Like many of you, I’m a camp person. Specifically, a North American Jewish sleepover camp person. I spent my summers laughing and doing ridiculous things with my camp friends — and the rest of the year was split pretty evenly between reminiscing about last summer and dreaming about next summer.
But as much as I hate to admit it, I’m all grown up now. I’m an adult with kids of my own, and when I reach back for those cherished memories of epic canoe trips, sneaking out past curfew, and wearing bathing suits or pajamas all day long, I sometimes stumble upon troubling moments that I never properly acknowledged when I was growing up.
Moments where I felt uncomfortable with something a counselor did, but assumed it was OK because she was in charge.
Moments where I found myself in a situation that felt wrong, but I didn’t want to seem prude or immature to the other campers, so I went along with it. (“I guess it’s not such a big deal to get changed in front of each other,” I reasoned. “I mean, we’ve been friends forever, they’re like my sisters.”)
Moments where the shower curtain was ripped open as a joke, or a picture was snapped without my permission, or I was pressured to share something personal.
In the age of #MeToo, I think a lot of us look back on past experiences with a critical eye and wonder if, perhaps, some of those “awkward moments” may have actually been something more serious. And that is not to mention, of course, the many cases of full-blown abuse that have come out of Jewish camps over the years. While I may have walked away from these summers unscathed, that is not the case for everyone.
With the rise in awareness of both the prevalence and gravity of abuse, I know that Jewish summer camps have changed dramatically since I was a camper and, later, a counselor. But when it comes to protecting our kids, we can still be doing more.
From skinny dipping and practical jokes to “pantsing” — pulling someone’s pants down — and games like truth or dare, things that are fun for some kids can be traumatizing for others. While we all have the right to set our own boundaries, it cannot be up to each counselor or camper to define appropriate and inappropriate behavior for themselves or others. Oftentimes, the lines are neither clear nor obvious — especially not at camp, which tends to function according to its own set of rules.
For example, is it appropriate for a counselor to hug a camper? What if she just found out that her grandfather passed away? What if they have been family friends for years? What if the camper specifically asks for a hug?
Is it appropriate for a camper and counselor to meet alone in a cabin? What if they need to have a serious, private conversation? What if they are planning a surprise party?
In order to minimize incidents of abuse and provide support for victims, every camp must implement a mandatory training course for all staff — one that outlines appropriate boundaries, identifies signs of abuse, and provides clear protocol. Proper guidelines and standards for appropriate and safe relationships need to be made clear to everyone — campers and staff alike — so that boundaries don’t get crossed by confused children and teens who haven’t been given enough tools to make the right choices.
The organization where I work, ASAP, is committed to creating healthy, abuse-free Jewish communities. We’ve also created an online abuse-prevention program specifically for Jewish summer camps, which provides resources for both parents and camp staff. It includes helpful tools, including reminders for parents to discuss with their children how if any behavior or person makes them feel uncomfortable, they should come to you or another trusted adult — and that is not “telling” or lashon hara (negative speech).
Camp can be its own self-sustaining, blissful universe. A world built on starry nights and color wars, inside jokes and old traditions. But between the relaxed environment, the distance from family, the lack of supervision, and the unclear safety guidelines, this idyllic society can easily lead to crossed boundaries, molestation, and physical and emotional abuse.
When I think back to my summers spent at camp, I feel nothing but gratitude for the friendships and the freedom, the growth and the opportunities. But before we pack the duffels and load our precious children onto that big bus, we should ask our kids’ camps what they’re doing to ensure a safe, abuse-free environment. And if their answers aren’t good enough, we must insist they do more — or send our kids elsewhere.