When Your Kid Doesn't Make Jewish Connections at Jewish Summer Camp – Kveller
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When Your Kid Doesn’t Make Jewish Connections at Jewish Summer Camp

Did my kid have an amazing summer at camp? Yes. Was it the cathartic Jewish experience that I wanted for him? No.


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As a mom of three kids who are “joiners” and super involved in extracurriculars from sports to arts, our family is always on the go. I’ve never been one of those parents concerned if my kids were having enough social interactions, but I am one of those parents always trying to navigate with them how they are the “different” ones out of their friend groups, with them routinely trying to explain to others their Jewishness.  

Having grown up in Northern New Jersey, this is somewhat of a foreign experience to me. I was always surrounded by a decently sized Jewish community, with Jewish friends and people who understood my strong identity. But now I live with my family in Maine, which feels like the polar opposite, and we’ve joked a lot in our 11 years of living here that we are the only Jews of our town (turns out there’s at least one other family, but that’s not saying much).  

While I’ve done my best to help foster strong, positive Jewish connections for my two teens, they regularly face antisemitism at their high school (which they partially combat by being part of the school civil rights team) and also a general ignorance about what it means to be Jewish. And they don’t have the same kind of connections to Jewish life that were so central to my own development when I was their age.

So when I had the opportunity to sign my youngest (who’s 6.5) up for a local Jewish day camp this summer, I jumped at the chance, hearing those statistics in my head of creating stronger connections and identity for Jewish kids who attend Jewish summer camps. 

While he attends Hebrew school once a week during the school year at the synagogue we belong to, the synagogue is in a neighboring town that takes us almost 20 minutes to get to, and his classmates all live in different towns — no one goes to the same school and the only time they see each other is at the temple. He hasn’t created any strong bonds there, and as a child of an interfaith family (my husband isn’t Jewish), he’s made it clear his Jewishness is important to him. I know he wishes he knew other kids that “get” him — or at least understand what he’s talking about when he says he’s going to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. So when I managed to get him a spot at camp he was thrilled at the prospect of being with other Jewish kids to make friends with.

A few days before camp started, we eagerly did the tour to prepare him; his whole face lit up when he was shown the wooded amphitheater where they would gather on Fridays for Shabbat as a camp and be treated to songs — and challah! He was fired up to start camp and spent months telling everyone he was going to a Jewish camp when asked about summer plans.  

We made our way to the bus pickup stop for the first day and got out of the car to meet the other kids also waiting. And that’s when his — and my — confusion began. You see, out of 11 people waiting for the camp bus (including some teen counselors), my kid was the only member of the Jewish community. (It turns out that the other Jewish family we know was waiting in their car for the bus.) When he asked me about it (quietly, whew) I explained, well, anyone can go to this camp and that it was cool that he’d also meet some new kids from our town. Satisfied with that answer, he got on the bus, we waved goodbye and I anxiously awaited to hear how it went.  

Fast forward to day one pickup, and my kid practically bounced off the bus, talking a mile a minute about his amazing day and how he couldn’t wait to go back. He loved all the typical summer camp stuff: swimming, archery, gaga ball, art projects. But he also told me he was only one of a couple of kids in his group who is Jewish, and they didn’t do anything that had to do with being Jewish, whatever that was supposed to mean. But he was loving it, and it was just the first day, and I figured I’m sure that Jewish part of Jewish camp would come soon enough.

There were a few Israeli counselors who taught the Hebrew word of the day. When Shabbat arrived and he got to gather for the celebration, they sang “Bim Bam” (his favorite) and ate challah. The rest of their days were spent hiking and acting out Disney plays and plenty more lake time, which is all par for the course for Jewish day camps.  

But at one point when my son said to me, “Mommy, I thought you said I’d make some Jewish friends at camp. No one is Jewish!” I knew then that he wasn’t going to make the connections that he — and I — were hoping he’d make. Because even though, despite what it felt like, there were indeed other Jewish kids at this camp, he didn’t wind up becoming close with friends he’d see in Hebrew school, or fellow Jews he’d one day invite to his bar mitzvah, and there weren’t those rousing camp-wide song sessions where he’d learn the same songs I did in my Jewish youth group. The expectation of him being at a Jewish day camp and making Jewish friends was not matching the reality, and I think we both were a little thrown off.

We talked a lot about how it’s nice to be able to share your traditions and culture with others who don’t have the same background, but I have to be honest: I was disappointed. Because he is very used to sharing his cultures with others. What he is not used to is embracing that special feeling when you meet other people who already get it. 

Did my kid have an absolutely amazing summer at camp? 500%. He loved every minute playing in the outdoors, running around in the sunshine and has already begged to go back. Was it this cathartic Jewish experience that made him embrace his own Jewishness, make connections and feel closer to the community that I wanted for him? Clearly no. Am I OK with that? I’m not sure yet. I still want him to be part of something that feels more grounded in Jewish life, which maybe only comes from a sleepaway camp experience, something that even next summer he may be a smidge too young for.  

Until then, he’ll embrace the happy memories he made this summer, enjoy knowing that he got to share a piece of who he is with others and maybe we’ll do our own song session together.

The headline of this piece was updated to better reflect the author’s experience.

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