At each of the three camps I attended, I only knew one person in my bunk the first year I went to that camp. I went to camps which mostly attracted kids from different neighborhoods, schools and synagogues. It was a chance to re-invent myself, to have a different identity. And having different girls around, who knew nothing about me, unlike the girls with whom I attended school from kindergarten on, was, looking back, liberating.
I was a “smart” girl in school but that didn’t really matter in camp since there was only one period of shiur (learning Jewish subjects) which was, of course, my favorite even though most everyone else slept through it. I was not good at sports so I experienced being really, really bad at something which had never happened in school. I can’t say that was fun but it did help me figure out how to negotiate difficulties. I admit it: I lied. I pretended I had ear aches, had my period four times in eight weeks, sprained my finger.
I did like arts and crafts and eventually I helped do scenery for the camp’s plays and then for our school productions. I also became the art editor of my high school year book a few years later.
My all-girls high school didn’t give us much opportunity to hone our flirting skills. But camp did. Apparently, I was a natural.
The girls in my bunk were much more interested in clothes than I was, knew the latest songs on the radio which I didn’t, and came from suburban areas, rather than the big city that I was from. For the most part, they were less religiously observant. It was good to be with a different group and each time I changed camps, I chose not to go to those that most of my school and neighborhood friends went to.
So it was very interesting to me that when my twin grandsons went off to camp last week, and learned that they knew 10 out of the 16 other boys in their bunk, one shrugged but the other was distressed. He told his mom that he “wanted to be with some friends, but also wanted the chance to make new friends – because that’s what camp is all about!”
I was surprised that he really “got it.” That camp is, indeed, an opportunity to stretch, to get to know different kids, try different things, form new friendships.
But I don’t think he yet realizes that meeting new people helps you meet yourself in a different way, too.
My life is as a voyeur. In fact, social media has turned us all into complete voyeurs. We follow blogs of people we have never met, are cheerleaders for Team Ethan, and wait for the next post from Superman Sam’s mom. Who hasn’t clicked on the Facebook page of the first person that broke their heart way back when? Not to mention trying to keep up with the Instagram pages of our kids and their 617 friends. Oh and all those beautiful “how to get beachy waves” tutorials—I keep watching, and it ain’t working. And, it is about to get much worse…
I am about to become the biggest voyeur of them all. It’s time for camp pictures. Every year I promise myself that I am not going to be tied to my CampMinder, the pictures can wait until morning. Yet once my kids leave, every night as it nears 10pm, I find myself reaching for my phone, the iPad, or fighting my husband for the computer to catch a glimpse of my smiling girls at camp. Or at least a pic of a kid in a t-shirt that I think could possibly belong to one of my kids (that means they have friends, right?), or a corner of one of their towels as they zip by the background of the picture (if they are wrapped in a towel, they aren’t lost on the lake), or a lost flip-flop that found its way into a picture (inevitably, things won’t make it home).
I am a pro at this. I preach it: camp is the best thing to happen to kids since, well, ever. I know they are having the time of their lives and there is no greater gift I could give them. I also know the camp sifts through the pictures before posting them so even if there was one of someone having a questionable moment, I would never know it from the 548+ images posted each night. Yet, I just need to see one picture.
I’ve made some progress though. The first year my daughter was at camp, I would wake up at 2am and look at the pictures through very sleepy eyes if they weren’t posted before I fell asleep.
So, here are some promises I made to myself that I can keep this summer: I won’t call the camp freaking that they lost my children if they aren’t in pictures for a few days. And I won’t laugh at you that you did call the camp (and we will all know that you did when the first 7 pictures the next day are like a Bar Mitzvah montage of your kid)—I get it. I won’t give my kid a signal—it is really annoying to every other parent.
And I will apologize in advance for my behavior. If we happen to be out for dinner and I am in the bathroom for a few minutes too long, and slip my phone into my husband’s hands when I return to the table, sorry. Maybe by next year I’ll be able to wait for morning. But for now, my kids “live 10 for 2,” and I live for 10pm.
The kids are at camp…now what? Time to write them letters! But what do you write? Never fear: here are the only five tips you need to write great letters to your kid at camp.
1. Shorter is better.
The kid doesn’t want your long exposition about that jerk who cut you off on the highway, or how the copier jammed at work. The kid wants one sentence—tops—about your life, and you should make it a funny one (“Today, the baby vomited all over me—there might even be some left in my ear, not sure I got it all when I showered.”). Questions about camp, friends, etc. are good but again, limit yourself to a few per letter.
2. Use your judgment.
“I miss you so much I fall asleep crying every night – Daddy thinks I’m ridiculous, but I had no idea how much I would miss you! I sit in your room every night and close my eyes and imagine you are there with me” is something to tell your therapist, not your kid.
3. Take postal time differences into account.
Bear in mind that the first letter you get from your kid might say something about your kid being homesick—and that that letter is from at least 48 hours ago, which is about twenty years in camp time. Until you get a few letters, correspondence will be stilted. Keep it light and casual and fun: “Is the food good? Over here, Dad burned dinner last night—you were lucky to miss it.”
4. Funny beats flowery.
I’m mom to two boys at camp. I found out the hard way that they don’t appreciate the kind of letters I personally would like to receive. My multi-page epistles last summer—which were pretty well-written, if I do say so myself—might not have been unread, but I certainly didn’t get answers to any of my questions I posed therein. You know what these kids like? Stupid stuff. Cards with dumb looking pictures of dogs, printed out Far Side comics and idiotic jokes are much appreciated. I just bought the boys cards that, when you open them, a chicken dances to the tune of ‘I Like To Move It, Move It!” I am pretty sure that will be the one thing they remember about my correspondence the entire summer.
5. Postcards ROCK.
There are a ton of apps out there which make mailing your own picture postcard—that is, a postcard with a picture you’ve taken on it—quite easy. Some are easier than others. I personally prefer Postagram, which takes about one minute to do and is reliable, but others include Postify, Postcards on the Run and Touchnote. Again, go for funny—an amusing picture of small siblings will always work—or timely—like a picture of you clutching your face after watching the USA World Cup match, if that interests your kid. Postcards are great for the generation with the attention span of a Tweet, and the pictures will also double as bunk decoration for your kid. Everyone’s a winner.
Jewish camps across North America have opened, or are preparing to open, their gates to over 75,000 happy campers this summer. Whether you’ve already sent your trunks up to camp, or you are just starting to gather items on your packing list, remember that some of the most important things to bring with you aren’t things at all!
I recently received a pre-camp note from one of our camps. In it, was a suggested “Packing List” from Rabbi Joel Seltzer, director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. I’d like to share it with you.
Don’t worry – this packing list will not require another run to the store, more labeling of clothes, or any added concern about how any person is going to be able to lift the bags into the car!
So please remember to pack your kids with:
- A Helping Hand – Don’t forget to bring a caring spirit, always willing to help out a friend in need.
- An Open Mind – Remember that camp is built to offer new experiences, some of them challenging, but bring an open mind and you might just discover you found a new talent.
- A Love of Learning – Ramah is about growth; expanding horizons, and learning about Judaism, about Israel, and about the modern Hebrew language.
- A Mental Camera – Because sometimes the best moments and memories in life are captured in our minds, and shared with our friends; and not posted on Facebook.
- A Desire to Make New Friends – As you are packing, don’t forget what camp is all about – friendship! Make sure you bring a welcoming smile, a good joke, and who knows, you might just make a new best friend this summer!
I love this message. Yes, sunscreen and sneakers are necessary items, but instead of focusing on actual things we should be bringing, let’s focus on the things that allow us to get the most from our summer. After all, while it’s common for kids to forget their towel or socks at camp, they always bring their experiences home with them. And unlike material things, those experiences are irreplaceable.
“All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.” – The Kotzker Rebbe
Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859), was a Hasidic Rebbe who was known for his caustic character and sharp wit. As the story goes he once asked his disciples, “Why don’t we do sins?” Knowing their teacher they should have known that this was a Klutz Kashe, a foolish question, to which they were never going to get the right answer. The students replied, “God does not want us to do sins,” “It is prohibited by the Torah”, and “The Rabbis do not want us to do sins.” The Rebbe snapped and summarily rejected each answer. Finally the Rebbe said, “We do not do sins because it is a waste of time. Rather, we should be using our time to do mitzvot- good deeds.”
Recently there has been flurry of writing on the “Body Talk” guidelines at Eden Village Camp. Many of the articles (including The New York Times, Slate, Kveller, The Forward) and just about all of the responding comments and blog posts explore the merits and risks of these guidelines, a warranted discussion for any parent. It should be noted, however, that the articles failed to mention that the camp does promote healthy body-awareness through sports, music, arts, nutrition education, and integrated conversations about body image, social pressures, and self-esteem. According to Eden Village Camp’s “Body Talk” guidelines,”the temporary respite from all the body commentary, together with… sessions and informal conversations on body image, allow for important sharing and insight about how one feels about one’s own body or the pressure one might feel to look a certain way, and where those messages come from, and tools for going home and being a lighthouse in a world that’s usually really different from camp.” The absence of this crucial nuance from this discussion has resulted in a conversation that has spiraled from valuable to hypothetical and misinformed.
It seems that we have fallen into the trap of the Kotzker’s Hassidim. Have we missed the point? Have we gotten lost in the merit or risks of “Body Talk” instead of focusing on having conversations that matter? What are the conversations that we want to be having?
In Jewish thought, we do not treat speech lightly. Words change lives. In Judaism, words are the very media of the creation of the world. There are so many examples that this world is broken. Each of us needs to do our part in fixing the world. What good conversations are you a part of that will lead to actions that will help fix the world? For thousands of years the discourse of Jewish life has been and needs to continue to be about making the world a better place. We need to demand of our girls, our boys, and ourselves to focus on having important conversations. It is not a question of morality; it’s a question of how we use our time.
“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.
Fat-free ice cream. Sugar free-candy. Low-carb apple pie. Are you salivating yet? Probably not. Manufacturers and weight-conscious home chefs often try to make desserts “healthy” by removing one key unhealthy component. Unfortunately that single ingredient is usually the difference between a completely satisfying, delicious treat and a lackluster, mediocre letdown. Desserts just don’t feel like dessert if they are not able to be dessert, in all of their sugary, fatty, carby goodness. So how can the health conscious among us enjoy dessert responsibly? Just let desserts BE what they are!
What do I mean by this? Desserts that are packed with preservatives (like shelf-stable cookies) or have had the fat or sugar replaced are often just not satisfying. This leads us to eat more of them, hoping to find the satisfaction in the 20th bite that we weren’t able to find in bites 1-19. If we just let desserts BE and make and eat only those with wholesome, natural ingredients (like pure cane sugar, butter, whole grain and regular unbleached flours, high quality chocolate, all natural peanut butter, etc.) and consume no more than 150 calories of the sweet stuff a day we will be satisfied, happy, and believe it or not, probably healthier.
In our culture of instant gratification, convenience is everything, and the constant quest for improvement, kids can often get lost in what they “could” or “should be.” They remove parts of themselves to be more appealing to the masses (just like the low-fat cookies) and can often end up unsatisfied and unhappy, missing the truest version of themselves without even realizing it. One of the greatest values kids can learn at camp is how to just BE what they are. With the array of different activities, different types of staff and campers, and a whole bunch of fresh air, camp helps kids get rid of the preservatives and substitutions and be the truest, most delicious version of themselves. And when they come home, revealing an aspect of themselves you always suspected was there, go ahead and eat them up- no portion size is too big!
For one idea of a wholesome, simple and satisfying dessert, try the recipe for the peanut butter cookies below.
1 cup creamy, all-natural peanut butter
1 cup evaporated pure cane sugar, plus more for rolling the cookies in
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 large cookie sheets with parchment paper.
- Mix peanut butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon until well-blended.
- Beat the egg and add it to the peanut butter, along with the vanilla and the baking powder. Mix well to combine.
- Pour additional sugar onto a plate. Using a tablespoon, scoop balls of dough and lightly roll in the sugar. Place cookies on baking sheet about 2 inches apart.
- Using a table fork, gently press the tines into each cookie, flattening them. Turn the cookies 90 degrees and press the tines into the cookies again, making a crosshatch pattern.
- Bake the cookies 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool 5 minutes on cookie sheets.
- Using a spatula, transfer the cookies to a cooling rack to cool completely.
Last summer, I packed everything that was on the packing lists, plus extras. You want 12 pairs of socks? Here are 15! Hiking boots optional? Come on kid, let’s go to REI! I was a zealot. I could not be found in my house without the Sharpie in hand.
Fat lot of good it all did me when one kid was homesick. Beyond homesick—he was utterly, incorrigibly miserable. For weeks.
To his credit, he’s giving overnight camp another try at his request: a different camp, and a shorter session. And as I pack him, I know now that the physical packing we’re doing is nowhere near as important as the mental and emotional packing.
He’s scared. And you know something? So am I. I’m scared of him being unhappy again, of getting calls every day from the camp about how unhappy he is. It was a semi-traumatic experience not only for him, but also for me.
So how should we emotionally pack for camp this time around?
1. Don’t avoid talking about homesickness: talk with your child about being away from home before your child leaves. Watch the camp DVD or go on the camp website together. When you talk about potential homesickness—whether your camper brings it up or you do—it’s important to be enthusiastic and optimistic.
WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY: “I’m so excited to hear all about what you do at camp! You’re going to get to try things that you never get to do at home.” Talking with your kid about activities at camp is a great thing. It’s also a chance to convey the message that the best way to get over homesickness is to be busy, whether it’s talking to other kids in the bunk or going out and trying waterskiing for the first time.
WHAT YOU SHOULDN’T SAY: “If things don’t work out, I’ll come and get you early.” This is a big no-no. You think you’re doing your kid a favor, but in fact, you’re implicitly sending the message, “I don’t think you can really handle things on your own.” Remember: you are not sending your kid alone to storm the beaches of Normandy under rapid machine gun fire. You are sending her for a camp experience: it’s designed to be a good time. It’s also designed to be a setting for her to learn how to cope with and handle her own problems. Don’t take that opportunity away from her.
2. Ask your camp if they can connect you with another camper for a phone or Skype chat session. This will help your kid get a real sense of what camp is like—and maybe, as a bonus, to have one friendly face that’s recognizable on the bus!
3. Tell your kid homesickness is totally normal. If you miss something or someone when you’re at camp, that’s actually a really nice thing—it means that there is something or someone about home that you love! I’m planning on breaking out my old letters from my mom to me at camp— which reveal that I too was a crying, sniveling mess.
4. Reassure your camper, letting them know everything at home will be okay while they are gone. When you send letters, even if you spent the morning crying about missing little Billy, please don’t write that in the letter! Write positive, news-laden letters that reinforce the idea that things are great…while not sending the message “everything is even more amazing without you here.”
Did that help? Are you still nervous? Me too. Feel free to send me tips! Sigh.
For the last four summers, whenever my wife, Cynthia, and I have put our son, Jonah, on the bus to sleepaway camp we have experienced one of those rare moments couples share: we not only find ourselves on the same page, we find ourselves on the exact same line on that page. We see in each other’s expressions an identical mix of anxiety and relief. We are concerned about how our son will fare, of course, but we’re also free. Yes, to turn this into a very bad joke, we are free at last!
Still, our particular sense of emancipation has to do with the fact that Jonah, who has autism, is a constant in our everyday life. As we are in his. (I’m sure Jonah, once he’s on that bus, is equally relieved to be on his own and free of us.) Every member of a special needs family is well-acquainted with the joys and stresses of what is, after all, an extremely heightened kind of inseparability. Call it Togetherness Squared. All of which may explain why when I first talked to Sid Milech, director of Montreal’s YM-YWHA Harry Bronfman Y Country Camp (YCC), about a new program he’s inaugurating this summer called the Special Needs Family Camp, I had my doubts.
The program, one of the first of its kind in Canada, will make the facilities of the YCC, located in Quebec’s scenic Laurentian Mountains, available to special needs families for a long weekend in mid-August, after the camp’s regular summer sessions are done. Every family will have a cabin to themselves and be able to participate, as families, in the camp experience. That includes the special needs kids themselves, who will be accompanied by a “buddy” provided by YCC, the siblings of the special needs kid, who will participate with their peers in a wide range of camp activities, and, finally, their parents. Again I have to confess, this sounded to me, at first hearing, like a remake of The Shining—a family all alone in a cabin the woods. Still, the more Milech explained how the program works the better this kind of family togetherness started to sound.
For one thing, parents will have a lot of time to themselves during the long weekend, time to enjoy the camp’s surrounding and time to spend not worrying, for a change, about what their kids are doing and how to structure their time. Milech is still assembling his staff for the session, hiring “buddies” and counselors. He also has a psychologist and a Montreal rabbi, with a background in special needs, on board. It’s the best of both worlds, Milech explained when we talked. “This is meant to be a family holiday, a supervised holiday, true. But, most of all, it is intended to give everyone a break,” he said.
Milech’s Special Needs Family Camp is closely patterned after Tikvah Family Camp, a program run by Camp Ramah in New York’s Poconos region. Tikvah Family Camp started six years ago and Adena Sternthal has been its director for the last five years. It also takes place in mid-August, after the regular camp session is done. That’s when Sternthal makes room for 15 to 20 families, primarily families with kids, between four and 13, on the autism spectrum. Sternthal has come to appreciate how much Tikvah Family Camp means to its participants.
“Visiting theme parks and other more typical vacations aren’t always easy for families with kids on the spectrum and for a lot of our families this is their only real vacation. The parents are always telling me this is what they talk about all year long,” Sternthal pointed out. “They also tell me how amazed they are to have the chance to see their kids do things they never thought they could do, like being out on the rope course or enjoying the water. For our part, we want the special needs kids to experience things they haven’t experienced before. We will take them out on the water, in a rowboat, for example, and if it takes two hours to do it, to make them comfortable, we’ll wait. We’re not going anywhere.”
One of the unexpected consequences of Tikvah Family Camp, and Milech expects this to be the case in his Special Needs Family Camp too, is the way parents from these families bond, develop their own unique kind of togetherness. “We provide them with connections with other parents who are in the same boat,” Sternthal added.
Then she related a recent anecdote that illustrates the impression Tikvah Family Camp made on one family, in particular. “Last year was their second summer with us and at the end of the weekend, after everyone had said goodbye, this family came to my office and asked if they could speak to me. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what happened that I didn’t know about, am I in trouble? Instead, they handed me an envelope. Inside was cash and a lot of it. They said they wanted me to have this money so another family who can’t afford the camp can come next year. I became a mess at that point. So when you ask me how the families feel about this camp, there’s your answer.
For more information on Montreal’s YCC Special Needs Family Camp, visit their website here.
For more information on the Tikvah Family Camp, visit their website here.