I’m not Jewish, but my kids go to a Jewish sleep away camp. Here’s why.

Cubby cubes balance against duffle bags on the highest shelf of our darkest closet. Packing lists and labels are filed away. Tans have faded, mosquito bites healed. Fresh cuts replace the summer shag.

Sleep away camp may be well over for our two boys, but their experience is not quite a distant memory. This might have something to do with the recurring chirp of a “camp peeps” group chat on my older son’s phone or the flagged email with next year’s registration link sitting in my in-box.

When my husband who, unlike me had gone to sleep away camp as a child first floated the idea of sending our children, I was ambivalent. The thought of shipping my flesh and blood off to be cared for by strangers didn’t feel right.

My grumbles followed me to work at our Temple’s preschool where I shared them with a teaching colleague. Instead of taking my side, she went on about a camp run by the Union for Reform Judaism where her children had spent their summers. She said it was a special place.

We’re an interfaith family. Before they were born, my husband and I decided to raise our children in the Jewish faith, like him. They attend religious school and will become Bar Mitzvahs, like he did. When I heard my coworker say “Jewish camp,” my brain went into defense mode. Hebrew school, Bar Mitzvahs, holidays. I even work at a synagogue. Haven’t I agreed to enough? Camp should be neutral territory.

I left work even less sold on the idea.

But I kept seeing this camp’s poster in the Temple hallway on route to my eldest son’s preschool and eventually, Hebrew school classroom. Years later, long after countless husband and wife debates about religious identity, honoring tradition and balance, after we had changed Temples because of a move and as the decision loomed, the same camp kept coming up in conversation, the same poster kept showing up in our new synagogue’s bulletin.

As a parent raising children in a tradition different from her own, I’ve made it a priority to expose them to situations and people who would give him the religious education I could not. In the end, Jewish camp filled a void, and so we sent our big guy when he was a rising fourth grader. This past summer was his fourth year, and for our little guy, his first.

Today, I look forward to opening day. Yes, because sleep away gives me a break from parenting. And yes, because it still fills a void. But there’s more. Through its Jewish lens, camp is teaching universal values and laying the foundation for them to:

1) Take care of themselves

Camp offers the typical experiences which build confidence and resilience. Little ones learn to pour their own orange juice and picky eaters taste new food. Everyone takes a turn cooking over an open fire, folds laundry, sweeps the cabin floors, cleans their bunk’s toilet and for better and worse, lives with roommates. Campers risk trying a new sport, art or game, pursue hobbies, navigate campus on their own and get unplugged.

But here, nourishing one’s soul is also a priority. Children are given the opportunity to work on self-awareness, intention and maintaining a balanced perspective.

Each week, a unit prepares and leads Friday night services and every day, all campers and staff practice mindfulness and gratitude during meals and through movement.

When 500 campers come together during mealtime, a collective blessing is said before and after they eat. Children are taught the meaning behind traditional blessings as well as write individual statements of gratitude. Once a day, one of the personal statements replaces the traditional prayer and is shared with the entire community.

The leadership also promotes wellness through movement. This year, art teachers commenced class with breathing exercises and the schedule included early morning sessions like yoga, lap swim and fitness as well as small group nature hikes.

2) Take care of others

All families and children are valued and respected. Younger kids are assigned older buddies to help them acclimate. There’s a no package policy so no child feels less than or left out. Staff does not distinguish between which campers have Jewish parents and which ones do not, embraces its LGBTQ community and expects counselors and campers to do the same.

Community building is thoughtful, deliberate and starts on day one when the entire camp attends an opening day service during which campers pass a Torah scroll through the crowd from the oldest to youngest camper symbolizing their connection to Judaism and to one another. Later the same day, each cabin huddles together and with guidance from counselors, writes down the rules and expectations they have for their bunkmates that summer.

Throughout the season, adults teach children how to relate to all people using the “I-it” to “I-thou” approach to relationships from Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. In addition to helping kitchen staff serve the starving, campers are expected to look them in the eye, offer appreciation and ask meaningful questions. The goal is for the children to move away from associating those who work at the camp only with their job and get to know them as people with exciting and interesting lives.

Young people show support and build bonds day in and day out in less and more formal ways. My teen always returns home with a repertoire of new card games as well as a perfected Frisbee toss thanks to the generosity of a friend or counselor and a trove of memories to share like bringing his little brother a carton of milk during each lunch, midnight escapes to the GaGa pit, bunk pranks and leaning on a go to buddy during a rough day. Our little guy beams when he retells the tale of the older camper who catapulted him off the blob and into the lake, the time he and his pals lathered up and slid down a muddy hillside and how his favorite counselor helped him handle a disagreement.

In addition to scheduled meals and services, the lower and upper camp come together for Israeli dance, a DJ party, the Fourth of July Carnival, International Day, theater productions, an art show and The Maccabiah Games. At Jewish camp, the Games are more than an end of summer color war. Each of the four teams represent a different pillar in Judaism: Torah, prayer, acts of loving kindness and community as well as a value: truth, awe, compassion and responsibility. At the start of the week, leadership explains how no pillar can stand without the support of the other. Teams are challenged to bring the values assigned to their group to life and carry out the camp’s mission statement, Hineini or Here I am by striving to be the best they can be as individuals, to their peers and to the community through song, dance art, drama and sports.

3) And repair the world

The motto of the camp is Be the One; be the one person to make a difference, to do the right thing and to help make the world a better place. In doing so, campers are performing the Jewish commandment Tikun Olam or repairing the world.

On campus, children care for animals at the farm, tend to the garden and give left over trip day money to a local food shelter. Rising 7th graders research a cause and host a camp wide Tzedakah or charitable giving fair. This year, they raised awareness and money for causes that fight discrimination and support the environment, people with cancer and animal welfare.

Campers also participate in volunteer projects during Make a Difference Day. Younger children bake challah bread for Friday night dinners, do spring cleaning around campus and write to senators. Older children go out into the community. This summer, they volunteered at a facility that works with women with disabilities, a housing organization, a senior center, local garden and a youth empowerment center. Some even traveled to New York’s state capital to meet with lay leaders and political advocates where they discussed voting rights, reproductive rights, criminal justice reform, LGBTQ+ rights, hunger and clean energy.

At Jewish sleep away camp, our boys get to connect with one half of their family’s heritage. They get a taste of old fashioned summer fun. And they get to be surrounded by people committed to helping them become more independent, just, involved, balanced, compassionate and loving humans.

My former colleague described her children’s camp experience as special. For our family, it’s been a blessing.

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What Really Happens Inside a CrossFit Gym

Courtesy: Lynda Shenkman

An excavator sits outside the ashen structure awaiting the command. A welcome sign still hangs above the door. The garage, once home to our local CrossFit gym, now a cement cavity of memories will soon be demolished, replaced by apartments.

On the last day of class, each attending member took a minute to reminisce during an icebreaker. I was absent, but watched the video on Instagram. The stories shared never highlighted the achievements of self. Members wanted to talk about their classmates; who made them smile, who broke through barriers, whose shirtless chest turned heads.

I replayed it a few times. With every rerun, my heart swelled. Change is bittersweet.

Nonmembers sometimes ask, What goes on inside those CrossFit gyms? I hear it’s a cult. I can assure the skeptics no one is fixing alters from barbells or sacrificing protein shakes to the fitness gods. Not yet, anyway. But a lot does happen.

Dreams happen

A man in his twenties left a budding corporate job to pursue a passion for training. He opened a CrossFit gym. Honed his skills. Built a team. Expanded a business. Stayed humble and kind. And in doing so, inspired clients to achieve little goals and big dreams.

Millennials quit secure careers to do what they loved. Young athletes competed alongside elites. A determined high schooler proved to her soccer coach she was good enough to make the team and an unsure peer found himself wrestling and winning. Many embraced healthy choices and most found their voice.

Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers learned to squat, clean and jerk. They climbed ropes for the first time, stood on their heads and jumped up on a box. They completed races, joined rock bands, sported bikinis, founded companies, sat for tattoos and concluded that age doesn’t define ability and intimidating does not mean impossible.

Love happens

As a new member, my friend was surprised at how fast she warmed up to people from the gym. “Is this normal?” she asked.

“Pretty much,” I told her.

Amid the pull up rigs, weight racks and wall balls, there’s no time to fear vulnerability. When the clock counts down, social norms go out the window. Strangers are thrown into a mental and physical predicament with a common goal; get it done and support a neighbor.

It started with fist pumps and cheers. Small talk came easy; CrossFit’s a built in conversation starter. Together, we rehashed workouts, movements, personal bests and rough spots until the non CrossFitting community told us to shut up.

In time, we stopped squawking about fitness, opened up and asked about a sick parent, a new job or a cranky toddler. And it didn’t take long before we were offering hugs, helping a teen find an internship, editing a college essay, buying from a buddy’s local business, sharing professional expertise, moving boxes, supporting a cause, hosting a dinner, celebrating a milestone or lending an ear.

We met for 4 years in the same space, during the same hour, several days a week. Friendships developed, spouses connected, siblings bonded, relationships bloomed, babies grew and grandchildren were born.

Fun happens

In an interview at Harvard Divinity School, CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman explained how CrossFit gyms emphasize camaraderie, which was once described to him as “agony coupled with laughter.”

I am inherently lazy. The first four decades of my life were spent avoiding exercise. But even when I’m feeling uninspired, CrossFit keeps me coming back because the people make it fun.

Beyond the crazy tights, silly tanks and occasional costume, our gym is a safe, happy escape. I can let curse words loose, chuckle at a double-entendre, lip sync to my heart’s content, whip out dance moves and laugh alongside friends who brighten my mood and let me be me.

Struggle happens

We failed lifts, lost to a workout, questioned our strength and ran out of gas. We agonized through divorce, mourned death, endured surgery and disease, emptied our nests and fought mental illness. But we did so side by side.

Perspective happens

We learned. To teach, coach and manage. About different cultural and spiritual traditions. To leave political divides at the door. To be students again. We learned about decency, respect and gratitude. That we are better as a team.

We strived. To find balance. To do our best. To try and to not be too tough on ourselves.

We recognized. The benefit of breathe, pace and letting it out of the tank. The value of stretching, the stupidity of sugar (even though we may indulge) and how, when done right, food is fuel.

We grew. To rethink Beauty, Age and Limits. To ignore scales and diets. To complain less and smile more. We grew to believe in ourselves. To know our bodies can generate power, that we can do anything for a minute and what it means to be a champion.

The closing doors were not a goodbye. The owner moved us into new, spiffy digs. Right up the block. With an open floor plan. Natural light. Fresh paint. Even showers. Just in time for the New Year.

The parking’s different. The entrance is different. The setup is different. But the faces gathered around the white board to receive the daily challenge are the same.

It’s during this accepted routine our surroundings seem to fade. As the coach speaks and we listen, one thing is clear – family happened.

Pass the Pierogis, Please.

Courtesy: R. Anscher

To experience the goodness of childhood through middle-aged eyes, to take a break from adulting and just get to be a kid again is a welcomed and sometimes needed escape.

Feeling drenched in joy during a stroll down Disneyland’s Main Street washed away the stress of cross country travel with young boys.

Watching Wonder Woman climb out of a fox hole and on to the battlefield left me invincible and ready to challenge any injustice.

And sitting nestled between the arms of a captain’s chair at my grandparent’s dining table snapping green beans and sneaking Italian chocolate dipped sprinkle cookies in earshot of my Gram as she masterfully labored over an anticipated holiday meal served in tight quarters to a dozen, boisterous relatives reaffirmed I was in the safest place in the world.

That wooden chair was a constant; as a young professional, newlywed and even a mom, always waiting on the edge of Gram’s small, square kitchen which opened into a dining area and an adjacent living room. Thick carpet, knitted afghans, framed needlepoint, family photographs and my Pop’s collection of electronic gadgets, projects and tools added to the cozy vibe. During the holidays, the air was warmer still thanks to a baking oven, charged discussions over football and war and shifting bodies in search of a seat.

When the meal was ready, generations crammed around the table in folding chairs, high chairs and stools. There was little room for lingering elephants. The trauma, addiction, abuse, divorce and rivalries that ran through my family’s veins were diluted by the pungent smell of eggplant, the sweet glaze of ribs and deep fried golden pierogis, Eastern European dumplings stuffed with potato and served with a side of sour cream. Holiday meals with Gram made each of us forget the rumblings in our world for a few hours. Unfortunately, after the pierogis ran out, the dysfunction remained.

Which is why, after she passed away a few years ago, holiday gatherings grew increasingly disjointed. Relatives branched off to do their own thing. My grandmother had been the glue holding the house together.

The week leading up to this Thanksgiving, I longed for a taste of childhood goodness. Really, I longed for my grandmother. I missed the lady who darted about her kitchen, supervising every boiling pot and baking pan. The butterfly who loved to gather with the women around the table and talk between basting, chops and stirs. The hostess who was happy to set an extra place or cook for a crowd. And the woman who helped me to feel connected and loved anytime I would have preferred to drift away.

This was definitely a drifting year. The heaviness in the world and the infected state of our country outside of my idyllic, suburban bubble compounded by typical life challenges and general parental angst has weighed on me. More than anything this Thanksgiving, I wished for my grandmother to drag me to shore, pull out a chair and hand me a bowl of unsnapped beans.

My husband, Mac suggested I fill the void by hosting a holiday meal for our entire extended family. I told him, “No.” I retired the art of pretend play after my grandmother died and have no desire to assume her role. The elephant figurines perched on my fireplace mantle are plenty enough. Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to buy Polish dumplings.

Then he proposed we visit my aunt and uncle’s farm on Black Friday since my grandfather, mom and a few regulars from Thanksgivings past would be spending the weekend there. Of my grandparent’s three daughters, my aunt is most like my grandmother: even, generous and welcoming. Turns out, she and my uncle were happy to have us.

Acres of space but as cozy as a three room apartment, their farm oozed with the goodness of childhood. A place with chickens to feed, barns to explore, orchards to roam and a wood burning stove to warm up with, Bubbe and Skootch dripped with joy as they talked to the animals, circled the pond, played darts with cousins and marveled over the Sgt. Pepper album spinning on a record player. They raced their parents down a gravel road and climbed the barn’s ladders to the highest loft, leaping from bales of hay to the floor below like Spiderman on a mission. And sat with ease amongst relatives nibbling on eggplant parmesan, gravy soaked turkey, beef stew and yes, potato pierogis fresh off the skillet.

For a few hours, rumblings disappeared and hearts filled. On the farm, Gram’s spirit was very much alive.

This holiday season, I’m grateful to my aunt and uncle; for sharing their home with us, for contributing to the goodness of Bubbe and Skootch’s childhood and for throwing me a life preserver by simply pulling out a chair.

Wishing you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season!