“Is this going to be our first fight?” my husband said to me at our friend’s Shabbat table. He said it jokingly–I mean, obviously, we NEVER fight because we are PERFECT–but it did make me think. It might be our “first fight,” after all. And who would suspect the topic of our first fight would be whether to send the kids to Jew camp or not to Jew camp?
Both my husband and I are Jewish, after all. Even though I’m more of a “hard-core Jew” (his words, not mine) than he is, he’s a Home Depot aficionado who’s amenable to building a sukkah on our deck. He didn’t mind the two sets of dishes thing (after all, when you both come into the marriage divorced, you come in with a ton of dishes), and he’s cool with my whole OCD Passover kitchen purge.
But now we’re starting to talk about next summer, when my boys from my first marriage will be 8 and 9. While I am fine with the boys going to day camp for years and years, until they become camp counselors/adults, apparently many of their peers are starting to pack up and ship off to sleepaway camp. So we’re going to spend some time this summer looking at potential candidates for a one or two week “taste of camp” experience.
My husband went to sleepaway camp for the whole summer at the ripe old age of 8. He went to the same camp for years and years. He loved it. He went sailing. He was a neutral bystander as other kids were given brutal wedgies from being hung by their underwear on coathooks (or so he has recounted to me). He conducted scientific experiments like lighting other kids’ farts on fire. His camp experience made him the wonderful man he is today. Okay, I added that last part. But he definitely adored camp. And he wants the boys to go to that same camp, if not follow in his fart-lighting footsteps.
Although approximately 99.99% of the campers and counselors at the all-boy camp Jon went to were Jewish (in a funny coincidence, one summer my husband had Goldman Sachs head Lloyd Blankfein as a counselor), his camp was not a “Jewish camp.” It was a “camp camp” = a religion-free, pure-fun experience.
In contrast, I only went to camp twice, each time for one month, and I basically spent the whole time suffering from brutal homesickness and social ostracizing. I was a nerdy girl who later blossomed, appropriately enough, at nerd camp (college level courses taught at college campuses to me and my fellow SAT-taking nerd friends). Real camp and I, however, were not a good fit. I wrote about my first day ever of camp here. That ought to give you a sense of what those entire summers were like for me: socially, basically craptastic.
But I spent those two summers at Jewish camps: camp where being Jewish was not only a detail about where people were coming from, but also the heart of the camp’s purpose. I went to Eisner for one summer and Ramah for the other.
Now, I could see where you might make the point–as my sisters did–“But you HATED camp.” Yes, I hated camp: I hated everything that took place outdoors and away from the printed page. But my boys, in contrast, seem to like the outdoors (they must have gotten that from my ex-husband).
Jewish camp taught me that I could be Jewish–and enjoy the exploration of being Jewish–away from my parents. Had it not been for Jewish camp, I never would have learned the Birkat Hamazon (blessing after the meal), despite coming from a pretty knowledgeable Conservative home. Going to Jewish camp taught me, implicitly and explicitly, that I could choose my own Jewish path, armed with both Hebrew familiarity and my guitar.
Sure, the experience wasn’t so great for me socially, but it was great for me intellectually. It taught me that I would find a way to be Jewish independently from the home my parents had created–and that I would enjoy exploring different avenues of Jewish expression. I loved learning the Reform movement’s Debbie Friedman oriented music, and I loved becoming fluent in the Hebrew of services and Shabbat songs from the Conservative movement. I loved the feeling of sitting around a table with my peers, singing Jewish songs and observing Jewish holidays. Would I ever have heard of Tisha B’Av otherwise? Unclear. Look, I told you I was kind of a nerd.
Moreover, I brought these songs and prayers home, teaching them to my parents and siblings, and making us into a veritable Jewish Von Trapp family on Friday nights. We Jewed out together. And now, each of the four siblings is married to a Jewish spouse. Each household belongs to a synagogue, lights Shabbat candles and invites one another over to each other’s sukkah.
Jewish camp, for my family, helped us each independently reinforce what was already there to begin with–an appreciation for being Jewish, along with the implicit promise that we could and do enjoy it on our own and that it would be fun. And of course, I want to give that to my kids: the idea that camp is not only a place to sail and swim, but also is a place to find out more about who they are and who they want to become as Jews.
I guess it’s a fight–“discussion”–worth having.