Last weekend, my husband and I toured the religious school my daughter will be attending in the fall for her Kindergarten year. She currently attends their preschool, so the tour was simply to get questions answered and for my husband to understand what religious school is all about.
My husband isn’t Jewish. He grew up as a non-practicing Catholic and has had a hard time understanding that we don’t pass a plate around, but rather, have to pay to be members of our synagogue. I grew up with membership dues as the norm (as have most of my Jewish friends). A lot of my friends are also in interfaith marriages and have had to explain the same thing to their spouses. It was also difficult for my husband to understand that kids have to go to religious school years in advance to prepare for their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. For the longest time, he assumed it was just a big celebration, like a Sweet 16 party. Last month, he attended his first Bat Mitzvah and was amazed that she was able to stand up in front of so many people and sing/recite a language that was foreign to her. Of course, attending the reception was another story. Apparently my explanation didn’t do it justice. He didn’t quite realize that these parties were comparable to wedding receptions.
Before kids, being in an interfaith marriage didn’t mean much other than having the privilege of celebrating more holidays and not worrying about our parents fighting over us for Rosh Hashanah, Passover, or Christmas. Once we had kids, that all changed. We decided to raise our children Jewish (with the understanding that “Daddy’s parents celebrate Christmas, so we celebrate with them”). We agreed they would attend a Jewish preschool, religious school, and be Bar & Bat Mitzvah’d. Of course, being the Jewish parent, this all fell on me. Preschool has proven to be a HUGE help in educating my children on our religion. My daughter comes home singing Hebrew songs and is excited about all the holidays. Without any family nearby, teaching Jewish traditions to my family can be tough. And, to be honest, I haven’t been doing a great job. This is why it’s so important to me that my children attend a preschool and now religious school. While they will attend public school for their secular education, I want them to have an identity, and sense of belonging, and make friends with others like them.
A few of my friends have decided not to send their children to religious school for a few years, thinking they can catch up in third or fourth grade. For me, it’s not as much about learning Hebrew as it is learning about our culture, heritage, and beliefs. This is also why I send them to Jewish summer day camp and, when they get older, Jewish overnight camp. I never connected with people the way I did with friends I made at camp and through Judaism.
My childhood rabbi used to come into our religious school class every Sunday to visit and before he’d leave, he would remind us of his motto: “Being Jewish is FUN.” Being Jewish IS fun! Summer camp shows us how we can surround ourselves with fellow Jews and make long-lasting friendships, all while learning more about our Jewish culture. Religious school teaches us about our religion and prepares us for our rite of passage and celebration that is our Bar/Bat Mitzvah. I want my children to understand that; even if it means they have to go to school on Sundays! My husband has decided to start saving his shekels for our kids’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in eight and eleven years. So, maybe that part isn’t so fun…
It’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.”
Because 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.
The 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.
My first summer home was Camp Edward Isaacs (aka Eddie I) in Holmes, NY. I started going there because my two older cousins had been going there for years and were starting to work there. I had been waiting for years and I was finally old enough to go as well. I spent my first summer there in 2007 and loved it; I could not wait for next summer! By the time June of 2008 came around I was in for another great summer. I was so happy to see my best friends, or summer sisters, one of which I could never live without. After another great experience, it was time to go home. This is when the bad news came. The camp had closed down. I was devastated. Where was I going to go? How was I going to stay connected to my best friends?
A few months later, the Camp Eddie I directors held a get together where they invited representatives from numerous other Jewish camps to talk to all the campers and parents about trying to find a new summer home. As we went around, my mom came across the camp that my cousins’ cousins went to and loved. After a lot of discussion, my mom and I decided that I would try out this camp. That summer I went and had fun but I didn’t consider the place to be right as a new summer home for me – it just wasn’t what I was looking for. I was unsettled and I still didn’t know where I wanted to be. Then I was talking to the same cousins who I went to Eddie I with, and they said they were now working at a camp they really enjoyed called Camp Laurelwood. I figured that if they were happy there, I probably would be too.
It looked really nice and fun online and in the pamphlet and I was really interested to go. It turns out we actually took the Camp Laurelwood pamphlet home with us from the camp get together too! It also turns out that one of my best friends from Eddie I went there and loved it. So I had my mom sign me up. I was really happy to know I would have so many people there already that loved it. I got there and met so many great people. I have had three amazing summers so far and am looking forward to more! I would never have had so much fun without the amazing people I met at this amazing place. My friend from Eddie I and I have become extremely close over the five summers we have spent together and I’m glad to call her one of my best friends. If I had never gone to Laurelwood I would never had wonderful memories with amazing friends.
Rebecca Leibowitz works at the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
It is my first summer at camp. I am 5 inches taller, 50 pounds heavier and 8 years older than the other first-timers in my cabin. I am not embarrassed by this because I am a Jewish camp late-bloomer, recruited by a college boyfriend to come work as a counselor at “the best camp ever.”
The decision to work at camp for the first time is not easy; my other summer option is an internship with an advocacy organization in Washington. DC – a real résumé building opportunity to pursue politics in the nation’s capital. To me, this makes sense for my future career. Camp, I assume, would just be another year away from the “real world.”
But, I am 19, and of course, I follow a boy to camp. The entire week of staff orientation, as I stand paralyzed with anxiety on the sidelines, watching Israeli dance choreographers and work-wheel enthusiasts prepare for the campers’ arrival, the only thing I am sure of is that I have made the wrong choice.
Just when I am certain that I can’t feel any more insecure, on the morning of the campers’ arrival, my boyfriend and I end our relationship, leaving me to fend for myself in a very foreign environment. I spend the next few days crying and doubting myself. I can hardly move my body, let alone lead my campers through ropes course and song sessions. My campers know camp rituals, legends, and ghost stories. I feel inadequate, as I try desperately to connect with the other staff who already have a lifetime of memories and inside jokes between them.
I have no choice, if only to save myself from further self-pity, to throw myself into the art of being the best camp counselor ever. Late bloomer I might be, but in this pivotal moment I am hell-bent on proving my worth to the camp community, to my campers, and most importantly, to myself. I quickly find footing through the structure of the camp schedule. I fear free time so I fill it with creative games and luckily my campers and fellow staff members welcome me into the camp community. The ultimate reward comes when the camp director personally invites me to stay for the next session. I accept on the spot.
That summer changed my life.
When I returned to college in the fall, I was transformed, filled with a new confidence. I continued to seek out as many Jewish leadership and programming opportunities as possible, wanting to continue to feel like I was in that same welcoming, ego-boosting, camp environment. I became the student president of the Hillel on campus and put all of the skills I developed at camp to work: time management, innovative programming, running meetings, and public speaking.
In my current role as a Senior Program Manager at Foundation for Jewish Camp, I get to work with camp professionals every day, developing and implementing programs geared to enhancing the business of camp. I feel I have hit the career jackpot!
I am a Jewish day school alumnus, Israel trip participant, and former youth group member. While all of these experiences play a significant role in my commitment to Jewish communal life, it was working at camp that transformed me into a Jewish leader. As a 19 year-old, Jewish summer camp created an environment where I thrived despite a dramatic teenage situation. My craving for the professional learning laboratory of camp brought me back for five more summers. Every leadership or professional role I have held alongside and after my time at camp has been influenced by the management and problem solving skills as well as confidence-building tools that I learned there. And as an added bonus, today, my best friends are camp people.
It is conventional wisdom that Camp Works. FJC has been a forerunner in the research that proves the long term impact on camp for campers, who are more likely to delve into Jewish ritual after a significant summer camp experience. What is less measured is how camp fosters personal and professional development opportunities for camp staff. Whether it is a young adult’s first or 19th summer, camp has the power of building strong Jewish identity, creating communal bonds, and creating powerful professionals. Personally, even though I didn’t have the opportunity to be a Jewish camper, I am grateful that I got my second chance as a young adult, and encourage others to do the same.
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.
While 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.
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.
When 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.
Molly Hott is the director of 92Y Passport NYC, a Jewish overnight camp based in New York City focusing on fashion, film, music, culinary arts, and musical theater.
A very close and longtime friend read my first blog post and reminded me of a piece I had written years ago that I only shared with some of my nearest and dearest … my camp friends. There was a point in my life and career when I couldn’t imagine living without camp but couldn’t configure how camp would fit in my life as an occupation. There were so many positive experiences that connected me to camp, to my friends, my personal growth and acceptance and with all of those experiences came great emotion. From that great emotion came:
Molly Hott, June 27, 2008
Camp is where I learned to be me
And where I let you know, it’s ok to be you
Camp is where I learned to make friends
And where I learned to be a friend
Camp is where I learned how to make my bed
And where I taught others about the importance of hospital corners
Camp is where I saw my first remembered sunset
And where I shared my first remembered sunrise
Camp is where I learned to hold hands confidently
And where I shared the importance of having a hand to hold
Camp is where I cried myself to sleep missing home
And where I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe when I had to leave
Camp is where I saw my first starry night
And where I shared the sighting of my first shooting star
Camp is where I sang and cheered until I had no voice left
And where I learned that my voice would never really come back
Camp is where I learned to respect, my counselors, my campers, my friends and myself
And where I learned about disciplining my staff, my campers, my friends and myself
Camp is where my sister and I became friends
And where I learned that my friends would become my sisters
Camp is where I learned to try everything and anything
And where I learned my strengths and weaknesses
Camp is where I learned that tears of joy can overwhelm you at any time
And where I learned that those tears turn to the greatest memories
Camp is where I learned to laugh until it hurt
And where I learned that laughing is the best medicine
Camp is where I learned to live with others and share common space
And where I learned that wearing the same thing every day is cool
Camp is where I learned how to separate my laundry
And where I learned that I would come home with none of my own clothes
Camp is where I learned I would sleep my deepest and most comfortably
And where I learned that waking up next to your friends every morning is treasured
Camp is where I learned about music and how to change the words to every great song
And where I learned that singing at the top of your lungs anywhere at any time with camp friends is acceptable
Camp is where I learned to love my counselors, my campers and my friends for who they are
And where I learned that each of these people would somehow remain in my life forever
Camp is where I learned about tradition, culture and spirit
And where I learned that these things can change but still remain the same
Camp is where I learned that there is no greater place to be
And where I learned that there is no greater experience for a child, an adult and for me
Camp is where I learned to be me
And where I let you know, it’s ok to be you.
To read this back, almost 5 years later and know that my feelings remain the same is amazing. My relationships remain as strong if not stronger and my love of camp and the experiences it has enabled me to create continue to develop way beyond my wildest dreams…
Noam Slomovic is 13 years old, lives in New York City, and has been attending Camp Moshava in Honesdale, PA for four years.
I can’t believe it – camp is only three months away! Well, actually to be exact it’s 113 days away, and as the summer approaches, I think about the many epic memories of my camp life. I have gone to Camp Moshava for the past four years, and from those few months of my life I have the greatest memories ever. Most memories are top secret so I cannot share them with the public. (That is one amazing thing about camp.) But for this blog I decided to share one in particular.
On the last night of my third summer at camp I had the time of my life. It was packing day and it could have been the most hectic day in all of camp history. You could hear counselors and kids screaming at the top of their lungs saying, “Get your things on the truck!”
My bunk was the last bunk to finish packing. We were all going crazy because of what was going to happen that night, the “banquet.” Everyone in camp loved the banquet for one reason, the food. However this year we were in for a little surprise, instead of having the norm – spicy wings, mini hot dogs, wings, burgers, and chicken, they had pita and falafel. People were clearly very unhappy. However, this banquet still could have been the best, for one reason, we were not there. We were outside on the dining hall porch just chatting, and that’s when the fun began. The second we realized that the singing and dancing at the banquet had ended we ran to our bunk and started the party. We had been planning this party for two weeks; we had saved so much food that it took up half the bunk, we were ready to party.
As we started stuffing our faces with food, we launched our karaoke contest. Eight people were singers and we had one DJ and three judges. At about 1:00am we started. Everyone chose a different song to sing. After each round we would eliminate one person from the contest. No one was offended if they were eliminated because they knew it was just because the contest was all in fun. I was one of the judges. My fellow judges and I took five minutes to decide who would be eliminated after every round, so clearly we took this very seriously. It was 3:30am when we finished. At 6:00 we decided to watch the sun come up.
I wanted to share this particular memory because it just shows that camp is mostly about the friends you make and how you spend time with them. Although many activities at camp are very enjoyable, the main reason I go to camp is to spend quality time with my friends.
I remember the meeting like it was yesterday. My parents drove me to the synagogue on a weekday evening for what they told me was going to be a ‘pizza party with all of my friends.’ What they didn’t tell me was that a man was going to be there representing a sleep-away Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin. Wisconsin!?! (I grew up in Memphis). My parents were right about all my friends being at the synagogue that night. We watched a movie about the camp, got to ask questions, and plotted secretly in the corner how we would make our escape from the camp should our parents actually send us away. Of course, our parents did end up sending us to that camp. And I went kicking and screaming.
Fast forward four weeks: four weeks of singing songs in Hebrew, of making new friends from places I’d never heard of (Omaha? Where’s that?), of playing kickball and swimming in the cold, fishy lake, of having no television, of being away from the comfort of home. That last day of camp, I remember clearly talking with that new friend from Nebraska as our ten year old selves plotted how we could avoid getting on the bus so we’d never have to leave this place. This place called ‘camp.’ Of course, our counselors did end up getting us on the bus home. But I went kicking and screaming. I didn’t want to leave.
And the truth is, I never did. I still go back to camp. This summer will be my 15th on staff. I am the starting second baseman on the senior staff softball team, not because of skill, but because of seniority; and I’m okay with that. And though my father-in-law has questioned if I might be too old for summer camp, my friends who grew up with me remain insanely jealous that I get to return to that amazing experience each summer. Is there a lesson in this? I have no idea. But I can tell you this: a couple of weeks ago I went on a road trip with a friend of mine. We’re in our thirties and jamming out to tunes from our youth with the windows down. And at one point during our drive, my buddy turned down the music and told me of his intention to propose to his longtime girlfriend in the coming weeks. When we got back to New York, where we live, he proposed. And the wedding? It’s scheduled for 2013…in Omaha.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is the director of Camp JRF in South Sterling, PA.
Two summers ago, I met David for the first time. Before he arrived in camp, we spoke with his parents about his Autism, how it might impact his experience at camp, and what their goals were for him – both during the summer and beyond. They were incredibly open and realistic, and we were upfront about what we could offer. And while we all hoped for the best, I must admit that I entered the summer with a bit of trepidation, worried that we might not be able to live up to all of our expectations.
Boy, was I in for a surprise.
David jumped head first into the camp experience. He participated in all of the activities, loved the food, and always had a smile on his face. He shared his love of basketball and brought us the tradition of chocolate breakfast (with thanks to our friends at Camp JCA Shalom). A week or so into the session, I showed up in our teatron (theater) to hear David talk with fifty of his peers – our ninth and tenth graders – about autism. We knew his mitzvah project had been on the topic and that he had spoken about it in other places; he came into the summer wanting to share it with us.
Our campers are incredibly thoughtful, kind, and amazingly aware that everyone is different and has their own gifts to bring to the community. Even so, surrounded by a group of teens, I was worried that, after a great first week, David’s positive experience could end when he stepped up to the microphone. And then he began to speak … and you could feel the teens’ excitement. There was laughter at the right times, good and thoughtful questions, and, when he finished speaking, thunderous applause. As everyone got up to leave, I watched David giving high fives, smiles, and huge bear hugs to his friends.
Even David would tell you that kids with autism often have a hard time making friends. But in just three short weeks, he had made incredible friends. He kept in touch with them all year. Last summer, he counted down the minutes until his best friend, who is a year older than him, returned to camp from his trip to Israel. And he got a letter from a friend who had other plans for the summer and said the thing he would miss most about camp was David.
Jewish camp – with values like derekh eretz (character) and kehillah (community) – is powerful. Surrounded by their peers, kids build relationships that they couldn’t imagine at home. The power of camp is that it allows kids to truly become their best selves, no matter how hard that might seem the rest of the year. After this past summer, David’s mom sent us a note: “We are so happy that David has a place he can go and feel comfortable, make friends while being himself – Camp JRF is his home away from home. We believe his camp experience is preparing him in so many ways and we are grateful beyond words to you and your staff for giving him the opportunity.”
To tell you the truth, I’m grateful to her for giving us the opportunity. Learning from, laughing with, and just knowing David is truly a blessing. We are lucky to have him as part of our camp family.