As we deliberate over summer plans for our family, the idea of sending the kids to a Jewish camp keeps popping up. I never went to camp, let alone a Jewish camp. The whole camping thing seems so strange. I look forward to summertime with our children and want to plan a family vacation. I feel quite hesitant to send my children away for such a long time and wonder about the supervision. Furthermore, if we send our children to camp, why go Jewish? Why shouldn’t they go where their classmates are going?
I am suddenly awash with memories! Nine summers in Jewish camps just whooshed through my being. I am sorry you didn’t go to camp and I am really sorry that you didn’t get to go to a Jewish summer camp. I grew up in a very Jewish home and I went to a terrific Jewish day school for 14 years. Both are a huge part of my being, but Jewish summer camp was a huge part of who I am today. I have a feeling that if you ask anyone who went to Jewish summer camp, he or she would probably weigh in similarly.
It is essential to allow your children to grow independently, at an age-appropriate pace, and to learn to live without the hovering of Mom and Dad. Family vacations are an important element of family bonding, but they should be part of the summer experience, not the entirety. I am not sure that one column will be able to contain my enthusiasm for Jewish camping, but I will try. Here is a sampling of what a Jewish camping experience gave me: lifetime friendships and connections: It was with a bunkmate from the summer of 1967 — I was 9 then — whom I chose to room in my first year in college. There is nothing quite like the bonds you make at summer camp. You have gone through the grueling (it’s fun!) daily trials and tribulations with each other: Early-morning exercises on damp, chilly fields; panicked clean-up times with inspections; shower lines; hot, exhausting hikes; cold night activities followed by whispered confidences after lights-out. Though now hemispheres apart, we still keep in touch — we are connected forever.
Independence: Try to imagine a time with no cell phones. We actually got through an entire month away from home with but one or two hurried phone calls from a pay phone. We figured out, on our own, how to pin our socks so they wouldn’t get lost in the laundry, how to make a bed with hospital corners so tight a coin could bounce on it, make a clove-hitch knot and pitch a tent made out of blankets, how to gather kindling and make it grow into a crackling bonfire, how to build a bench and swim laps in a freezing lake — looking out for your buddy all the while.
Love of Israel: I went to a religious Zionist camp. We lived and breathed Israel! We were wakened each morning with Hebrew and every activity throughout the day was referred to by its Hebrew name. Our night activities replicated battles from Israeli wars. I know this might seem quite hardcore, but it stayed with me.
Each year a different theme brought a period of Jewish history to life. We were taught to live up to the ideals of early Zionism and to embrace simplicity and commitment to the greater good — lots of socialism, community and emulation of kibbutz life. It ingrained in me a gripping idealism and a lifelong passion for Israel.
Leadership: There were few adults visible on campus. Camp was run by kids! We were all on track to run the world. Everywhere you looked, young people were in charge: Bunk counselors, section leaders, tractor drivers, cooks, dining room coordinators. As far as my recollection serves me, there may have been fewer than 10 adults there total.
Then there was Color War! Nothing can prepare a person for life leadership more than a three-day Color War. The camp is split in two with fierce competitions taking over all aspects of camp life, all of it subject to scrutiny and scoring. Campers are quickly assigned crucial roles in all of this mayhem — what could be more invigorating and empowering?
Spirituality: Picture this: An entire camp, hundreds of people dressed in blue and white, Friday night, walking at sunset from the field down to the outdoor synagogue, with rolling mountains in the background, all singing “Lecha Dodi.” It was magical. Life seldom gets better than this. Led by fellow campers, we would, at this Jewish camp, pray three times a day. The tunes we sang and the melodies we learned I can still sing to this day. I long for the uplifting feelings we experienced there without time constraints or adult expectations.
We sat in the grass as we studied Torah and debated the ins and outs of Zionism. I sometimes catch a waft of wet earth and grass and I am back in Indian Orchard, Pennsylvania, singing my heart out around a campfire, hoping and dreaming of one day actually seeing this great land of ours.
If this has not gotten you ready to sign up your child, then this piece from the latest study, “Camp Works, the Longterm Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp, Evidence from 26 U.S. Jewish Populations Studies on Adult Engagement” by Steven M. Cohen, Ron Miller, Ira M. Sheskin and Berna Torr, will seal the deal.
See these three paragraphs from their conclusion:
Let’s return to the opening question: What do children bring home with them from a stay at Jewish overnight camp? The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity. Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel. These acquisitions will enrich the lives of campers now and in their adult future.
The impact of camp on Jewish community awareness should not come as a surprise. A summer at overnight camp can be many things, but above all it is an experience in living as part of a community. Campers and counselors live together for weeks, removed from outside influences, forming bonds of friendship and loyalty that will be, for most, unlike any they have experienced in the past. They grow together, learn about themselves, and acquire new skills of self-reliance and peer interdependence.
The bonding experience of camp not only builds a long-lasting taste and yearning for community; it also creates habits of Jewish practice. It makes Judaism part and parcel of life’s most joyous moments. Moreover, those moments are experienced as integral parts of life in a beloved community.
Take the step — sign your children up for Jewish summer camp. They will come home ready to conquer the world!