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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Take Away One

Courtesy Little Rock Family

Courtesy Little Rock Family

ML_published_badge_red_Mamalode

“I hate Thursdays,” Bubbe barked.  “I wake up early for band, go to school, spend two more hours in religious school, come home, and do homework.  I need a break.”

“You’re right,” I sighed.  “But education is not an option.  Band is a commitment and you need to finish what you started.  Please put your clarinet away, get one homework sheet done, and pack a snack for Hebrew school.  We’re leaving in twenty minutes.”

Later that evening, I scrolled through registration emails for the upcoming season’s optional extracurricular activities:

Baseball: League 1 and/or League 2.  Travel team.
Tennis, soccer, swim, lacrosse
Martial Arts
CrossFit Kids
Lego Engineering
Hip Hop
Drama, drawing, Junior Chef…

and thought about the last line of my response to Vicki Abeles’s New York Times’ Sunday Review piece, “Is School Making our Children Ill?”

Let’s resolve to take a step back and give children back their childhood.

In my Letter to the Editor, I complimented the Irvington High School community in Fremont, California for taking steps to rescue students from their high-stakes childhoods by limiting homework requirements and encouraged parents of young learners like me and those of my students to be brave, take ownership and embrace such efforts by curtailing after-school and evening enrichment in an effort to preserve the social, emotional and physical health of our children.

I often fantasize about what might happen if children, from toddlers to teenagers who live in a community laden with a multitude of well intended non-school related activities gave them up.

Would the children be lost; bored and confused by the lack of structure?  At first, until they learned how to organize and occupy themselves.

Would they stare at screens instead of reaching out to each other?  Probably, until an observant grown up or precocious peer stepped in.

Would their resumes suffer, leaving them unable to prosper in a society fixated on success, competition and career?  On the contrary; extra time and space would give them a chance to practice the socialization, thinking, and problem solving skills needed to thrive later in life.

After the initial shock wore off, I think the children would forget how busy their lives once were.

I imagine they would pack the playgrounds,

Courtesy of Getty Images

Courtesy of Getty Images

pick up the sport they previously raced off to play with whoever was nearby,

Courtesy Alan Zale for The New York Times

Courtesy Alan Zale for The New York Times

put on shows,

Courtesy Bored Panda

Courtesy Bored Panda

hang from trees,

Paul McDonough Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, NYC

Paul McDonough Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, NYC

visit with friends,

Coney Island Teenagers Harold Feinstein

Coney Island Teenagers Harold Feinstein

relax with family,

Courtesy Getty Images

Courtesy Getty Images

get more sleep,

Courtesy Bored Panda

Courtesy Bored Panda

and take that necessary break.

And I’m pretty sure the adults in their lives would come to welcome the change.

Perhaps if these young people had scaled back schedules, their schools would not have to revamp homework policies like in Fremont, delay start times to accommodate the sleep deprived like in Seattle, and implement mindfulness training to battle the growing epidemic of childhood anxiety and depression as did New York City.

While the educational system has a responsibility to promote childhood wellness, we parents and guardians do as well.  Children schlepping from class to practice to workshops and back again offsets the effort made by teachers and administrators and puts additional stress on kids and families.

Still, my under-scheduled fantasy is a daunting reality for this worried mom.

What if my boys are the only ones who opt out?  They’ll feel excluded and alone.

What if they lose a competitive edge?  How can they impress college admissions let alone make any high school team?

Doesn’t formal exposure to the arts, technology, and team play breed well roundedness?

It’s healthy to take risks; sample new and different things.

Besides, Bubbe and Skootch seem happy when they are busily in the mix.

But their childhood is not mine, nor is it about my parental goals, expectations, angst or insecurities.

With that, I marked the registration emails as unread and approached Bubbe.

“Here’s the deal,” I explained.  “You know school and band are a given.  Think about the three other activities you participated in this time last year.  Rank them.  Keep the top two.”

“I definitely want my tennis lesson,” he said.  “And I’d like to try baseball again.  So I guess I’ll stop CrossFit for now.”

I cringed.  Bubbe nixed the one extra I believe physically and mentally benefited him most and chose a sport that requires a greater weekly commitment.  “Okay,” I said.  “Sounds like a plan.”

Gaining a free afternoon may not reflect the childhoods of yesteryear, but it’s a start.

Let’s bring back rest, play, and old-fashioned fun.  This season resolve to take away one.

What Children Need in Lieu of Mindfulness

Mindfulness quote

The practice of mindfulness has crept its way into elementary and preschools.

Biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn, coined the term “mindfulness” in the 1970s to describe the act of “paying attention on purpose” to the present moment, with a “non-judgmental” attitude.

Mindfulness techniques are being used in the classroom to help children cope with stress and anxiety as well as to help them calm their mind, find center, and focus attention.  Advocates believe designating school time to such training leads to improved behavior and academic performance.

As a teacher, I appreciate learning the art of mindfulness to enhance my classroom management repertoire.  As a mom, I welcome a daily dose of meditation as a respite for harried parenthood.  But I am a grown up.

Teaching preschool and elementary school aged children mindfulness is both redundant and a band-aid.  Why?  Because they are mindful by design and their stress is not self imposed.

Children live in the present.  Watch a 4 year old mix a leaf, grass and stone soup for the missing class tortoise or his classmate run wildly away from an invisible queen across the school yard.  Stop to observe a pair of nine year olds twirl until dizzy or a crew of fifth graders so engrossed in conversation they forget to heed a busy crossing guard and it will become apparent that children are led by heart and body in the moment.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget concluded children’s understanding of time and capacity to think in abstract terms are driven by cognitive development.

A preschooler’s foundation for time begins with a sense of what happens before and after a concrete experience.  His understanding of duration and the future does not match that of an adult.  That’s why a child under 4 is confused by words like “tonight” “later” “today” and “tomorrow,” and will often create ones like “yestertime.”   Even a child nearing Kindergarten will understand the phrase, “we are having lunch after I pick you up from school” over “we will have lunch at 12 o’clock.”  By elementary school, a first grader learns to tell time only to the hour and half hour.  Minutes are not introduced until second grade.

While children between ages 7-10 have a more mature sense of time, abstract, hypothetical thought is not fully developed until age eleven.  Up until early middle school, young people still benefit from a personal connection or concrete experience in order to make sense of a sophisticated idea.

For example, after reading Crenshaw, a middle grade novel which tackles the theme of homelessness, my ten year old went on to ask questions about our family’s financial condition and whether we have enough money to pay the rent in an effort to make sense of this cruel reality.  Even after I reassured him, the boy worried.

Encouraging my son to read a book I, the adult with my adult view of the world, thought would benefit his growth only produced anxiety.  He was not cognitively ready.

Adults can minimize the stress we create for and impose upon children by limiting its source.  But with poverty, trauma, and violence not as straightforward and repairable as developmentally rigorous academic standards, competitive athletic expectations, over scheduling, and the pressure to be well liked, well rounded and successful, we need to nurture their emotional health while simultaneously addressing the larger issues.

But meditation, deep breaths, and mantras are not the answer.

Children need love.

A veteran teaching colleague recently reminded me it is consistent love from a trusted adult whether it is a parent, relative, community member, or teacher that makes the difference for a child regardless of external forces.

Even as the family in the story Crenshaw struggled through hunger and financial hardship my son observed, “Living in a van didn’t seem so bad because the family loved each other.”

Children need time.

Time to move, play and socialize; time to create, discover and stretch their imagination; time to get from point A to B, be bored and to wonder.

The time scheduled for mindfulness  in school should be allocated to these activities because this is how children find their center.  This is what helps them focus.  This is what teaches body and environmental awareness.  This is how they were intended to manage stress.

Children are inherently present, non judgmental, and stress free.  So let’s give them love.  Give them time.  And then, let them be.

Discomfort Revisited; To My Future Self (with a side of recipes)

Avocado health picture - April 1 2015 option

Dear Post Whole Life Challenge Self,

I see you my little sugar plum fairy.  Don’t even think about downing that bag of gingersnaps.  Come now, haven’t you learned your lesson?

Eight plus weeks ago, somewhere between plank holds and hollowed rocks you tuned into Coach BE’s voice pitching the latest gym event; a 56 day nutrition and lifestyle challenge.

Even though your New Year’s resolution had been to reign in copious amounts sugar consumption, the notion of trying, not muscle fatigue shook you at the core.

I chuckled and thought, here’s a woman who survived child abuse and child birth, Weight Watchers and CrossFit, and yet there she planks; paralyzed, petrified, and underestimating her grit again.

Competitive and conscientious, I knew you could steer clear of the Skittles.

A rule abiding perfectionist, I knew you could tweak nutritional habits accordingly, practice the weekly lifestyle challenge diligently, and input a daily score religiously.

At the very least, I knew visions of a chiseled six pack dancing in your head would keep the sugar, cheese, and gluten out of your mouth.

Still you remained frozen in the britches.

As the challenge approached and the chatter grew, the last thing you wanted was to be left out of CrossFitter conversation.  In the end, peer pressure prevailed.  You coughed up the fifty bucks and bought a one way ticket back to

The Discomfort Zone.

Lethargic, cranky, and craving ice cream scoops and pizza pie slivers; the first 12 days sucked.  By day 21, you felt less bloated and more energized, but the lack of physical change almost caused you to throw in the towel.

But you kept at it.  Today you’re done and writing a letter to your future self because the challenge creators encouraged participants to do so.

Yes, you expected to come out the other side a Photoshopped version of yourself.  And it’s hard not to fixate on the lack of dramatic weight loss.  Yes, the scale tips 160 and your thigh gap is more of a slit.  The funk pecking away at your ego stems from female stigmas, girlish insecurities, and societal expectations.

Ignore it.

In 56 days you gained stamina and muscle:  mental and physical strength, a revised relationship with food and cleaner insides.  Besides, a little bass never hurt anybody.

Try to embrace these true measures of health and remember that despite middle age, marriage and motherhood, you are far from humpty or dumpty.

Find future value in the required weekly lifestyle practices as well.  Thanks to the organizers, you got more rest, practiced gratitude, kindness and mindfulness, enjoyed activities you love, and trudged through meals technology free.

Remember waking up after seven hours of uninterrupted sleep wondering what the hell happened?  Hold on to that the next time you stay up futzing on Facebook to then be awoken by a five year old with a 2am water request.

Remember the morning you experienced a few minutes of peace in the car at preschool pick up?  Hold on to that the next time you think you can’t find space to just be.

Remember the conversation with Skootch about Superman’s powers and Robin’s lack thereof over a bowl of soup?  Hold on to that the next time you open a laptop during lunch.

Remember the appreciation you felt those hours after the nearby train accident just to be able to sit and watch television with your husband and children?  Hold on to that the next time you tantrum about life being unfair.

I’m sorry but this exercise does not mark the end of your journey.  Continue to be wary of the Achilles heel: portion control.

In the meantime, feel proud.  You proved you could switch up your diet and survive.  This was an obstacle you were not remotely willing to tackle until now.

Discomfort is in fact still good.  Moderation however is great.

So enjoy some emotional eating with your team to celebrate a job well done.  The party bus and hard cider you’ve been saving are waiting.  Next stop, Peter Lugers. Bring on the schlag

Sincerely,
Your Conscience

My Go To Recipes

Egg Muffins:
Courtesy of Coach BE

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  • Spray down either a muffin tray or cup cake tray with Pam/olive oil spray
  • Dice pepper, onion, and spinach (really any vegetables you like)
  • Chop up chicken sausage (some prefer cheese or both)
  • Make a 2 egg scrambled egg mix (salt, pepper, milk)
  • Add the raw vegetables and sausage to the mix
  • Pour into the cupcake/muffin tray. The mixture should fill up about 2 ½ cupcake spaces.
  • Bake for 30 minutes or until you can stick a butter knife through and the blade comes out dry
  • Store in the refrigerator and reheat in microwave for 1 ½ minutes

Baked Oatmeal Bars
Courtesy of Karen the Baker

Oatmeal Bar Picture

Note: Feel free to add nuts, apples, dates, and/or coconut.  Double the recipe and use a 9×13 pan.

  • 3 cups oats
  • 2 t baking powder
  • 1 t salt
  • 1/2 t cinnamon
  • 2 eggs slightly beaten
  • 1 cup milk (use whatever type is acceptable)
  • 1/4 cup butter melted
  • 2-3 cups of frozen berries, a cut up apple, or whatever fruit you have on hand (Add a lot more fruit than it says here.)
  • Combine oats, baking powder, salt and cinnamon
  • Combine eggs, milk, butter and add to dry ingredients
  • Stir in fruit
  • Bake uncovered in 8×8” pan for 35-40 minutes at 350 degrees

Sweet Potato Chips

  • Preheat oven to 225 degrees
  • Peel and slice thin.
  • Toss sliced sweet potatoes in oil and sea salt
  • Bake for approximately 1hr 45 minutes