I grew up Christian in a small Maine town. I spent my summers reading a stack of library books and hanging out in the backyard with my sister and neighborhood friends. In fact, I didn’t realize sleepaway camp was a “thing” until I went away to college and my Jewish classmates got teary-eyed discussing their camp experiences.
It baffled me. This is how people spent their summers? They left their families to hang out with people they saw for a few weeks every year while doing crazy stuff, like archery? Didn’t their parents love them?
My Jewish husband couldn’t explain it either. He didn’t have great experiences at camp. And since he had no desire to send our kids away, it was a non-issue. To top it off, our oldest, a 9-year-old girl, is an introvert homebody. Whenever we wrote letters to her cousins at sleepaway camp, she’d look at me, panicked, and choke out, “I don’t have to go, do I?” “Never!” I assured her.
I felt queasy at the thought. Being apart from my children has always been difficult for me. My oldest has always been especially attached to me and, while sometimes it feels suffocating, it’s pretty mutual. The longest we’ve been apart is 4 days, and that was when she was in the care of her 4 adoring grandparents and we were in communication twice a day. That was pretty much the max I/we could handle.
But then, at my husband’s holiday work party last year, a colleague mentioned that his daughter went to a sleepaway camp called Eden Village. He described it to us–a working organic farm where kids could milk goats and pick fresh raspberries outside their cabins. His daughter went for 6 days and loved it.
These sounded like activities my daughter would love too, as well as stuff I’d be unable to replicate in our suburban life. Cautiously intrigued, I checked out the camp’s website. A new image of sleepaway camp began to emerge. Instead of running around in color wars (which she’d loathe), I pictured my daughter assisting with baking challah and studying plants. Instead of 7 weeks apart, 6 days seemed manageable, a chance to flex her independence muscles. I daydreamed about a like-minded group of girlfriends for my daughter, girls she could turn to when everything went to hell in high school. Sleepaway camp started to seem doable. And surprisingly appealing.
Simultaneously, we discovered that several of my daughter’s friends planned on signing up for sleepaway camps and they began mentioning their plans to her. Organically, she started asking questions about the camps they chose and I took the opportunity to tell her about Eden Village. I mentioned some of the camp activities, all of her favorite things: nature walks, gardening, cooking challenges, gaga, and arts and crafts. And then, in a moment of astounding bravery, she said she would consider going. The catch was that her best friend would have to come, too. Because her best friend is Indian American, however, and understandably has zero interest in attending a Jewish overnight camp, we decided to table the discussion.
However, the idea had taken root. I found myself saying things like “solidifying her Jewish identity” and “transformative experience” to my husband.
Then I received an invitation to a maple sugar event at Eden Village. “Sounds like a fun afternoon,” I said to my kids casually. My daughter sensed that it was a set-up, but couldn’t deny the siren song of a nature activity. As we watched our introvert chattering happily as she grilled organic pancakes by a lake, my husband and I exchanged a knowing look. We signed her up for the 6-day experience. My daughter declared, “I will miss you, but it will be worth it.” Agreed.
Now I find myself chatting with other Jewish moms, discussing trunks and flashlights that transform into lanterns. I knowledgeably describe Jewish camp options to my friends with younger children. My rabbi’s wife gives me more information about the camp directors and introduces me to a family with a daughter who will also attend.
After my conversion, I didn’t immediately feel like a bonafide Jew. But now, as I fret over misting water bottles and quick-dry hiking pants, I feel like a real Jewish mother. Before I joined the tribe, I’d observed that it seemed to be a common rite of passage for Jewish parents to prepare their children for sleepaway camp. At odds with the other stereotype of holding their kids super close to them, the culture of labeling clothing and pre-addressing envelopes seems to be membership into Jewish motherhood of school age children. Most Jews I know have a sleepaway camp story or a reason why they didn’t attend. Keeping traditions alive is a substantial chunk of Jewish parenting and I felt like I would be one in a long line of Jewish mothers to participate in this ritual.
I joke with my husband about rocking in the closet after my daughter is gone for more than few days, but really I think we’ve got this. Both my daughter and I need to be confident that we can handle a small separation; that we will be stronger for it.
And now I wonder if “transformative experience” and “solidifying her Jewish identity” applies just as much to me.