Camp Puts Jewish Values to the Test—That’s Why Camp Friendships Endure
While kids play ball, swap clothes, and steal their first kisses, they also learn about community, identity, and being a mensch
My summer-camp days ended (gulp) nearly 30 years ago. But I’m still in touch with a ton of camp friends—thank you, Facebook—and have drinks with and exchange email with a number of them. I wouldn’t say I adored camp; I was too self-conscious and aware of my own dorkiness. But a lot of identity formation happened there. I had my first kiss(es) at camp. I learned responsibility through nikayon (daily clean-up). I learned Torah and tefilah while sitting in the woods. I made a friend who shared my oddball love of Ellery Queen mystery novels. I, who never identified as a girly-girl, sat still while other girls used a curling iron on my hair and dabbed Kissing Potion rollerball lip gloss on my lips. I loved and hated the intensity of Maccabiah (color war), when I felt personally responsible for every point won or lost. I adored the melancholy of holding hands and singing “Rad HaYom” at the end of the day, knowing that there was one fewer day of camp left, knowing that time was passing and was gone forever.
Now my kids are in the thick of the camp experience. Camp is ever-present in their lives, even when the season hasn’t yet begun. Josie, 12, is on the bat mitzvah circuit. It’s proved to be a great source of independence building—last week she took a New Jersey Transit bus to the Port Authority by herself. At Thanksgiving, she flew alone from California (where we were visiting Jonathan’s family) to Newark and got picked up by a camp friend’s mom for another friend’s ceremony. Not only does she love seeing her friends, between their bouts of emailing and texting (luxuries that weren’t available in my day, when we had to use carrier pigeons and teletype machines); she loves seeing how other Jews worship and celebrate. She’s been to fancy extravaganzas and haimish little get-togethers. She’s getting to decide what she wants her own bat mitzvah to feel like by seeing so many other kids’ in so many other synagogues and settings. (Josie and Maxie’s camp offers bar and bat mitzvah lessons, so kids don’t forget what they’ve been learning during the school year, but Josie is especially excited because one of her friends, who became a bat mitzvah earlier this year and is an amazing Torah reader, offered to give Josie tutoring in the bunk, too. How fabulous to have the chance to learn from a peer rather than a guy in a suit!) (No offense to Cantor Mike, our guy in a suit, who is ALSO fabulous.)
Camp makes my kids feel great about being Jewish. (Even folks who loathed going to Jewish camp agree that Jewish camp has this effect.) Me, I went to Jewish Day School, so I didn’t learn much new Hebrew or Jewish history at camp. But for Josie and Maxie (age 9), who go to public school, camp has been where they really learned tefilot and learned to pray with kavannah—passion and intention. They both love to sing; today I watch them belting out Adon Olam and feel as if I’m time-traveling to Camp Ramah in the 1980s. Camp, in short, is a kid-centered, kid-powered, outdoorsy dunk in the agam (lake) of positive Jewish identification.
I asked Zachary Lasker, the director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary (and former director of Camp Ramah in California), what makes camp the incredibly potent experience it is. He answered, “Studies have shown us that the more immersive an experience is, the more ‘sticky’ it is, in a good way. That goes for learning anything: language, music, culture.”
Because overnight camp is an immersive, shared experience, it feels hyper-real and intense. You’re with your friends 24/seven. You see them in multiple contexts: You see what they’re good at and what they struggle with; you gain insight into your own accomplishments and struggles. You and your bunkmates fight and you make up, because the intimacy of camp means you can’t (and don’t want to) fight indefinitely. “An hour in camp is like a month in the outside world,” Lasker said. “Everything cycles so quickly.”
And in Jewish summer camp, Jewish values and identity-builders are integrated into everything. There are Israeli pop songs and Jewish folk dances, everyday objects are called by their Hebrew names, kids play fierce games of ga-ga (aka “Israeli dodge ball”) and discuss the week’s Torah portion. Kids with different levels of Jewish education and cluefulness and levels of observance live together and respect each other’s differences.
Lasker pointed out another special aspect to camp friendships: “In the secular world, you don’t always have future touch-points to fall back on naturally, as in the Jewish world. I showed up at my camp friends’ bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings and brit milahs and baby namings. We did participatory stuff like bikur cholim [visiting the sick] and doing acts of tzedakah together. In times of sorrow as well as joy, we showed up for each other. I can’t think of another environment that fosters such deep roots.”
When you return to the same camp over and over, you see the changes your friends have undergone during the school year. Bodies change. Clothing taste changes. Interests and passions change. You don’t notice these minute differences in your school friends, because you see them every day. With your camp friends, it’s as if you can time-travel, seeing who they were last summer at the same time as you see who they are now. And that helps you appreciate the fact that you’re always changing, too. Passing through different developmental phases with someone—Josie started sleepaway camp at 8 and has known many of her friends since then—gives you a shared vocabulary, shared experiences. “In some cases,” Lasker pointed out, “you go from being peers with someone to being co-workers, if you return to camp as staff. It’s yet another rich way of relating. You problem-solve together and work as colleagues as co-counselors or unit heads.”
Camp is all of Judaism’s mitzvot pertaining to community in one setting. All our rules about how to live with others, how to be kind, how to treat others—all are put to the test. At school or shul, you go home and you can be someone else. Camp is home. You shower with these people. They see your Snoopy pajamas. They see how you react when you’re hit in the head with a volleyball.
A caveat: I’d urge parents to make sure their kids’ camp is truly menschy, as opposed to paying lip service to menschiness while tolerating bullying or disrespect. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about bad behavior at Jewish camps, and I’m sure you have, too. Do your homework before sending your kid. I knew Josie was in the right place when she sent me a postcard saying she fell during the Apache Relay (my nightmare—like something out of Meatballs!) and another kid on another team, a girl she didn’t even know, stopped to help her up and brush her off and make sure she was OK. Good camp values! And good Jewish values.
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Judaism became a religion of laws, haunted and bound by the absence of a home for Jewish sovereignty