This is the first summer since my son Eytan was born that I will not be working at, or have children attending, camp at a JCC. I’m thrilled that the kids are spreading their wings and trying new and different things, but our current JCC and the one where we lived when they were toddlers are very special places.
When Abby was a toddler, her father and I moved from Indiana to Michigan and I had to quit a job I loved. I suddenly found myself as a stay-at-home mom in a tiny starter house as a Midwest winter was looming. I really thought I was going to lose my mind. I loved Abby (and still do) but the transition from going to a very social work environment to 10-12 hours a day with a cranky 1-year-old was more than I could handle.
I quickly found a half-time telecommuting job, and on my days off, Abby and I joined the “mommy and me” class at the local JCC. It was a lifesaver. The kids lurched around a giant playroom while the moms socialized (with one eye on the kids). The JCC employee, Myra, who ran the class, had older children and a much-needed “this too shall pass” attitude regarding teething, sleeping, eating, and all things moms worry about. At the end of the class the kids had a snack and Myra closed with some wonderful kid songs and Jewish songs connected to whatever holiday was coming up.
I made my first real mom friends there—mostly Jewish, some not—and I lucked out with a great group of funny, intelligent women. They totally had my back after baby #2, Eytan, was born. They delivered food, newborn baby clothes, picked up Abby for play dates, and provided a lifeline to the outside world.
Eytan’s birth triggered a relapse of a chronic illness so I wasn’t able to return to my telecommuting job. Desperate to keep some semblance of my former self, I continued to volunteer at the JCC doing whatever work needed to get done, usually with Eytan sleeping beside me.
Two things happened when Eytan turned 1: After seeing several doctors it became clear that my illness was going to require long-term medication with significant side effects, and after much soul-searching, I decided to not look for full-time work—the cost of two small children in daycare plus the stress on my health would be too much.
But, man plans, God laughs. The day after I made my decision to not return to the work force, the director of the JCC called me into his office and offered me a job. A paying job! 15-20 hours a week doing marketing, public relations, and community outreach for them. I quickly found childcare for Abby and Eytan and realized my entire paycheck was going to day care, but it didn’t matter to me. I was very committed to the JCC’s mission so I was thrilled to be a part of an organization I really believed in. In hindsight, it might have been the lowest paying job I have had as an adult, but the most meaningful.
When Eytan was 2, we moved again, and I had to leave the JCC. We followed the moving truck south to the ocean’s edge and I started over again, this time with a chronic illness and two small children. The first thing that struck me as novice southerner was how much time people spend in the summer near the water—pool or ocean—just looking for a way to cool off. I realized that in the brief interlude of a Midwest summer (here today, gone tomorrow) neither kid had ever been to a pool or a lake.
So after enrolling Abby in preschool, I signed her up for swimming lessons at the local JCC. I didn’t care if she ever became a great swimmer; I just wanted her to be able to dog paddle to the pool’s side if she accidentally fell in. Her “class” had two other 4-year-olds and a college student, Leigh, providing instruction.
Abby surprised Leigh and me when she took to swimming, well, like a fish in water. Abby had absolutely no fear of water and loved learning to swim. Leigh had a beautiful southern accent and spent all summer convincing me that she was Jewish, and that real Jews don’t have to have a Brooklyn accent. So by the side of the JCC pool while Abby was learning to swim, I started to slowly make friends and find playdates for Abby.
As time went on, Abby continued with her JCC swim lessons and then JCC swim team. I volunteered for several years as the liaison between the aquatics director and the swim team. Abby and Eytan both attempted playing on the JCC soccer team and that was when I realized neither kid was particularly good with any sport requiring coordination and a ball.
As they started elementary school, both kids spent several weeks each summer at the JCC day camp, which included instructional swim, arts and crafts, nature, gaga, and Shabbat songs and stories. When the weather cooperated, camp Shabbat would be held outside in a grove of pine trees. There was something magical about clumps of sweaty, tired kids singing songs, the younger ones cuddling with their counselors. I recruited my best babysitters from the J and now Abby is babysitting for the families whose children were her campers last summer.
Eytan has just about aged out of the J, and Abby will be spending most of her summer as a counselor at a URJ overnight camp. And now I’m suddenly without a direct connection to the JCC. But even if my kids no longer attend camp there, I know that every time I watch my daughter gleefully swim, or think back on the friends who kept me afloat through those trying years, the JCC will always hold a special place in my life. And my kids’ lives, too.