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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DARLENE BECK JACOBSON SAID WHAT?…2017: A Year To Be Kind

can-u-be-nice

Darlene is a freelance writer, educator, Speech Therapist and Children’s Book Author. Her first middle grade novel, Wheels of Change was named a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People 2015 by the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council (CBC) as well as awarded Honorable Mention from the Grateful American Book Prize for 2015 for an outstanding work of Historical Fiction for children. Darlene’s website is chock full of articles, activities and recipes for parents and teachers. It also serves as a resource for writers and illustrators of children’s books.

Her post, “2017: A Year To Be Kind” offers resources for adults and young people who want to share stories, engage in acts of kindness, or learn about the importance of and scientific benefits to being kind.

I have one addition to make to Darlene’s list: Can U Be Nice?

Can U Be Nice? is a new platform created to capture our stories and “spread awareness for the need to be nice to one another.” Its goal is to empower people to choose nice over negative, kind over cold.

Can U Be Nice? is the brainchild of Bill Carter, a husband and father of 3 grown sons who spends much of his day observing the world from behind the wheel of his delivery truck.

One chilly morning in 2015, Bill was waiting on a loading dock for a freight elevator. Thinking about his wife, Dianne, a veteran teacher in the public school system who he blissfully describes as sincere, genuine and loving, Bill heard a commercial on the radio for an upcoming charity walk. He thought, “That’s something nice to do.” Then the idea struck him. He wrote the words, “Can you be nice?” on a nearby box. He changed the YOU to a U with a smiley face and said, “That’s it. That’s the message.”

Bill’s mission is simple. He believes “we all have it in us to be kind and if we make a commitment to bring this side out each day, the world will be a better place. A small act of kindness can change a person’s life and have a chain reaction. One small, nice deed can lead to another. Make a decision to look for your inner kindness. Then express it to those you meet without hesitation. You will feel better and people will react positively.”

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “…Stick to love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

So the next time you are or see someone being kind or nice, share a story with Can U Be Nice? If you’re in search of ideas, please check out Darlene’s wonderful post. And if you know of a hub for kindness we overlooked, feel free to join the conversation.

Let’s make 2017 the year to be kind.

Darlene Beck-Jacobson

According to a poll by Kindness USA, only 25 percent of Americans believe we live in a kind society.  In another survey of 10,000 teens, 4 out of 5 said their parents are more interested in achievement and personal happiness than in caring for others.  There is definitely less kindness in public life.

With so much harshness, negativity, hatred and meanness that seems to populate discourse in our society, it was very encouraging to see a recent article about BEING KIND.  The article, by Paula Spencer Scott in PARADE MAGAZINE, lists ways we can change this discourse and make kindness a priority in our lives.

1.You can join PARADE and the RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS FOUNDATION in this year’s challenge: Write 52 Thank You Notes – one each week to a different person for a year.  Besides bringing kindness and joy to the recipient, this gratitude boosts happiness and well-being…

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