Up here in the Northeast, the leaves are beginning their colorful plummet to the ground, and coats are emerging from closets. It feels almost completely incongruous to be thinking about overnight camps for summer 2017—and yet, that’s what many parents are just beginning to do.
A friend, about to embark on this process, asked me whether I’d written a “questions to ask in choosing a camp for your kid” article. Well, I hadn’t. But that’s about to change.
1. To Jew Camp or Not Jew Camp?
One could conceivably make the argument that many camps are, if not Jewish, Jew-ish. However, it is up to you whether you want to choose a camp whose Jewishness is a lynchpin of its identity. I have already written a piece on that subject [https://www.kveller.com/to-jew-camp-or-not-to-jew-camp/] and am happy to discuss more, but I strongly believe that the right Jewish camp can be a true lifelong gift to your child. A Jewish summer is an opportunity to give your kids an independent (independent from you!) love of Judaism. That’s pretty great.
Now, I make that argument—and yet, one of my sons does not (yet) attend a Jewish camp. He goes to an art camp, where he is surrounded by other artists—people from all kinds of backgrounds, where economic and sexual diversity are actively encouraged. Do I wish he sang Birkat Hamazon after every meal at camp, like his brother? I do…and yet, the camp he attends has taught him to truly value difference, and to be a more contemplative and empathetic person—and that is also a gift (and perhaps yet another reason more Jewish camps ought to think about two week sessions, so kids have the opportunity to experience different worlds in one summer). Why am I telling you this? Because it acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and that choosing a camp means knowing…
2. Who Is Your Kid?
Take a good look at your kid: Who is he or she? Obviously, the kid is your child…but is the kid an artist or an athlete? Is the kid someone who needs structure, or someone who is better off in an “anything goes” setting? Camps are very, very different—and as someone who once chose the wrong camp for one of her children, I can tell you that trying to fit the square peg into the round hole is not going to work out for you or your child.
Don’t choose a camp for who you want your child to be—instead, choose a camp for both who your child is and who you think they can become. If who you think they can become is very different from who your child currently is—or perhaps who your child wants to become—maybe you need to have a talk with your child.
3. What’s It Like?
If you can get to the camp itself, that has its value, to be sure. But if you can’t, you will want to ask questions about the facilities and camp experience. Here are some questions and the subtext of why I would ask them:
How old are the buildings? If they tell you, “Our gym was built two years ago, and is a state-of-the-art blah blah,” that means, “Our bunks are very, very old.” Ask follow-up questions, including, “What facilities do you feel are the least up-to-date?”
How many kids are in a bunk? How many kids do they expect of the age range of your kid, and what is the breakdown of girls/boys? Are most kids new or returning campers? Where do most campers come from? What percentage of kids will be returning to camp from last year? Do most kids stay the whole summer, or for a month (is that even an option? I strongly recommend a shorter session for first-time-ever campers, for everyone’s mental health)? These questions are an attempt to gauge the social environment of the camp. If everyone is a return camper, coming from two states, perhaps it will be more difficult for your child to fit in, as opposed to a camp in which it’s 50-50.
How long has the camp been under its current director? How old are the counselors who will be living with my kid? What percentage of the staff is new, and what percentage is old? You are trying to gauge how the camp would respond to a health issue, whether physical or emotional. A 21-year-old counselor will be better equipped to meet a fourth grader’s needs than a 17-year-old, to generalize. Also, a camp may be new and innovative, but that can also mean that they might be less capable when it comes to dealing with emotional or disciplinary problems than a place led by someone who has a decade plus of experience under their belt.
If it’s a Jewish camp, how religious is it? What is the food like? It’s important that you are onboard with how Judaism is practiced at camp.
Who are parents I can speak to as references? Just as you wouldn’t hire someone without checking their references, you shouldn’t choose a camp without having a candid discussion with at least three parents of children who have gone there—ideally parents of kids who attended the camp when they were your child’s age. And if you do attend the camp, these are the people you’re going to want to call when you’re packing. Trust me.
Please respond with more questions and guidance in the comments—it’s best for all concerned for your first camp experience to be a great one!