It was my first week of college, and I realized very quickly that I was different than virtually all the Jewish kids I met at American University. Like so many of them, I celebrated the Jewish holidays, went to Hebrew school, and had a bat mitzvah. But there was one major thing that separated me from the pack: I didn’t go to sleepaway camp.
As I listened to my new friends play Jewish Geography and dish about their camp friendships and hook-ups, I couldn’t help but feel I was missing something really big. Sleepaway camp seemed to be the universal teenage Jewish bonding experience, but it wasn’t part of my Jewish experience — camp just wasn’t something the Jewish kids in my rural northern N.J. town did. (Or any kids, for that matter.)
Admittedly, not having camp stories to share felt pretty isolating those first few weeks. But mostly I was curious, and often peppered my friends with questions about camp: Were you there all summer or a couple weeks? Did you go to the same camp every year? Did you ever get homesick for your friends and family?
Even then, I knew that if I ever had kids someday, I’d want them to go to Jewish sleepaway camp. And this summer, the opportunity arose for my 7-year-old daughter: For a week, she went to a Jewish day camp with friends from religious school that was 45 minutes from our house. The experienced culminated with a two-night Shabbat weekend.
She loved it — especially the overnight part — and it was a great way to ease into the Jewish sleepaway camp experience.
Here’s what I learned from her.
1. Camp chores are part of the experience.
I don’t know why this notion never crossed my mind — it’s camp, not a spa! — but when she got home and excitedly told me about tasks like weeding the garden and helping clean trays in the kitchen, I was pleasantly surprised. I love the idea of helping take care of the camp in the same way we all pitch in to keep our home clean. And now that we know she can handle the additional responsibility, we’ll be reassessing her chores list — starting with making her bed every morning, her least favorite task!
2. Big kids rule.
Being a newbie at a camp and one of the youngest kids, I was worried how my daughter would fare. Would the older, veteran campers make her feel welcome, or would they be the type of kids who have their camp clique and don’t welcome new kids? Turns out, I had nothing to worry about — some of her older Hebrew School friends took her under their wings. Next year when she’s no longer the new kid, I have a strong hunch she’ll be lending a hand to first-time campers — including her little brother.
3. Shabbat is a Very Big Deal.
This was a treat to hear about. We only really go to Friday night services when there’s a family service, so knowing Shabbat was a special experience at camp where she got dressed up, had a special dinner, lit candles, went up to “Shabbat Hill” at sunset and sang prayers and songs warmed my heart. It also inspired me to want to create some Shabbat traditions for our own little interfaith family, a la Mila Kunis and her crew.
Even though she was new and her camp experience was short, my daughter learned so many songs. I didn’t know many of them, and she got the words mixed up in some of them (she’s only 7!) but I can see how hearing the same songs year after year at camp would be really cool and a fun tradition to uphold. And I overheard her teaching her 4-year-old brother some of the songs.
5. Pick-Up Day is the best.
There was no formal drop-off at this particular camp, so all we knew about it was what we’d seen in photos on their website. But when we picked her up, she was SO proud to show us around: the cabins, the pool, the lake, the art room, the music room, the garden, and so on. I can imagine how — after a couple weeks away — pick-up day at the end of the session would be even more amazing.
I really enjoyed living vicariously through my daughter’s summer camp experience. Even better, I loved hearing about the things she is already looking forward to next summer — like spending time in the art room and maybe even getting on stage for the talent show.