantity. And it’s about the long view, not just about what happens today. It’s true what they say: camp works. It works not only in creating committed Jews but in creating bonds and connections that help make better people.

So, what do I do during the rest of the year? Forget all of the planning and fundraising and logistics and details … I sit back and revel in the ways in which our joyful and welcoming Jewish youth community transforms lives. And then I jump back into the work – excited, energized, and blessed to be part of making this happen for yet another summer.

Posted on April 9, 2013

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April Director’s Corner

Stefan Teodosic is the Executive Director of B’nai B’rith Beber Camp and the Perlman Conference Center in Mukwonago, Wisconsin.

There are two things that I am most proud of in my career as a Jewish camp director. The first is that I have never had a camper go home early due to homesickness.  We have several strategies to work with kids, we create deep partnerships with parents and we use a non-cookie cutter approach to every situation. We match this with extremely well trained staff that are supported by higher level professionals. Every summer we help kids in their most difficult times and we take pride in helping them gain the independence that comes with making it through a homesick summer.

Camp_Ramah_0376_IMG_9695Camp is all about kids and a blog about homesickness is right in the wheelhouse of the Director’s Corner. However, it is the second thing that I am most proud of that will take center stage today. I take an immense amount of pride in the fact that I have never turned a family away from a Jewish summer camp experience for financial reasons. I philosophically believe that it is my responsibility to help families make the best choice about their children’s Jewish summer camp experience. I serve as an advocate for Jewish summer camps first and then help parents make an informed choice about enrolling their child in Beber Camp. This is one of the most impactful Jewish decisions that they will make for their children and a real fit is critical to unlocking the magic of a summer at camp. Once a parent has identified a true fit, it is my responsibility to make sure that their child has access to that experience.

As camp directors, we have several resources at our disposal to help parents make sure that camp is a reality regardless of their financial situations. We have excellent confidential processes for determining financial need, we have access to outside scholarship support, we raise funds internally through annual campaigns and we work out payment plans to spread out costs. Each family is different, and much like working with our campers during the summer, there is no cookie cutter method to a successful financial aid process. Finances can be a difficult topic and many of our families have negative feelings about the process based on previous experiences with other organizations. We approach the financial support relationship with the same level of customer service that we do when we are recruiting campers and working with kids during the summer. The strong partnership that we create during this process serves as the bedrock of a relationship that will play out over the next several years.

Camp is one of the best values available in the Jewish community and while there is massive return on investment, the absolute cost of a summer is still high.  We don’t view the Jewish camp experience as a luxury, and since we want parents to share this philosophy, it is incumbent on us to make camp a financial reality for all families. That said, every camp that is committed to this philosophy needs to raise significant dollars to deliver year in and year out. If you have a passion for strengthening Jewish identity and positive youth outcomes, donate to the scholarship program at your camp alma mater. If you didn’t go to camp as a kid, but realize the inherent value in the experience, support your local Jewish summer camp. If you believe in camp, but didn’t go as a child and don’t live anywhere near a Jewish summer camp office, call the Foundation for Jewish Camp. I am sure that they will be happy to help you get started in supporting the field of Jewish camp.

Every dollar counts and you can be sure that your donation will positively impact a camper’s life this summer. I was a camper who received scholarship money and my passionate belief that camp should be affordable for all families stems from this fact. Due to the generosity of the Jewish community, I was given an experience that profoundly impacted me and led me to become a Jewish camp director. So, please consider a gift to a Jewish summer camp, as you never know how far your donation just may go.

Posted on April 8, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Why Camp?

Jamie Simon and Aaron Mandel are the director and assistant director (respectively) of Camp Tawonga in Groveland, CA.

This second in a series of four blog entries, “Why Camp?” will examine some of the benefits that Jewish residential camping can provide for children based on the four part mission of Camp Tawonga. To read part one, click here.

Part 2: Creating a Cooperative Community

“The friends you make become a part of you.”

These words are sung as part of the classic camp song “Stars in the Sky.” Ringing out from the voices of children around the Camp Tawonga dining hall, they speak to some of the most profound benefits that camp can provide for children: friendship, connection to others and the skills needed to participate in community.

0802_110811-FJC_x46When a child first comes home from camp they’ll talk excitedly about how high they climbed on the ropes course and show off a lanyard or a friendship bracelet made at the art studio. These material takeaways from camp are exciting and important but as the passage of time fades them away, the more permanent truths of camp emerge: the friends.

The weeks and years at summer camp teach young people some very important skills about how to live together in a group. We emphasize this through the “group centered” camping model to which Tawonga subscribes. This model allows our counselors to deeply get to know each of the campers in their bunk and the group as a whole, as they are not asked to also double as activity specialists.  Their only jobs are supporting the campers and leading the bunk. The counselors are trained in camper management, building the group, leading bunk discussions and facilitating consensus-decision making.

Spending these weeks together in such close community forms a bond between camp friends that is unlike any other. The mere weeks spent together at camp create a bond between friends that far surpasses that which is formed in the endless months of school. Why is this?  It is because the time at camp is a time where you are living for more than yourself. You are part of a group, in good times and bad, your failures and successes interwoven with those of your bunkmates in an intricate latticework of solidarity.

The world we live in is a communal one; to have successful and fulfilling lives almost everyone needs to participate in various communities and groups. As noted journalist David Brooks said, “Creativity is not a solitary process. It happens within networks… when talented people get together, when idea systems and mentalities merge.” Friendship plus group skills is a simple equation for success.  Beyond the skills to simply succeed remains that timeless truth of camp, friendships that last a lifetime.  We have seen countless friends who met at camp standing hand in hand under the chuppah together, sharing a freshman dorm room in college or calling each other for parenting advice, tapping forever into that sense of community and camaraderie that is such a treasured part of camp.

Posted on April 5, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Saying Yes

Joel Yanofsky is the author of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.  

We figured we were all set. The fellow at the music store near our house assured my wife Cynthia that someone on staff could give my then 12-year-old son, Jonah, guitar lessons. But when she added that Jonah has special needs, he quickly retracted the offer. “We don’t do that,” he said. There was nothing particularly new about this response. Jonah has been disinvited to more than his fair share of parties and had play dates cancelled at the last minute with lame excuses. It doesn’t take long, as the parent of a child with special needs, autism in Jonah’s case, to internalize the word “no.” You’re continually coming to terms with the things your child will probably miss out on. Things other parents take for granted: like finding your child a guitar teacher.Meanwhile, that “no” inside you thickens like a callus. Still, when the rejection comes from outside, especially from someone who doesn’t know your child, the hurt is mixed with an element of surprise. The sting feels fresh all over again.

joelOf course, the word “yes,” when you do hear it, also comes as a surprise and is all the more gratifying for it. We’d thought about sending Jonah to summer sleep-away camp for a few years, but with no real success. Then, last year, we met Josh Pepin, the director of the Montreal chapter of Camp B’nai Brith and that all changed. Jonah spent a week at the CBB sleep-away camp, an hour’s drive north of Montreal, and the experience was so good, he intends to return this summer for two weeks.

To hear Pepin tell it, his accepting attitude is just part of the camp’s longstanding tradition of diversity, of integrating all kinds of kids. “If you look at the mission of CBB, our special needs program fits it perfectly,” says Pepin, a big, gregarious man in his thirties, who you can’t imagine saying no to anyone, “Our idea is that kids, no matter their background, or where they come from, what language they speak, what socioeconomic background they come from or how they function, deserve a summer camping experience. I’m no professional in the special needs milieu, but I know we have to keep integrating special needs kids. Not just for them but for all our campers and our staff. Kids like Jonah are such a beautiful part of our camp.”

Pepin never went to sleep away camp himself, not as a camper – “I’m a mama’s boy,” he confesses – but when he was 18, he lost a bet with a friend and ended up as a counselor at CBB. He continued to work there summers for a decade, met his best friends, and also his wife there. After taking on a few other jobs in Montreal’s Jewish community, he came back to CBB as director in 2010. Along with the emphasis on diversity at CBB, Jewish identity is paramount for Pepin. “That’s why we exist,” Pepin says, “to offer kids opportunities that they may not otherwise have if they don’t go to Jewish day schools or belong to a synagogue. As camp director, I consider myself an informal educator. And I have an opportunity, here, to shape young Jewish minds and identities.”

He also gets the chance to say “yes” a lot more than “no.” For which my family is grateful.

Incidentally, we found a guitar teacher for Jonah. He also turned out to be Jonah’s shadow at CBB last summer. I’ll be writing more about him and about the importance of shadows in an upcoming blog.

Posted on April 3, 2013

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