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.
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…)
One of the greatest things that kids learn at camp is how to do things for themselves, from scratch. Campers learn how to build a fire, make a pottery bowl, shoot a basket, pitch a tent, and maybe even to tie tzittzit on a tallit. By creating something from nothing kids are better able to understand what goes into a final product and how something works. They are able to better appreciate the final product because they had a hand in making it possible. In the hustle and bustle of the school year we often forgo the experience of creating items from scratch for the easier path of ready-made items. Pre-tied shoelaces, pre-made meals, and most likely a fire that starts with an electric starter on the stove make our lives easier, but we miss out on the novelty of enjoying something we have created from nothing.
When it comes to stocking your pantry with snack foods, you can (and often should) take the easy road of buying pre-made foods, but every once in a while it can be such a valuable experience to take the time with your kids to make some favorite snack foods. Kids often don’t give much thought to the type of flour used to make their favorite crackers or whether or not there are preservatives in their favorite candy (there probably are), so making these foods from scratch gives them an opportunity to engage with their foods in a new way and gives you an opportunity to get some healthy “grow food” in their bodies.
There is a Jewish concept that there are certain mitzvot (commandments) that we are unable to appoint someone else to perform in our place; we must do them for ourselves. This is quite similar to why it can be so valuable to create handmade, homemade item. When we engage with our food and our surroundings in an organic, hands-on, ground-up sort of way we see everything in a whole new light. Check out this recipe for homemade cheese crackers to begin to open yourself up to a whole new world of from-the-pantry snacking!
Homemade Cheese Crackers
Makes about 30 crackers
4 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cups whole grain spelt flour or while whole wheat flour
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon onion or garlic powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons milk, plus more for brushing
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
- Combine the cheese, butter, flours, onion or garlic powder, salt and 2 tablespoons of milk into the bowl of a food processor or mixer. Pulse or mix until the dough forms a ball.
- Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface. Roll it out until it is a square about 1/8 of an inch thick (or a bit thinner).
- Brush the dough with additional milk.
- Using a pizza wheel or knife, cut the dough into 30 squares. Using a toothpick, prick a hole in the center of each square.
- Place the squares on the baking sheets, leaving about ½ an inch between crackers
- Bake about 15 minutes until the crackers are just slightly brown around the edges.
- Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.
The call came the other day from our son Jonah’s sleep-away summer camp. Registration was almost completed and we hadn’t signed him up yet. Was there a problem? I explained the delay was because our son was on the autism spectrum and there were additional details that had to be worked out – about how long he would be staying, about the availability of a shadow for that time period, about the cost. I was tempted to go on from there to my usual rant about how much more complicated things were when you’re dealing with a child with special needs, but I refrained. You see, after my last blog post called the “The What-if Moment,” about how I sometimes imagine how much easier our lives would be if my son did not have autism, my wife, Cynthia, strongly suggested I might want to be a little less of a grouch in future.
Her request reminded me of an interview I did some years ago with the novelist Richard Ford. He told me that his wife challenged him to write about a happy character for once. The result was Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Ford’s three wonderful but hardly cheery novels, The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and Lay of the Land. I’m guessing the Bascombe trilogy just left his wife shaking her head. “This guy is supposed to be happy?” she was undoubtedly thinking. Even so, Ford tried. And so will I.
In fact, after last month’s blog, I was reminded of an event I did in a library a few years ago. I was discussing my book about Jonah and during the Q&A, an older woman prefaced her question by saying she didn’t mean to be cruel, a sure sign she was going to be. I braced myself, but still her remarks stunned me. Do you ever wonder, she wanted to know, if you would have been better off if your son had not been born? For example, she added, your wife and you would have had more time for each other. Or maybe, she went on, you could have written more books. Like I said, I was stunned and speechless. Which is when the audience, bless them, came to the rescue. After the woman had gone on for a while longer, they basically shouted her down. I never really got to give her a good answer, but I thought about her question later and I wished I’d had the chance to respond.
I could have told her about the little things I’d miss – the fun I have making up crossword puzzles with Jonah, one of our new pastimes, or listening to music with him in the car. Or the way he chooses bedtime to conduct his own Q&A, asking his most profound and challenging questions like this recent one: “Daddy, why does there have to be yuck in real life?”
I could have also mentioned the lessons I’ve learned from Jonah – about being different, about working hard, about living in the moment. Even so, the cliché about my son making me a better person hasn’t turned out to be true. The fact is he’s a role model I will never quite live up to. He constantly amazes me with his imperviousness to embarrassment and the judgment of others, with the sheer delight he takes in everything from meeting a new person to dancing to eating a brownie. And, of course, there’s the big thing I would have missed if Jonah was not my son – fatherhood. I was over forty when Jonah was born and I never expected to have a family of my own. Before Cynthia and Jonah, I was lonely for a lot of my adult life. Since I became a husband and father, I can’t recall what loneliness feels like. There’s no way to say this without sounding utterly sappy – and without being utterly honest – but Jonah gave purpose to my life.
After the recent death of the actor and filmmaker Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day), I came across a small scene he did in Judd Apatow’s movie Knocked Up. Ramis’s work was an early influence on Apatow and Apatow cast him as Seth Rogen’s father, letting Ramis improvise most of his dialogue. While Rogen, who has just gotten a woman he hardly knows pregnant, is practically pleading for his father’s scorn, Ramis can’t contain his delight. “You are the best thing that ever happened to me,” he eventually announces to his slacker son. “Now, I just feel bad for you,” Rogen says, giving the scene its punch line. But it’s Ramis’s unequivocal, automatic declaration that still stays with me. In fact, I wish I could meet that woman from the library again so I could tell her I feel the exact same way about my son.
I must confess. When I first started working as a counselor in the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England in 1984, I couldn’t understand how parents of children with disabilities could send their children away for eight weeks each summer. Now, after working in the field of disabilities camping for more than 20 years, I have a hard time understanding why parents of children with disabilities won’t seriously consider sending their children to an overnight Jewish summer camp. Of course I understand that it is scary, often far from home, and that the sessions feel “long.” I understand that children with disabilities often can’t effectively communicate their needs, or advocate for themselves. And I understand just how hard it is for parents to be out of contact for a month or two. So why do it? Here are 5 reasons.
1. Camp offers fun, stimulating activities: Simply put, thousands of Jewish children go to camp each summer—and they have a great time. There is no way any parent can offer that level of programming and stimulation in their backyard or apartment. Camping offers children daily doses of the arts, sports, dance, singing, and swimming—not to mention exposure to such electives as nature, cooking, drama (plays in Hebrew!), sailing, woodworking, the climbing wall and more—all before lunch!
2. Camp offers friends and role modeling: If the camp program is part of a larger camp, your child will spend hours a day interacting with a diverse group of children of all ages—both neurotypical and campers with disabilities. What better way to practice and improve social interaction, speech and language skills and more! Camp is a 24/7 social environment with chances to try out various social behaviors—and receive instant feedback. Through these interactions, campers are scaffolded and grow in so many ways.
3. Camp is an all-encompassing Jewish living environment: Campers sing Jewish songs, dance Jewish dances, experience Shabbat, pray through song and movement and interact with a diverse group of Israelis. And Jewish values are alive in Jewish summer camps! Families return to their local synagogues asking if they can incorporate these elements in to their worship services and programming. And campers and staff members return home with understanding and sensitivity toward people with disabilities. And they are life-long ambassadors!
4. Camp is the next step toward independence: Separating is never easy for children and parents. But children almost always adjust to the camp routine quickly. Campers learn to make their beds, keep their shelves neat, sweep, clean the bathroom, and more. They learn to become even more independent with skills of daily living. And they often try lots of new foods in the dining room—simply because they are on the table! Parents are often amazed with what their children can do when they return from camp.The biggest post camp challenge for parents? Continuing to foster this new found independence!
5. Camp is well-deserved and needed respite for parents! One thing I did not understand that first summer as a teenage counselor was that parents work very hard. Parenting a child with a disability is not easy. Parents need and deserve a chance to be together as a couple—to sip wine, to go to the beach, or even go to Europe! And they absolutely deserve and need a chance to spend time with their neuroptypical children who also need time and attention.
As we mark Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month in February, we note that camp starts in four months! Space is filling up fast at Jewish camps all across the country. Decide today to reach out to a camp director and begin a conversation about the possibility of your child attending camp. They and you will grow a great deal from the experience!
Find available Jewish camp options for children with disabilities here.