“If this is supposed to be such a great experience for her, why do I have such a pit in my stomach?”
“Half of my life is on their way to camp…more emotional than I thought I’d be, but still so excited for them.”
If the soundtrack playing in your head at the moment stars “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” by Moby, chances are that you’ve just put your first-time camper on the camp bus, or dropped them off and driven away.
I get it. Last year around this time, I was pregnant and hormonal, but neither of those were the real reason that I started sobbing as soon as we shut the car doors.
Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?
1. Because your child is nervous.
Any kid going to camp, particularly for the first time, is at least a little nervous. The question is to what extent they are willing to admit it. Some just act sullen and withdrawn. Others engage in last-minute panic filled negotiations (“I won’t use the iPad for the whole summer if I can just come home with you!”). Some cry. Others hold back the tears. Everyone is nervous. That bus is a bus full of nervousness that it is the counselors’ job to transform into excitement. That particular transformation is out of your hands. Which leads us nicely into reason 2.
2. It’s out of your hands.
What your kid wears, whether your kid showers, who your kid hangs out with and how your kid deals with nervousness. For the next week, or two, or four, or seven, it’s out of your hands. In this exercise in simulated adulthood, your child will have his or her first taste of semi-independence. In our era of helicopter parenting where many parents won’t even let their kids walk to school by themselves, this can be disorienting. Which leads us nicely into reason 3.
3. You’re old.
Okay, you’re not OLD old, but you’re indisputably not the camper anymore. You’re not even the counselor. You’re a parent, and you’re sending your kid to camp. You’ve crossed over. But what’s most disorienting about this crossover is the fact that you really, really clearly remember what it was like to be on the other side. You remember what it was like to cry in your bed the first night of camp because you were homesick, and to cry in your bed the last night of camp because you had to go home. You remember being a counselor and emptying out shampoo bottles the night before Visiting Day so the clueless parents would think their kids actually showered during the previous weeks. Those days all seem so close that you could touch them, but you can’t. This drives home just how far away they are. And…
4. They’re getting older, too.
Remember those days when you were up all night burping them? When you could put them in a sling and carry them around while you put away laundry? Those days seem pretty recent, and yet, when your kid goes away to camp, it’s the first of many steps that they will be taking for the rest of their lives—steps away from you. It’s a bittersweet moment.
So no, it’s not just the exhaust fumes of the bus making your eyes sting.
“Who are you and what have you done with my child?”
You might be surprised how many parents of teens feel like asking this question at one point or another. They’ve watched their child learn to walk, laugh, talk, and jump … play with friends and come home breathless and excited.
Then one day, that same child seems short tempered, or quiet and withdrawn, or adamant about social interests, and you realize you’ve never seen this person before…or so it seems.
How would you like it if your teens could be at their best all the time? What if they actually had the ability to look at their negative thinking and direct their attention to the more positive aspects of life?
This may sound like some sort of fictional dream, but it is possible. Even probable, given certain elements injected into their lives. In fact, your teen really can be at their very best most or all the time, benefit in every situation they run into, and make positive decisions for their lives.
That gripping fear you feel in your gut can subside as you watch your teenager thrive.
Teens are looking for guidance, mentoring, quality life skills, and deep meaningful relationships, in spite of the vibe they put out for their parents. They just don’t have the emotional or psychological tools to develop these things without guidance. And since their developmental process includes learning to separate from their parent’s protection, they have to find guidance elsewhere.
Most teens, when faced with the changes in their bodies, emotions, varied and intense responsibilities, and social pressures feel unequipped to manage them well. If your teen seems difficult to recognize, it just could be that he’s doing the best he can in a strange and uncomfortable world.
As a mentor to clients in this age group, I’ve heard from the majority of them through the years that what they want is deep, meaningful, and rewarding relationships, but what they feel is isolation. They crave friendships that offer value and support, and stimulate personal growth.
But they need and want to feel accepted to handle the judgment and social pressures that comes with this stage of life.
Instinctively, they want to be the best they can, make the right decisions, and live a life that’s positive and satisfying.
How do they get there?
What it comes down to is mentors. Where does a teenager find mentors he can trust to lead him to make solid and safe decisions, develop social skills for meaningful relationships, and the life skills to manage responsibilities? Too often, he turns to his friends, who are in the same boat he is. Sometimes he may turn to a friend or relative, who may or may not be equipped to offer the guidance he needs.
Professional mentors like me have the education, training, and insight to provide mature but relevant companionship and guidance, and can make a real difference for your teen – if you have one in your area.
But another readily available and powerful option is camp. Camp provides opportunities through mentors for kids and teens to experience the very things they yearn for in a safe and familiar environment. They come to feel total acceptance there, which gives them the energy to develop deeper skills. They learn:
- to understand the value of being part of a team
- to make positive decisions that benefit them and their team.
- to recognize the qualities in people that will benefit their own lives and can be the foundation for rewarding and healthy friendships; and also the traits in others that are not valuable to their lives
- to be accountable to others
- to set goals, and to work at achieving them
- resilience, and how to keep getting back up and trying, till they succeed
Kids and teens who are fortunate enough to return to camp year after year continue to build upon these skills each summer. They learn from the mentors placed in their lives then eventually move forward as mentors themselves.
They grow in leadership, accountability, placing the welfare of others above their own wants, and skills to sustain healthy relationships in the long term.
They emerge confident, capable, and considerate of others, with the seeds of leadership growing within them.
Sound too good to be true? Send your kid to camp a few years then let’s compare notes.
I can’t wait for my daughter to go to camp and learn how to talk to boys.
My parents claim I walked into my room at 13, picked up my swatch phone and didn’t reemerge until I was 17. There were concerns that they would have to surgically remove that thing from my ear. Now as my daughter is entering that same phase, I actually wish she would pick up the phone. Her conversations are all done through texts—it’s like Pavlov’s dog waiting for that bing to come from her “friends.” I wonder if this can even be considered a conversation:
What r u doin’
Hangin with DK. Bball. U
Like my insta pic
Put me in ur bio
C u ltr
Yup, they are besties. She will see this same boy when we are out doing an errand in town and they’ll give each other that teen head tilt greeting and maybe mumble something that resembles a hello. God forbid they should actually talk to each other, especially when they’re with their parents no less (apparently, it is totally uncool to have parents—unless 12 kids need to be transported somewhere or accompanied to the midnight preview of Fault in Our Stars then it is completely acceptable).
As it turns out, this social media stuff isn’t all that social. We have a generation of kids that can barely muster the courage to call each other to borrow a forgotten text book, make an after school plan or chat long into the night pushing the limits on bedtime (maybe if we played up this part, they would be more apt to do it.) Thank God for grandparents and other relatives that still use a landline or my kids would never have learned how to have a conversation on a phone. I make it a point of teaching my kids how to talk to adults—they thank their coaches after every game and practice: if they can’t find their size in a store, it is up to them to ask a salesperson for help and as soon as they could; they order for themselves in a restaurant. But I can’t teach them how to talk to boys.
I married one of those guys I talked on the phone long into the night. And learned how to talk to him, and other boys, at camp. In this video we made to talk about camp one of the girls says “the girls are my sisters; the boys are like my brothers.” Truer words have never been spoken. We learned to swim together, ate together, lead song session together. Everyone is cool at camp. What made us different and unique was celebrated, where in middle school we may have been made fun for the very same thing. We learned how to be part of a community and get things done—and sometimes that included sharing secrets of who liked who.
Even if these days our main form of communication is just a text to share old song lyrics that popped into my head or just to say I am here for you when you need me, I consider my camp guy friends some of my closest based on those early years. I hope my daughter will be able to build a foundation like this too, creating deep friendships that last a lifetime.
Here in New York, the temperature is eking up into the 70s, and after continuous blizzards this winter, I couldn’t be happier! This weekend I celebrated as most New Yorkers with tragically little closet space do—I took out my summer clothes. And amongst the sundresses and tank tops, I found the cutest white skirt that definitely didn’t belong to me. OOPS. You see, last summer’s camp visits brought me to southern California, and I was in need of some white clothing for Shabbat. I was in a bit of a bind, so I happily accepted when a fabulous friend (and old bunkmate!) offered to lend me a white skirt. And here we are, one year later, and I still have that skirt. (Sorry Melissa!)
And then I laughed. How many times did I come home as a camper with clothing that didn’t belong to me? I remember my mom’s frustration when it came time to do post-camp laundry and she’d find shirts and dresses that she’d never seen before. “Why do I even buy you summer clothes?!” she would say. But trading clothing was just a part of camp life. Most Friday afternoons were spent finding a Shabbat outfit from a bunkmate’s cubby before someone else called it. And sometimes, if you liked it enough, if you were really lucky, that friend would let you take it home with you.
Those were my most treasured items of clothing. Looking back at photos, I’m sure it wasn’t that I looked any better in them; I was an awkward pre-teen all year long. But wearing them reminded me of faraway friends and gave me the courage to “try on” something new. And though not always as tangible as a dirty shirt, that’s the important stuff I brought home from camp every summer. At a time in my life where every day was a new (and sometimes scary) adventure of figuring out who I wanted to be, my summers at camp provided a safe place for me to try new activities, practice being “me,” and yes—try out some new clothing styles.
So if you send off your kid this summer with a duffel full of new camp clothes, only to find what looks like someone else’s return, take a deep breath. Maybe those new white sheets were perfect for tie-dying, or the hoodie you bought was the latest victim of paint twister. Or maybe your kid exchanged lucky socks with their new best friend. Whatever comes home in that bag, know that they are the remnants of a summer well-lived. They are the reminders of new skills, new interests, and new friendships. They are the physical proof that your kid tried something new. And no doubt they will be smelly. Wash those things quick.
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.
Tomorrow on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, I’ll be thinking about Arik Einstein z”l. Einstein, who passed away at the end of 2013, was from Israel’s “Greatest Generation” that built the country. His 1971 classic song Ani Ve’ata became the anthem of optimism for a young nation. I do not recall ever learning the song for the first time, but I am sure it was at camp. It is strange how knowing something by heart means that you hardly ever give it any thought. Inspired by his passing, I decided to take a closer look at this song.
What did Einstein mean when he wrote “You and I, we will change the world”? Why does he need someone else to help him make change in the world? It is popularly understood that we need large groups of people to make change in the world. About this conception the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In terms of bringing about change, quality is more important than quantity, but we always benefit from partnership and support. In the wake of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut we take pause to think about the founders of the state. That small group of people jumped in where others had just talked about it and made the modern miracle of the rebirth of a State of Israel a reality. The sacrifices were serious, but it is noteworthy that none of them did it by themselves.
It was at summer camp where I first formed my connection to the Israel. It was also there that I forged a relationship with a small group of people that thought “You and I, we will change the world.” Maybe a meaningful thing to do on Yom Ha’atzmaut would be to reconnect with your bunk age group. It might be time for a check in to see where we can support each other in making the world a better place.
“At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.” ~ Maya Angelou
When I think about the most significant experiences in my life to date, events that helped propel me into adulthood and that gave me the confidence to venture out on my own, my last year as a camper here at the Ranch Camp always comes to mind. At age fifteen, I participated in Ranch Camp’s TASC (Teen Adventure and Service Corps) program, where I learned a lot about the art of surrender.
Ranch Camp’s TASC program consists of a 10-day trip away from camp where campers go backpacking, whitewater rafting, enjoy a Colorado hot spring, and participate in a community service project. My parents were never especially outdoorsy, so I went into my TASC year as a total backpacking novice having never spent any length of time on a camping trip. We went to a camping store to buy all the gear I needed (most of which I still have to this day) and I headed off to camp that summer facing “the great unknown” both excited and nervous.
During our first day of hiking in Colorado’s beautiful backcountry, we were plagued by heavy rain. One boy on my trip was especially slight of build and was weighed down by a very heavy, ill-fitting pack. He had been headstrong and not listened to the staff when we were packing for our trip as they warned him against carrying so much weight. A few miles into our route, he was visibly weak and was having trouble maintaining his footing on the now slippery trail. Seeing his distress, we all stopped and together unpacked his pack and redivided his gear amongst the whole group in order to lighten his load. By each of us taking on a little more, the boy was able to continue and succeed during the rest of our hiking trip. From this experience, I learned the importance of surrendering one’s pride in order to accept the kindness and help of those around you.
My next big lesson came a couple days later when we arrived at the most memorable campsite of our trip. The site was reached after a long, exhausting day of hiking. The site was located next to a gorgeous circular lake that was nestled beneath a horseshoe shaped mountain. And although we were all tired from the long hard hike that day, seeing that the conditions were ripe for a beautiful sunset, one of our staff members invited anyone who wanted to join him to go on an optional hike to catch the sun as it set across the vast mountain range that surrounded us. About six of us decided to join him that evening and we quickly scrambled up a hill to the high vista above our campsite. There we were rewarded by the most spectacular sunset that I’ve ever seen, even to this day. The views were breathtaking and the colors were so vivid – it was majestic, magical, and memorable. I felt like I was on top of the world that evening and it was there that I learned the beauty that can be beheld when you surrender your bodily exhaustion and push yourself to find your inner strength.
We finished an amazing TASC trip and headed back to camp for the final few days of the session, and suddenly the last day of camp was upon us. Like all last days of camp, I remember there being hugs, tears, and prolonged goodbyes. It’s never easy to leave camp, your friends, and the staff members you grow to love. For me, this particular last day of camp was even more difficult because I knew that I was never going to come back to Ranch Camp as a camper. This chapter in my camp life was ending and the next time I would come back to camp, I’d be returning as a staff member. Nothing was ever going to be the same and I had no choice in that moment but to let go and embrace the future. It was here that I learned the importance of surrendering what has passed for the prospect of what is to come.
Camp has taught me so much over the years but my TASC trip at age fifteen was a profound learning experience. During that summer, I learned that not only was surrendering honorable but also empowering. For giving yourself over totally to an experience is as awesome as it is fulfilling.
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We come together for Passover to celebrate our ongoing liberation from slavery. During the seder we will speak at length about the exodus from Egypt, but how did we, the descendants of Jacob, get there? Before we ask how did we end up as slaves we need to ask how did we end up in Egypt?
This story starts with Joseph and his brothers. Annoyed by his being different, they sell him into slavery. Through a turn of events Joseph ends up in a position of power in Egypt. Forced by the famine in the land of Canaan, his brothers unwittingly come before Joseph seeking sustenance. Sitting before them, he is faced with a choice as to whether or not he will keep his identity closeted. The text reads:
Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, “Cause every man to go out from me.” And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he gave his voice in tears; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard” (Genesis 45:1-2).
When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, his voice knows no limits, and everyone in Egypt finds out about his identity. Through Joseph’s coming-out they were all witness to the unfolding of God’s plan. What started off as a family tragedy was transformed into a divine national comedy.
In modern times we can hear resonance of the Passover cry for justice in the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He wrote that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963). I believe that we can hear a corollary to this in the sound of Joseph’s tears. There is an inextricable connection between personal and national revelation. While Moses led us out of Egypt we were not truly free until we experienced God’s revelation at Sinai. Joseph’s personal revelation to his brothers was a precursor to God’s coming out to the nation at Sinai. While we need to seek justice for everyone, we should rise to the challenge of realizing that we will not understand the collective revelation until we are all free to express all of who we are as individuals.
A few months ago I went to a benefit hosted by Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the camp at which I grew up. There were some people there who I had not seen for 20 years. Stepping into that room it was as if we were all back at camp. One hug later it was as if no time had passed. We were family. For a moment there I had a sense of what Joseph and his brothers must have felt so many years ago. Camp avails us of the opportunity to expand our idea of family. There in the presence of our camp family we can give voice to hidden parts of ourselves. There we can start to articulate what we aspire to become in our lives. How can we provide our children with that safe place to reveal all of who they are and who they might become?
At your seder, as the Jewish world sits as equals sharing food, I hope that more of us find safe space to share ourselves with the collective. May you have a very revealing and meaningful Passover.
Jewish overnight camp is about so much more than campfires and color war. At camp, kids get the chance to explore who they are—and who they want to become—in an active, inspiring, fun-filled environment. (Marshmallows included.) But paying for camp can be difficult. We get it—we are parents too.
We have some easy ways to make the dream of overnight summer camp a reality for your child. We can even help you find the perfect camp—no matter what your background, you will find a place your child will have fun, be comfortable, learn more about themselves, and explore their Jewish identity.
If your family lives in the northeast, check out BunkConnect, a new program that offers introductory rates at 40-60% off to first time campers. Finding out if you qualify is quick and confidential—answer six questions at BunkConnect.org. Then start browsing for the right summer experience for your child for this summer! The website will connect you right to the camp director to learn more about the experience.
One Happy Camper
BunkConnect doesn’t work for your family? One Happy Camper offers first time campers up to $1000 off. With over 155 Jewish camps on Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Find a Camp tool – search out the perfect one. You can narrow down your search by choosing preferred session length, specialty activities, denomination, and more. Once you choose a camp visit OneHappyCamper.org to see if you are eligible for a need-blind grant.
While you are on our website, visit our scholarship database. Don’t forget to talk to your synagogue, local federation, JCC or other Jewish organizations. Many have scholarships available to make summers at Jewish camp a reality
At Jewish camp, ruach (spirit) is part of every activity—from dancing to hitting a home run—allowing campers to explore their connection to Judaism in a meaningful way while having the summer of their lives. Clearly, we are a little passionate about this. You will see the difference in your child the minute they return home. The impact of overnight Jewish camp is immediate. At camp, kids hang out with amazing role models, who inspire confidence and independence, guiding your child to hone their skills, build self-esteem, and discover interests and talents they never knew they had.
We can’t wait for your child to have the summer of a lifetime. (And you get a bit of a break from the logistics of the daily grind, not bad…)
This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
The gates of camp will open in just over 100 days, and our participants from around the country are already counting down to sunny days at their summer home. At Kutz Camp, one aspect of camp we are particularly proud of is our Mitzvah Corps program. With the recent focus on disabilities and inclusion, it makes going into our 23rd summer of special needs camping that much more special. The Mitzvah Corps program at Kutz has grown and evolved into a truly integrated, mainstreamed summer camp program for Jewish teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). There are two aspects of this program that are really remarkable.
The Mitzvah Corps program itself has been designed to meet the unique needs and characteristics of each participant in the program, creating individualized accommodations and modifications which allow each camper to succeed. These teens enjoy every aspect of camp life, and are able to build independence and resilience by having real choices in their daily activities. They are welcomed into the community with open arms, into an environment which fosters reciprocal learning, empathy, and understanding. In this open, friendly and supportive camp community, our teens with ASD are able to create friendships, explore their identity, gain independence, and grow in many ways. Perhaps the greatest outgrowth of this program is meeting with the parents of these teens, who are often overcome with gratitude and emotion for making a normative summer camp experience available to their child.
One of our campers, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, loves learning about Judaism and is particularly interested in prayer. She finds it difficult to fit in with her peers at school and in her home congregation. At camp, she participated in the Torah Corps Major, where teens gather for three hours each morning to study Jewish text, Jewish history, and engage in meaningful discussion and debate about a variety of topics relating to Judaism. Throughout the day she chose classes to attend on the subjects of Israeli culture and Jewish ethics, and participated in a variety of other activities and experiences. On the last night of camp, during a closing circle with the all of camp, she, who is generally very quiet and prefers not to be around large groups of people, stood up and addressed the group. She thanked everyone for helping create a place where she felt that she could “unwind.”
A few days after returning home from camp, her mother shared, “My daughter came home with enormously enthusiastic reports about her time at camp. She said she loved the Torah study and Israeli culture sessions and the singing and services. I really couldn’t be happier. Her older sister commented tonight that she was so much more outgoing and engaged this evening than she was before she left. We all think this is because she got accustomed to the much higher level of social demand at camp and it really strengthened her ability and desire to engage. I can’t tell you what a giant step forward this experience is for her. We are excited about how it has enriched her life and the possibilities it opens up for her future.”
In addition to the incredibly talented and dedicated staff who help make this program a reality, what gives the program its sparkle are the Chaverim. At Kutz each teen chooses a Major, a leadership learning area that is their primary focus during the session. The Mitzvah Corps Major is comprised of neurotypical teens that learn the skills of special needs inclusion, and are able to work as peer-engagers, helping with the integration of our special needs population into mainstream camp culture.
Not only are we able to provide a safe, nurturing, camp experience for our teens with ASD, we are also able to train the next generation of compassionate young people who will choose to continue this valuable work of accessibility for special needs populations as they move through college and into the work world. Fostering the next generation of advocates who will stand on the shoulders of all of those doing remarkable work around disabilities and inclusion today is one example of our commitment to a vibrant and just Jewish future. We are so proud of our hundreds of alumni of this remarkable program.
Find out more about URJ programs designed for special needs populations here.