02 November 2023
As parents, we all have hopes and dreams for our children. As my husband and I raised our four children, we often wrestled with many parenting decisions. How would our choices about schools, recreation activities, and even the books and toys we brought into the house help our kids to learn compassion, integrity, respect, and responsibility? What could we do and with whom could we partner to raise each child to be a mensch (a good and righteous person)?
For our family, going to a Jewish summer camp was always part of this formula, but I don’t think we ever realized what a central role Jewish camping would play in our family’s Jewish journey. As our now-grown children are getting married and contemplating starting families of their own, I finally understand the role Jewish summer camp played in helping us parent our children.
The greatest gift we can give our children is “roots and wings.” The traditions we share with our children are the roots. This includes in our home and at community holiday celebrations, the PJ Library books we read to our children at bedtime, and Jewish foods we love to share. The wings come when our children gain resilience, confidence, and ownership of their own Jewish journeys.
The American Camp Association (ACA) released a study last spring that highlighted the positive impact of a quality camp experience. According to this study, camps build key skills such “grit,” the willingness to try new things, social awareness, independence, and an affinity for nature. Camps also support mental health, creating a time away from technology and allowing individuals to focus on being present in the moment.
A quality Jewish camp does all this and more. At camp, children get to take our traditions, play with them, and make them their own. Counselors design engaging programs connected to Jewish values. Camp leadership creates welcoming, inclusive, Jewish communities. All Jewish camps incorporate unique rituals. This can include chanting Modeh Ani (a morning prayer of gratitude) as campers gather at the flagpole each morning, banging on the table and adding hand motions when singing Birkat Hamazon (grace after the meals), and singing Hashkiveinu (an evening prayer of comfort and protection) in small cabin circles each evening. These experiences are powerful because they create ownership. It is the campers and counselors who shape and pass on these camp traditions. All of this happens while surrounded by friends old and new who are all walking the same experiential path.
There are several factors to consider when choosing a Jewish summer camp for your family. The type of sports and art activities along with the ropes course and the pool and lake toys are important. However, it is the underlying programing and value structure that matters the most. Tour a variety of camps and attend online informational sessions. Ask about the staffing structure to support mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health (MESSH). Inquire about support for the young adults who will be taking care of your child. It’s the counselors who will have the most direct influence on your child having a fun and meaningful summer. Ask if staff training includes elements of child development and if the camp has an established Jewish curriculum: it is important that the camp’s Jewish traditions align with your family’s values. Camp should be a place where it’s okay to take safe risks, to challenge, to question, and to take ownership of traditions.
Of course, the camp’s year-round staff are the primary resources for “facts” about what happens in the summer. But look to your friends, rabbis, the Federation, and other community leaders to get a deeper sense of how the camp actually “feels” like during the summer. Perhaps the best resource is to ask friends what their kids had to say when they came home from their most recent summer at a Jewish camp.
Camps are designed to be challenging. It’s not always easy to leave home. Saying goodbye at drop-off can be harder for a parent than for the child who is nervous but ready for camp. There may be homesick nights and peer conflicts requiring counselor intervention. Jewish summer camp can be a powerful parenting partnership. The roots and wing your child will gain at Jewish summer camp will truly help them soar.
Lisa Handelman is the former Director of Capital Camps, with 20 years’ experience in Jewish camping and is happy to serve as a resource to prospective camp families.