It’s been almost a year, yet I still can’t quite forget the odor that permeated the car as we drove my son home from camp last year. He’d been away for almost four weeks, and though the day was pleasant up in the Hudson Valley, he requested air conditioning in the car. We obliged and closed the windows. Not five minutes later, the smell presented itself.
“What smell?” my son responded. I looked in the rearview mirror at him to see his smile, but saw none. He was genuinely curious.
“Hon, is it possible that you packed a dead animal in your bag?” I asked. “Or maybe an animal crawled into your duffel bag and died there? Because it smells unbelievable.”
“I don’t smell anything,” he responded, without a trace of sarcasm. “And no way, Mom, nothing died in my bag.”
“You realize,” my husband muttered to me as he turned off the air and cracked the windows, “that means this is a smell he is USED to.”
I turned around in the front seat to get a better look at him. And was immediately sorry I had.
The boy had taken off his shoes. Correction: he had taken off shoes that I didn’t recognize. These were shoes that were gray and hideously disfigured, pockmarked by holes, stains and unidentifiable sticky things. I’m sad to say that the socks underneath them were similar in both color and condition.
“My GOD! PUT THOSE SHOES BACK ON!” I said as I held my nose.
“You think it’s the shoes?” my son said with genuine curiosity. He leaned forward to sniff them, like a patron at a fine dining establishment presented with a particularly esoteric vintage.
“DON’T SMELL THEM!” I practically yelled. “Yes, it’s the shoes! Or maybe the disgusting socks! Didn’t the camp have laundry?”
“Yes,” he replied. “But I only used it for my dirty stuff.”
I shuddered, thinking of what awaited me in the “clean stuff” duffel bag. “But whose shoes are those?” I asked. “What happened to the shoes we bought the day before you left for camp?”
“Huh?” he responded. “Mom, these ARE the shoes we bought the day before camp.”
Reader, I can assure you that the sneakers I had purchased for camp were bright blue with a streak of orange. These shoes looked like they had emerged from Pompeii. And then fallen victim to a mudslide.
I tell you this story as a reminder to both you and I as we prepare to Pack for Camp, an activity involving multiple Sharpies and often multiple trips to Target and online shopping locales of your choice. The morals of this story, which we should take to heart in these times:
1. Assume nothing you send to camp will return anywhere near the condition in which you sent it.
2. Except, in my case, the unopened shampoo bottle. But that is another disgusting story for another day.
3. Therefore, there is no real point to getting “nice” things for camp. Camp isn’t supposed to be about things anyway.
4. When they eventually come home from camp, do yourself a favor and open the duffel bag outside. While wearing a hazmat suit.
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.
If you attend a pre-camp orientation session, or meeting with a camp director over the school year, I guarantee you will hear these words. In any audience of such a gathering, along with the cookies and coffee, there will be the following four attendees:
The Wise Parent: The wise parent is the one who has had three children attend the camp in question before for multiple summers. These parents already know that this camp is perfect for their children. In fact, they have already booked tickets for a childless trip to Europe departing within hours of the camp bus pulling out of the parking lot. They will ask questions relating to whether or not the camp’s policy on electronics has changed from previous years, and whether there have been any changes to the campus over the year. Their questions reflect their knowledge, not their lack thereof.
The Wicked Parent: This parent is usually not in attendance at such events, but when he or she is, he or she is 100% sure that their little star is going to be the cream of the crop at camp. They are positive that the child will love the camp, whether it’s because they themselves went there or they too really want to book the childless trip to Europe. They are unwilling to consider that perhaps their child isn’t ready for a full summer away, or perhaps their child has been trying to tell them as much for weeks. They have no questions, because how the camp handles homesickness is something that concerns other people—not them.
The Simple Parent: These parents have never sent their child to this particular overnight camp. They have no idea that they have to fill out approximately 1,000 pages of forms, notarized and in triplicate. They do not understand that packing is not going to be a rush job to be done the night before. They have never sat watching an episode of Game of Thrones while simultaneously labeling 300 pairs of underwear with a Sharpie. They ask naïve questions like, “Will my kid have a good time?” to which the answer is, “Yes.”
The Parents Who Do Not Know How To Ask: These parents have never sent their children to overnight camp, or perhaps have a newborn child at home. In any case, they have no idea what questions to ask. They are stunned when people debate whether or not the camp policy on iPod Touches should change—it is news to them that the camp has such a policy and, also, they also do not really understand what an iPod Touch is. They wonder why there is a packing list—can’t parents just figure out what a kid will need over the summer? At these meetings, it becomes increasingly clear to these parents that they in fact have absolutely no clue what their kid will be doing at camp over the summer, or what he needs in order to do it. Before they leave the meeting, they will take the email address of a Wise Parent, and hope for the best.
For the last few days, I’ve been walking around the house singing and dancing more or less in tune and in time with the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.” The reason is simple and seems, at first glance, rather materialistic.
You see, my wife, Cynthia, applied for a First-Time-Camper Grant for our son, Jonah, from a program called One Happy Camper and she got it. We received a $1,000 credit towards Jonah’s stay at sleep-away camp this summer. His eligibility for the money hinged on four facts. First, he’s Jewish and lives in Montreal where Federation CJA (Combined Jewish Appeal) partners with the Foundation for Jewish Camp in sponsoring the program. (Similar partnerships have been set up in close to 40 other communities across the U.S. and Canada.) Second, Jonah is going to a Jewish camp this summer. Third, he doesn’t attend a Jewish Day School. And, fourth, he will be attending camp for longer than 19 days, or a full session, for the first time. Those are the questions Cynthia spent a few minutes answering the online the other morning at OneHappyCamper.org. By the afternoon, Jonah’s camp had received the money on his behalf.
And while the $1,000 is great, it’s not the money that has me smiling and singing off-key. It’s the fact that it was so easy to get. I’m a writer who has both received government grants for projects and served on juries for other writers applying for those grants. I know how complicated most bureaucratic procedures can be. I know how much time and emotional energy it can devour. I’m also the father of a son with autism, as I’ve mentioned here before, which means my wife and I have spent a fair amount of time, spare and otherwise, jumping through hoops, filling out forms, and cutting through red tape just to get our son the services he requires. With One Happy Camper, the premium that was put on ease and simplicity was what my family appreciates most. Oh yes, my son’s autism was not a factor one way or another in this funding, which was also nice for a change.
“We want to make this as easy as possible for families,” Veronica Klein told me when we spoke the other day. Klein is a professional associate at the Generations Fund Jewish Camp Initiative, Federations CJA, and has been overseeing the One Happy Camper program in Montreal since 2008. “The idea behind the grant is to offer it as a kind of coupon, a spark or incentive for someone who does not attend Jewish Day School but who can still be able to experience that immersive quality of Jewish life at camp.”
Klein describes herself as a product of the Jewish summer camp experience as well as the Montreal community. She started going to camp when she was 12. That led to working with the community and working with kids here in Montreal and in the U.S. Klein could also be the poster person for the proven long-term impact and influence Jewish summer camp appears to have on its participants. Research seems to show that Jewish overnight camp can turn kids like Klein “into spirited and engaged Jewish adults” and “lay the groundwork for strong Jewish communities.”
“Camp is fun,” Klein adds. “But it’s not just flip-flops and canoes. Statistics bear this out. For example, kids who attend Jewish overnight camp are 10% more likely to marry inside their faith and 25% more likely to contribute to a Jewish charity. A program like ours is just another way to invest in the Jewish future.”
For me, it’s even simpler than that. I’m just pleased to know that there’s a good idea out there being executed efficiently. And because it is, my family and I are all happier campers.
For more info on One Happy Camper, visit their website here.
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.
Whether you’re investigating a camp to send your child to in summer 2015 or still figuring out this summer’s plans, you’re definitely thinking about the cost of this experience of a lifetime. It’s on our minds too. We recently saw this video on CNBC.com offering advice to parents for saving money on camp:
While the tips provided in this video are helpful, we have some additional resources to share that may help your family pay for camp:
- Many camps offer early registration incentives or sibling discounts. Most also offer scholarship assistance or you may be able to receive aid from your local Jewish organizations. Visit FJC’s scholarship page and contact your synagogue or federation for additional information.
- Families in the Northeast, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions may be eligible for BunkConnect TM, a pilot program that matches income-eligible families with high-quality nonprofit Jewish summer camps at low introductory rates. Finding out if you qualify is quick and confidential.
- If your child has never been to a Jewish overnight camp before, they may be eligible for a need-blind One Happy Camper grant of up to $1000. Learn how.
There is a cold bite to the air in the Northeast US that’s very much at odds with the blooming cherry trees and forsythia bushes. The wind has been whipping around my New Jersey house at night with an un-springlike vehemence. And maybe that seasonal incongruity is partially why it is so hard to believe that my kids will be going away to camp just about two months from today.
The cold makes it seem odd to commence all the “behind the scenes” parent prep work for camp: scheduling the physical checkups at the doctor’s office, sending all the forms in (if we count “mommy and me,” 4 of my 5 kids are going to camp this summer—that’s a lot of forms, people), getting everyone bathing suits and summer clothes in their new sizes…the list goes on and on.
But it’s time to start getting ready—and starting getting ready on the physical level can serve as a prompt for the equal necessity of emotional getting ready. Judaism’s calendar is very savvy about getting ready for momentous events. In the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Elul, we are supposed to take the time to devote ourselves to preparing for the new year. We do so through introspection and taking stock of ourselves, gauging how far we have come in the year about to end, and where we want to go in the year to come. And similarly, we are now in the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot, where we prepare ourselves for the holiday commemorating receiving the Torah from God. We anticipate the gift of the Torah, and take each day to demonstrate how much we want to take Torah into our own lives.
We need to not only start finding our Sharpies, but to start evaluating what we will be packing and what we will be missing as we start the countdown to summer. As parents, we need to take this time to talk to our children about camp. If they have concerns, we need to help our children to address them. Just as we wouldn’t send a kid to camp without underwear, we shouldn’t send him without the security that even if he will miss home, he can still have a wonderful experience away from it. And as parents, we need to look at ourselves and to evaluate how to counterbalance missing our children with encouraging them to take their first steps, however small, away from us.
Use this time to find web resources like Packing for Jewish Camp: 10 Tips and Packing Tips, Tricks, and Things that Aren’t on the List. Ask your camp for veteran parents in order to figure out what is the best way to pack and to communicate with your child – maybe you can even arrange a pre-camp playdate or two so your child will see familiar faces on that bus.
Camp may seem far away, but it really is just around the corner. The question is what we do with this time until it begins, and how we use it to best prepare our children and ourselves.
There has got to be something between Speedo and slutty.
I would love to meet all the girl and tween bathing suit designers out there. Just five minutes—so they can explain to me why it is necessary for there to be a bright pink hang tag that says “Fab fit feature…REMOVABLE PADS! How cool is that!” on a tankini in a girls size 8? Besides still playing a little dress-up in my bras, my 9-year-old is blissfully unaware of her chest (as she should be!). Please tell me why this is remotely necessary? And I’d love to know why there is a plethora of string bikini options for the elementary school set and very little options for those of us that prefer to keep our girls a tiny bit more covered, yet stylish.
I realize some girls develop earlier than others. My 12-year-old is an early bloomer—but would rather die than see that tag on a bathing suit. If you ask her, she doesn’t see why any kid would want to make her breasts look bigger.
Being the mom of 9- and 12-year-old girls, I have some pretty hard and fast rules for bathing suits. No string bikinis (there needs to be a serious band holding that top on!) no bra style or push up tops (yup—they are out there) no tie bottoms, no cut outs, no low cut bottoms—you get the picture. There are slim-pickings out there. Over the past month—a slew of boxes from Delia’s, Target, Nordstrom and Zappos have arrived on our doorstep (complete with huffing from my husband…) promptly to be repacked for returns after they turned out to be skimpier than they appeared to be online.
It is a given that one of us leaves the dressing room with tears in their eyes when we are bathing suit shopping. Them for being disappointed I won’t give in to the Roxy string bikinis that all the surfer girls wear—or me, thinking about how crazy it is that we have sexualized our children so much—in the way they dress and the media they are exposed to. I am far from a prude. You’re an adult? The more cleavage the better. Go for it—rock that string bikini. Maybe there should be an age restriction on this type of stuff like there is on voting and driving.
I am raising my girls with the hope that they are comfortable in their own skin—both physically and emotionally. Which is hard enough when “thigh gap” and “airbrushing” are part of their vernacular. They’re summer experiences at camp plays a big role in this for my girls. For seven weeks every year, the media and celebrity influences fade into the background. They test out new personas, new friendships and even new outfits (no bikinis are allowed at camp though!). They have a place where the pressure cooker of the everyday is a little less intense. Sure I cringe when I see a picture of them at camp in a pinney with just a bandeau underneath—and then I remind myself how glad I am that they are comfortable enough with themselves to pull it off. Yet, I plead with you Mr. and Mrs. Bathing Suit Designer—remember us moms that are trying to keep our girls little just a bit longer.
In its simplest form, Passover is a holiday that commemorates the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom. During the seder we do things that indicate how we were slaves in the land of Egypt and also how now we are free. For instance, we eat matzah (the bread of affliction) and bitter herbs to signify our slavery, yet we eat them while reclining during a lavish and festive meal that is a privilege of our freedom. From this we can learn that while we should remember our people’s past as if it was our own, we should not become so mired in their despair that we forget our wonderful, thriving lives.
This lesson of experiencing the pain of our ancestors without taking on too much of their pain applies perfectly to how we eat on Passover. Most of us only tolerate matzah, and we make matzah kugel, matzah pizza, and matzah lasagna because that’s what we’ve always made…and we’re supposed to eat a lot of matzah, right? Well, not necessarily.
Although it can be fine to include matzah in some things over the holiday, we don’t necessarily have to overly oppress ourselves with its dry texture and flavorless taste (or the tummy troubles that result in the over-consumption of matzah). We can look at the Passover food guidelines as an opportunity to recognize the oppression of the Israelites (by not using certain items) to come up with new, interesting foods to eat. Instead of matzah meal cookies, try some flourless chocolate and walnut cookies (recipes are everywhere). Instead of matzah kugel, why not try a sweet potato soufflé? Instead of matzah pizza, try eggplant parmesan (breaded with ground walnuts and almonds). And instead of matzah brie or Passover cereal for breakfast, try the idea below for an amazing hot breakfast quinoa (like steel cut oats, but better!).
If you and your kids need more clarity on how to simultaneously experience freedom and slavery in your Passover food, just look to camp. Counselors and staff members know that one of the most amazing and challenging parts of camp is coming up with creative and interesting programming under the constraints of rules, schedules, resources and space. Often, the most innovative and fun programs at camp are borne under those constraints, and it is in that space that we can learn the most about slavery and freedom and how to dance between the two. Perhaps as you sit over your bowl of hot quinoa with your kids you can discuss the essence of this interesting aspect of both camp and Passover- that often it is in the times of our greatest oppression or constraints that we are able to break through and come up with new, innovative, and freeing (and delicious!) ideas.
3 cups 1% milk
1 cup quinoa
¼ teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons honey
4 teaspoons dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup mixed dried fruit and nuts
- Bring milk to a boil over medium high heat- be careful not to let it boil over!
- Add the quinoa the salt, stir once, cover and turn the heat down to very low.
- Simmer about 15 minutes until most of the liquid is absorbed, then stir in the remaining ingredients and re-cover for 1 minute.
- Serve hot or put in refrigerator for up to 1 week and reheat.
When you’re the parent of a child with autism, you’re always bracing yourself for the endless string of theories headed in your direction. They come from health care professionals, the media, family, friends and, my personal favourite, complete strangers. One woman we barely know keeps asking my wife, Cynthia, for a sample of my son Jonah’s urine so she can run her own tests on it.
The good news about all this is it helps you develop a thick skin, though never quite thick enough. I figured out pretty soon on this journey through what is sometimes called Autismland that the reason theories about autism are so plentiful is directly related to the fact that no one really knows anything definitive about it. In my experience, that includes mental health professionals who are, when it comes to matters of the brain, only guessing.
And the guessing persists. As do the studies generating all those theories. The latest trend in studies has put the emphasis on the ability of parents to cope with the challenges of autism on a day-to-day basis. Researchers seem determined to prove, every few months or so by my count, that there is a connection between raising a child with autism or other special needs and higher levels of stress as well as greater financial and marital challenges. Of course, whenever Cynthia and I hear about the latest results of one of these so-called “well-being” studies we roll our eyes and say pretty much in unison: “No kidding.”
“They could just ask any of us if we’re stressed,” Cynthia invariably adds. “They’d save all that money on research and they could use it to take us all out for dinner and drinks, lots of drinks.”
Or, in our case, they could buy us time to be more organized. In last month’s blog, I confessed we were behind in registering Jonah for summer camp. We’re still behind. That’s because chaos – missed deadlines, unmet obligations, double-booked appointments – has become the rule in our house. I would write a to-do list of all the things yet to be done, but frankly who has the time? or the confidence that it won’t get lost in the clutter?
As defined by WhatIs.com, chaos, with reference to chaos theory is, “an apparent lack of order in a system that nevertheless obeys particular laws or rules.” In other words, laws or rules you’ll never predict or figure out. But parents of special needs kids know that already. We have learned to expect the unexpected. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed every day is just part of that. Of course, there’s an advantage to living in a state of chaos. You’re hardly ever bored. Now, if I could just remember where I put that summer camp registration form.