A Love Letter to Jewish Summer Camp

I sent my eldest off to camp this past Sunday. Two weeks away from home – no parents, siblings, TV. Only two books, one stuffy, and an open heart and mind.

My relationship with Judaism is complicated and fraught with angst, and that’s another story. But the one thing that American Jews do right is summer camp. Those of us who grew up at Jewish summer camp are unwavering on this point. Sure, there are sleepaway girl scout camps and horseback riding camps, but they are not the same as Jewish sleepaway camp. We don’t grow up going to camp; we grow up at camp. That’s where I became me.

From 7 years old onwards, I spent 3 and ½ weeks away from home at camp, and in high school I was there all summer. The other 10-11 months of the year were spent counting down till the first day of camp.

My daughter’s school friends don’t go away to camp, and other parents don’t understand how I can so easily put her on a bus and send her away for so long. But I know that she is becoming her true self right now, something she can’t do at home. She is free, surrounded by spirituality and intentionality grounded in the soil, soul, and staff at camp. It’s present in every activity – boating, swimming, archery, arts & crafts, singing, backpacking, body painting, and eating meals in the dining hall.

Nowadays, working parents have no choice but to keep their kids engaged all summer in convenient and affordable camps. I get this. It’s a necessity, not a choice. But for me, going to camp is not a weekly rotation of dance camp, swim camp, sports camp, ninja camp, drama camp. Going to camp is committing to a community to grow up within. It means exploring one’s true identity, potential, values, and passions away from school, family, expectations, and increasing levels of adolescent bullshit.

This is partly made possible because coolness is redefined at camp. At camp, to be cool means losing your voice at the ruach (spirit) competition of Macabiah (Olympics). It means standing on your chair in the dining hall and singing songs with your arm draped over your friend’s shoulder. It means being vulnerable and honest, accepting and inclusive.

The quarterback and head cheerleader are not celebrated at camp. Rather the friendship bracelet master, the ga ga superstar, and the kid who did stand-up at the talent show are celebrated by their peers. And to be a camp counselor is the ultimate aspiration.

I chose a far less religious and ideological camp for my kids than the one I grew up in. And although I credit my camp with creating many of my happiest memories and crafting my best qualities, daily prayers and Zionist debates didn’t seem like the right fit for my family. But we found a winner with Camp Tawonga, and like me, my kids will grow up with this undefinable and inimitable spirit of Jewish summer camp.

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