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Notes on Camp

An argument for keeping summertime unplugged

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A Jewish summer campers in the 1980, from Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies by Roger Bennett and Jules Shell (Courtesy Roger Bennett)

Each spring, Jewish parents nationwide engage in the sacred and holy ritual of writing checks to summer camp.

Josie, 8 years old, is going to overnight camp for the first time this year, which has made me reflect on my own experiences as a child at Camp Ramah in New England. I loved the lake, the trees, the pine-fragrant bunks adorned with the vintage scratchitti of long-ago youths who’d presumably left camping behind for cholesterol-lowering drugs and the raising of future campers of their own.

I grew up in a different era, an age before cell phones and personal computing devices. In an era before MTV’s Unplugged, we were perpetually unplugged. As a kid in a small city, I rode my bike all over the neighborhood. I lounged with my friends in Swan Point Cemetery on weekends. We spent hours, unsupervised, in various garages and basements.

My own kids’ childhood is very different. They’re in organized activities all the time. They don’t roam like free-range fowl throughout the city. For Josie, one of the most fascinating things about this year’s marvelous Newbery-winning children’s novel When You Reach Me was its portrait of a latchkey kid on the Upper West Side in the ‘70s; in a book that deals with time travel and foretelling the future, the most astonishing detail for my kid was that the protagonist got to walk around New York City alone.

The most significant difference between my kids and me, though, is that they can’t imagine being unwired. I showed them a picture of Gordon Gekko holding his then-super-futuristic cell phone in the movie Wall Street, and they asked if it was a giant walkie-talkie. Josie recently quizzed me about Superman: What was a phone booth, and how did he change clothes in it? When I tell her we had to stand up and walk over to the television to change the channel and that we only had telephones attached to walls, she stares at me as if I’m speaking Urdu. I showed her Atari’s Pong, the antiquated video game we played on my TV growing up; she thought I was playing a joke. All you could do in this “game” was move a line, slowly, up and down, as a single dot ricocheted in slow motion around the screen? This was once considered fun? Josie and her friends play Toontown and Wizard 101 together, visually rich, hugely complex, multiplayer games with their own elaborate universes. They make plans to “meet” each other on weekends in digital glens and seven-story buildings in their avatar forms.

A couple of summers ago we visited friends in Fire Island. Eyeing my iPhone, an 8-year-old girl said, “Which generation?” I told her it was the earliest version and she rolled her eyes. “I want the new one, but my mom isn’t psyched for me to break my current contract,” she said airily, as bored as a Kardashian. “I’m totally getting it, though.”

So, is today’s sleepaway camp—with its lake, trees, cabins, chadar ochel, and drama and crafts bungalows looking exactly as they did generations earlier—an artifact, an artificial construct belonging to an earlier time, like some New World version of a Roman Vishniac photo? Is it ridiculous to expect kids to give up their iPods, handheld computer games, Facebook, Twitter, IM? Can we really trap them in this historical setting, like bug-spray-scented, cell-phone-less flies in amber?

My answer: We not only can; we should. Kids need unplugging. I’m no Luddite or technophobe, and I was among the snarling parents who objected when Mayor Michael Bloomberg went on his rampage to ban cell phones in schools after September 11. But in the summer—the last vestige of carefree childhood in a high-pressure, high-connectivity world—kids should be forced to interact face-to-face with each other, with their counselors, and with a sylvan world. It’s one of the last great communal spaces for kids.

Every camp has its own rules about the use of technology, of course. Some allow cell phones but let kids use them only right before Shabbat or right before bed. Others allow iPods in the bunk only. (In my day, at rest time, we were allowed our giant, awkward Walkmans that seemed the height of techie cool.) But whatever a camp’s written rules, compliance varies. One Jewish website is rife with whispered tales of texting in bathroom stalls.

“Each camp’s culture is different, of course, but for most part the undergirding value is that camp is a place in which community is built in real time and real space,” says Rabbi Eve Rudin, director of Camp Excellence and Advancement at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. In other words, al tifrosh min hatzibur; don’t separate yourself from the community. The real community, not the virtual one. “When you’re plugged in to your headphones, you’re separated from the world around you,” Rudin says. “There can be appropriate times in the camp day to be separate and quiet—reading a book in your bunk, writing a letter, listening to music. For some camps, then, an iPod is acceptable. But we generally don’t encourage families to send valuables to camp.” Camp, she adds, should be a place where all kids start on equal footing, but “the reality is that parents don’t always want to abide by it.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Is connectivity really so important to the kid, or is it really about the needs and anxieties of the parent? For most kids, camp is a time to be in a completely kid-centric, immersive environment. Kids adjust to camp culture. They learn the camp rituals and songs (speaking of which, OyBaby’s new CD, We Sang That at Camp, is hilariously awesome). They fold themselves into the tradition; they don’t expect the tradition to adapt to them. But parents can be more obstructionist than helpful to the process. I’ve heard stories about camps with no-outside-food policies in which parents smuggle food in care packages, hidden in tennis balls. Websites like bunk1.com and campregister.com help parents stay connected to their little darlings 24-7. In my day, we had to write home twice a week, and we could line up to use the pay phone outside the mercaz. And we walked uphill to the archery range, both ways.

There’s no doubt that camp is Good for the Jews. Research shows that teenagers report greater levels of connection to Judaism at camp, and campers are significantly more likely to send their children to camp themselves when they grow up. According to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, 66 percent of Jews who attended Jewish camps considered their Jewish identity “very important,” as opposed to 29 percent of those who never attended a Jewish camp. Jewish camp alumni are 50 percent more likely to join a synagogue and 90 percent more likely to join a Jewish community center than their non-camp fellows. And camp’s world-unto-itself mystique is part of what makes it so indelible. There’s something primal about the physicality of it all, the intensity of friendships forged at camp. Movie nights feel more special when media is a rarity. Romance feels more thrilling. Shiurim feel less like school when they’re held among pine needles. You can’t Facebook that stuff. Well, you could, but feh.

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Allen R. Schreiber says:

Great article! I still fondly remember my halcyon days as a youth in the mid-late 60’s and early 70’s, and especially the two summers spent at Camp Shwayder high in the Rockies of Colorado. The time spent there still affects me to this day, and connected my more strongly to my Jewish identity. So much so, that I enrolled all three of my children to attend Shwayder every summer they were (are) eligible, as one is now too old, but the other two have three and four years of eligibility left. They all have stated the profound impact it has had on their Jewish identity, and the great fun they had while there. And though we are users of Bunk1 to write each other (back in my day, snail mail was a one week each way ordeal, with delivery up into the mountains being what it was, so that often I would arrive home to receive my last letter written from camp to myself, and my parents’ last leter sent at the beginning of the last week and the first letter from my parents sent before I departed for camp!) Thank you for the trip back down memory lane! I concur whole-heartedly with the de-technologizing of the summer camp experience, and it is worth every mile of the 1,000 mile round trip to drop my kids off in Denver each summer to attend Shwayder, not only for the experiences they get while there, but for the bonding time I get with my children on the drive out and back without the distractions of Play Station, etc.

Love this, Marjorie! My 10 year-old will be going to camp for the first time this summer and was horrified that he won’t be able to bring his cell phone.”But how will I call you?” he whined. “We will write LETTERS. On PAPER,” I explained. He rolled his eyes. “Do I at least get to bring my iPod?” I said no, and then was immediately hit with a memory of being huddled in the bathroom with my homegirls, listening to the Violent Femmes on an old-school tape recorder. Heh. Someone will smuggle in some Lady Gaga, but it won’t be him.

My father-in-law attended the NJY Camps 60+ years ago. I was a camper there in the 70s. Now both of my boys are regulars (entering their 5th and 2nd summers there) and couldn’t be happier. They gladly leave their electronic devices at home each year. After all, if they had 24/7 internet access or cell phones at camp, then I’d be able to bother them every day – and that’s the last thing they want!!

Aimee says:

This article made me smile, as just last weekend I had a conversation with my 7-year-old daughter about the central conflict of my childhood – having to attend Shabbat services on Friday nights with my family despite the fact that Donny and Marie was on at the same time. Although she got that Donny Osmond was kind of my “Joe Jonas,” the rest of my story held no resonance for her, as she literally could not conceive of a time where it was not possible to record, TIVO, or otherwise save shows to watch when you wished – in fact I had to explain what a VCR was!

Rachel Steinberg says:

YAY Palmer!!!! I worry that my children will have no idea how to just be themselves w/o the technology they are growing up with. Thank goodness for Shabbat where we turn it all off.

Michele Lifshen Reing says:

Ah, Marjorie. I still reminisce about our instant camp bond over Ellery Queen novels and the other highbrow literature (!) we were reading back in the day. There is nothing like the camp experience, but here is something that comes close in one way…my girls and I have been living without TV for the last 6 months. I thought it would be excruciating, and truthfully, I went through a bit of Food Network withdrawal, but let me tell you, within a week, my girls (2nd Grade & Kindergarten) figured out other ways to entertain themselves and I am most proud of all the voracious READING that is happening in my house now. Having this experience is eye-opening and I’ve realized 2 things: 1. I will never have TV (movies yes, cable no) as a “must have, must watch 24/7, living room shrine” ever again; and 2. Kids are super adaptable; it’s really us parents who need to take the lead on turning off the tube and engaging in alternative activities. Thanks for another great post!

Aly says:

I am a 17 year-old camper. I think that allowing iPods at camp is a great thing because it is something that can be shared with everyone, someone just needs to bring the speakers. I don’t understand why a 10 year old needs a phone in the first place, so having one at camp is just ridiculous. The nice thing about camp is that your friends are a bed or cabin away so talking to them is easy. A no cell phone rule makes sense but the no snacks rule is really annoying. Sometimes you don’t like anything served in one day and need something to eat.

Thanks for all the comments, people! (Michele, believe it or not, I’d FORGOTTEN about Ellery Queen!) And Aly, it’s great to hear the perspective of an actual current camper.

Jeremy Pressman says:

I liked the article (and love CRNE) but I have two concerns. It pushes the tech issue away from most of the year as if we are powerless other than in a summer camp setting to raise kids without 24/7 technology. Also, I guess my kids are just lucky but we live in a suburban neighborhood where the kids often run around outside, decide what game they want to play, etc. Sure, all these kids have activities and teams, but they also have this unstructured time too. So the golden days are not gone everywhere.

Hi, Jeremy! I’ve written about kids and immersion in media/technology elsewhere (go to google!) and I’m sure I’ll be addressing it in Tablet (on Tablet? what’s our preferred preposition?) again. It’s an important issue.

Joel says:

I was a camper at a Boy Scout Camp in NJ and a counselor at the NJY camps in Pennsylvania many years ago. The food at NJY camps was delicious even the peanut butter and jelly kept on hand for finicky eaters was delicious. NJY camps dining hall would pack me a nice lunch for my days off when I hitchhiked to Port Jervis to watch trains. Had the USAF provided the same quality of food in Vietnam that the NJY camps provided, I think the morale would have been higher and more of the VC would have defected.

Great insights! As a owner of a gift-giving business to Summer Camps, I wonder if the teenage girls can still enjoy a relaxing day without all the new hi-tech toys. How about connecting with each other without all that texting?

Folks, I think we’re all going to have to let up a bit on the unplugged theme.

Kids at Habonim Dror camps learn how to create and sustain community – kibbutz style. The internet is the greatest invention for enhancing the power of individuals and small groups to connect, work together and enjoy each other’s “presence”. Inevitably it will invade and enhance even the camp environment.

In the Habonim Dror youth movement, for instance, tzevet at one camp will want to stay in touch with their chevre running other camps (there are 7) because all 7 camps make up one great community. A Madrich will want to stream a great video or book or lecture with a Jewish theme to their bunk or chug as the starting point for a Jewish discussion and to expose their chanichim to significant, creative Jewish-themed art. Pandora will become the source of always-available Israeli pop and folk music. (You won’t be able to lose the CD and the available musical variety will be educationally breathtaking)

Hopefully, camp is so filled with compelling here-and-now activities and relationships that the urge to remain connected to your school-year crowd will be diminished. Hopefully the connectivity available at camp will be used wisely to enhance the broad educational experience of the summer.

But it’s coming. As sure as the bug juice.

Chaver Steve

Chaver Steve, just saw this comment (and hope you’re still checking back). I think all your examples of using technology are nifty. They all involve a madrich (counselor) using connectivity, with or without the kids, to facilitate community-building. (I just amused myself by thinking: Connection is the shidduch! Get it? I’m punning in foreign!)

What I think we should be wary of is the uses of technology that isolate campers — or take them out of the camp experience — instead of bringing them together. Roaming around camp with earbuds in, listening to Ke$ha or whatever the fine youth of today listens to, is antithetical to community values.

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Notes on Camp

An argument for keeping summertime unplugged

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