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.
This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
When I was seven years old, I started going to a Jewish overnight camp on the West Coast. I honestly think that had to be the worst experience of my life, but not for the reason you may be thinking. The only reason I didn’t like it was the fact that I have autism. Bottom line, I didn’t fit in. Too bad my family decided we should all go for the next two years. (My mom, who is a rabbi, served on faculty there. Even though they tried their best and my mom was up at camp, things were still really terrible.) However, after moving to Pennsylvania, my family and I learned that there were Jewish camps for kids on the autistic spectrum. My family decided to send me to Round Lake Camp which was also a Jewish sleep-away camp. After going for my first year, each summer was all about camp.
Now, if you have a brother, sister, or child who has autism, you probably know that new experiences cause a lot of anxiety. So, for example, if the simplest bee is scary to them, they might be having a nervous break-down the entire car ride wondering if they’ll be tons of bees at camp. In my case, on the drive up with my dad, he calmed me down by telling me the three main purposes of camp and the importance of each. The first important part of going to a Jewish camp would be that you meet new people and make some friends. Considering my lack of friends, this was a big plus. Also, because this is a Jewish camp, you won’t be the minority anymore which also means that you get to do Jewish activities that aren’t available anywhere else such as Israeli dancing. One of the things I did enjoy at the west coast camp was Israeli dancing and it was something I really missed.
The next big purpose is getting to try new things. This would include new foods such as tomato soup, new activities such as high ropes, and water activities such as the huge water slide. Out of all those things, my favorite wouldn’t be an activity, but the fact that I get to stay in a cabin with all my “camp buddies”. At my first camp, however, because I didn’t fit in, I didn’t feel comfortable in my bunk. While at Round Lake, everyone in my bunk accepted me and helped me when I was feeling sad.
After my first year, Round Lake was combined with another camp called Cedar Lake. It was also a Jewish camp, but was not for kids on the spectrum. That wasn’t really an issue because we really didn’t come into contact with the Cedar Lake kids that often. Except for Color Wars which is a big competition where both camps were combined and split into four groups. After being split, you compete in different activities. Almost every camp does this activity and I never really liked it.
The last and most important purpose of going to a Jewish camp is what my dad told me before my first year at Round Lake. That would be the ability to learn more about yourself. In other words, that means finding new experiences and finding what you are good at such as sports and science. I learned that I am good at a game called Ga Ga. It’s a game played in an octagonal court with a rubber bouncy ball. The objective is to use your fist or open hand to hit the ball towards the other players (knees or below). If the ball does hit them (in the knees or below), they are out.
All in all, going to a Jewish camp is a great experience because of the friends you’ll make, the new experiences you’ll have, and the memories you will have created. As we say at Cedar Lake/Round Lake, this is “A Home Away from Home.”
Every summer “my camp” posts their Top 10 song session songs. And each year I look at it in great anticipation and then amazement that eight out of 10 are on my list of ultimate camps songs. The others, I have come to know and love from my camp visits every summer.
Each song – whether it by written by Pete Seeger, James Taylor, Debbie Friedman, or long forgotten color war generals – has a special spot on the soundtrack of my youth. It never fails to bring me back to a dining hall song session, standing on a bench, or a campfire belting it out, arms around my besties.
At 9, 10, 11 years old I didn’t understand the politics behind “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” or “If I Had a Hammer.” All I knew, was I just couldn’t get enough of them. Well, Pete Seeger, thanks for the memories for me, my bunkmates, and Jewish campers wishing everyday ended with a campfire, a guitar, and s’mores.
To everything there is a season – except maybe for the soundtrack of my youth, I’ll keep that in heavy rotation all year round.
I first thought that I might be different when I was in sixth grade.
I went to Jewish day school, and I was horribly bullied for being different. My reaction was to revel in the negative attention, to try to act like I liked it. It was the only way I knew to fit in. My only friends were two girls. And by friends, I mean they were willing to hang out with me at school, and we talked on the phone a couple times. Not a couple times a week – a couple of times. One day at school, these girls asked me who my crush was, but I had never really thought about it before. When I started to think about it, I realized it was Danny. I was confused, so I just stuffed it down and lied to make it easier. I said it was one of them.
Years later when I was seventeen, I was searching for something to connect to, a place to feel comfortable. A friend in USY convinced me to work at Camp Solomon Schechter for the summer. I was hesitant, but I figured, why not? At Jewish camp, I found the home I had been searching for, the acceptance I had been longing for. People loved me, no matter what. In the worst of times, Schechter was my refuge. I would always look forward to summer, for moments of serenity and happiness. I have worked at camp every summer since, and as of four years ago, I work there full time—my dream job.
Let me introduce myself. My name is David Furman, and I am the Assistant Director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington. And I am gay. I came out one month ago at twenty-nine years old. And I came out on Facebook, so the whole world would know. (I didn’t tell a single person before I posted it on Facebook. Scary!)
So why now? And why Facebook?
I came to grips with the fact that I was gay (fully gay, not bisexual, although I so wanted to be) in college, yet I stayed in the closet for seven more years. Why? Partially fear, that many of the people in the Orthodox community I associated with in college would shun me. But also, it just didn’t seem like it mattered to come out or not.
Then this summer, there were multiple occasions in which I almost revealed my true self. I held back both in private conversations and once in front of the whole camp when I heard one kid call another kid gay. I know how much that hurts. I wanted to reach out and say, “Stand up and say that to me. Call me gay. Because I am gay.”
Then in December, something happened that solidified my decision. One of my staff members (who is just 18), posted on Facebook that he was in a relationship with a dude. My emotions went crazy! How am I so scared to come out and be brave if this 18-year-old kid can come out? How can he have a relationship when I can’t? And really, how much easier would it have been for HIM if I was out all of these years, so he knew he had someone he could talk to? How can I consider myself a role model to campers and staff if I’m not honest and public about who I am? Not out to my friends, not out to my family, but out to the community. The Pacific Northwest Jewish community is small, and I knew if I came out on Facebook, everyone would know. The one caveat I should mention, is who I accept as friends on Facebook; I will only friend campers after they have “graduated” our Counselor-in-Training program and are no longer campers. However, with Facebook you can set restrictions on your posts: to just your friends, friends of friends, or public—i.e. to the world. I chose public. I wanted young people from my camp, who were struggling with the issues I struggled with for nearly 30 years, to be able to see that there is hope.
And the response I got blew my mind. Over 350 people liked my status. Over 70 comments. I got dozens of Facebook messages and texts, all supportive. It told me that nothing had changed. And as the comments kept pouring in, I was grinning.
I feel happier, I feel freer, I don’t find myself thinking through everything I say with the “will that make me sound gay” litmus test. I feel like I can honestly share everything that is me. I still have the same great friends and the same great family. I still have the same great job. I’m just me.
And so now I can say it. IT GETS BETTER.
What will I say to those kids who are feeling like I did, who feel like they have to hide who they are, who think maybe it’s just not worth it? I would say: be strong. Life can seriously get you down sometimes. You will run across people that make you feel like crap. But for every dip, there is a peak. Gam zeh ya’vor. This, too, shall pass. Life can be so good. You just have to have faith in yourself, and surround yourself with good people. There are lots more good people out there than people who will judge you or care who you are. And remember, if they don’t like you because you’re gay, dump ‘em. Optimism is so hard sometimes, but I can tell you the world is on an upward spiral. It does get better. I mean, we can get married! The tide is moving forward.
It does get better. Check out the It Gets Better Project for some inspiration.
I also want to say again how lucky I am to work for Schechter. All I have gotten from my community is love, support and respect.
And I hope to pass it on ten-fold. I want Schechter to be a place where everyone feels comfortable to be whoever they are, openly and honestly, and I hope that my coming out might play some part in changing kids’ minds about what’s acceptable to say. Or maybe just give one camper hope.
If you are one of those kids or counselors reading this, please contact me, I am always available.