I Can't Afford Jewish Summer Camp — And I'm Done Feeling Guilty – Kveller
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I Can’t Afford Jewish Summer Camp — And I’m Done Feeling Guilty

kids on dock at summer camp

Yellow Dog Productions/Getty Images

It’s January. It’s cold and icy and I am wearing really cozy socks. I’d like to have some soup, but instead I am struggling through a deluge of notifications that Early Registration is Open! Bunks are Filling Fast! Click Here to Orchestrate Your Child’s Core Jewish Memories! For Just $700 Per Week Plus Transportation (And Please Send a Dairy Lunch!), You Can Ensure Your Jewish Child Will Stay Jewish!

Summer camp. Summer goddamn fucking camp. My oldest kid is in second grade, and this summer, his friends are going to either day or overnight camp. This summer, my kid wants to go to camp, too. I have learned, as a person who came to Judaism later in the game, that Jewish summer camps are a rite of passage for many American Jews. And I get it! I have read the emails and the articles and the brochures. The people who are running these camps sound like national treasures: They are imbuing kids with the joy of being Jewish; they are providing safe spaces for our daughters and sons to test their independence; they are giving battle-worn grown-ups a break from the trenches of parenthood. Camp staff and volunteers are essential workers, as far as I am concerned.

Of course I want to sign my son up for one of these glorious oases in the woods. The conundrum is, I’ve got three kids and I work full-time. They all need childcare over the summer and, if you haven’t noticed, childcare is really expensive. We usually hire a college student to hang with the kids for the summer, 45 hours a week, and that stretches our budget. For us, camp can’t replace the summer sitter, because only one of my kids is old enough for camp; someone still needs to care for the other two. Because of this, adding camp tuition, fees and transportation would nearly double our childcare costs. We just cannot do it. And I feel guilty.

I feel guilty because I know my kid would benefit from the experience. I feel guilty because he wants to be with his friends. I feel guilty because the moms at the bus stop keep asking which camp we go to. I feel guilty because my husband kvells about his camp experience. I feel guilty because when I told my mother-in-law we’re not doing camp, she looked me dead in the eyeballs and said, “You are making a huge mistake.” I looked her dead in her eyeballs and thought to myself, hand me $5000 and your grandson is off to the woods.

Of course, there are many incredible scholarship opportunities that make Jewish summer camp a possibility for families that could not otherwise afford it. Without getting too far in the weeds of my family’s financial situation, we are fortunate enough to be able to send our kids to Jewish day school (by an increasingly slim margin, thanks inflation), which we adore. But between school tuition, really tough childcare costs, major spending on mental health therapy for one kid and speech therapy for another, inflation, and living in a very expensive metro area, our two-income household feels stretched, even though we look, on paper, like we can afford camp.We don’t qualify for scholarship assistance, and I think that makes a lot of sense.

My complaint is not that camp costs more than it should — I’m sure the tuition costs are a reflection of the value provided. Nor is my complaint that my family doesn’t make enough money; we are doing fine. My problem is that I feel the weight of the expectation that we will send our kids to camp, and I feel the weight of my own fear that my kids are missing out on something important.

But, despite all of this, I am not ready to concede that I have failed my son by failing to have enough disposable income for summer camp. Maybe he will start to learn about overcoming disappointment. Maybe he will start to learn that budgets are real, and that our family is all in it together. And maybe he will be mad for a while.

But this summer, my son will get to know a new college student babysitter. He’ll go to the pool, he’ll practice riding his bike, he’ll live at the library, he’ll get bored on rainy days. Frankly, that is what most of my summers looked like as a kid and I know my son will be just fine. In fact, I like to think there is a great deal to be said for the unscheduled summer, for having the time and space to break through boredom.

But regardless, right now it’s January. It’s cold and icy and I’m wearing really cozy socks. And I am already ready to let go of camp guilt.

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