Ask anyone why a Jewish camp is important and you’ll get a bunch of answers involving words such as identity, continuity, community, friends, and informal education. For many, the word “camp” is a trigger that magically transports people back to their glorious days attending summer camp. I am not one of those people.
Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, there were a few kids that went to Jewish sleep-away camps. I was never into going away because of two things: air-conditioning and cable TV.
I did spend two or three years during my elementary school life attending a local Jewish day camp run by the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation called CAMP SHALOM. I don’t remember much, except the camp brought the kids from my Traditional congregation together with the kids from the Reform Congregation. Oh, and we had rocking sailor hats we were allowed to decorate and had to wear on trips. That stunk.
Now, like I wrote, I wasn’t so into camp. However, I totally loved being a camp counselor. I think, in the summers before 9th grade and before 11th grade, I was a counselor at CAMP SHALOM. I don’t remember much about working at the camp, except that my “bunk” listened to the Beastie Boys’ first album, “License to Ill,” and The Clash’s “London Calling” (a double album) most that summer. The rest of my summer days and night during high school were spent doing camp-esque things like hanging with friends, staying up late, drinking bottomless cups of coffee, diving out of the windows of various homes and apartments when law enforcement types would break up parties due to crazy loud music blasting. You know, normal stuff.
During my summers in college I also was a counselor at a camp in Baltimore. It was a sports camp marketed to Jewish boys between the ages of 13-18. In the morning there were laid back clusters of campers studying Jewish texts with counselors and in the afternoon there were sports leagues, with trips at night. From a counselor’s view, most of those kids had a good time.
I was also a camp counselor last summer. I ran a camp for my 13-year-old son and two of his friends. They were already out of school, but their real camps hadn’t started yet. I was in between jobs so it made sense to keep the boys occupied as much as possible for as little money was possible. Now that was a great camp. We spent the days checking out cool places around Chicago that were off the beaten path (maybe our destinations will be my blog topic next month).
Now, as a parent whose kids attend Jewish camps I see why it’s so important, even if your kids attend a Jewish day school. All the buzzwords above are true. My kids get to reinforce the Judaism they have at home and that they learn in school. It gives them opportunities to be involved in art, drama, gymnastics, and ga-ga. They get to do cool things like take trips to water parks, make shelters in trees and learn to work as a team.
Just this past Monday, 600 children from the Chicago Jewish community did something that I doubt any of them had done before. Kids from local day camps in the West Rogers Park area gathered together at a congregation and said a few chapters from the book of Psalms (in Hebrew, Tehillim). They did so to show unity and support for the safety of those living in Israel. Not exactly an activity that any of us thought our kids would be doing this summer, but a powerful experience. I wish I had been one of those counselors.