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.
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.