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Why I Was Anxious for My Son to Go to Jewish Summer Camp

camping boats

In our small Northern neck of the woods in Canada, there isn’t a tradition of sending Jewish kids to Jewish camps. Most of the families who are long-term members of our synagogue community sent their kids, now grown, to the local summer camps because that’s where their school friends were going.

From here, if you want to send your kid to a Jewish camp, you actually have to take them south, to a more developed part of the province. It isn’t exactly the idealized isolation that I grew up imagining when people talked about summer camp. As my husband quipped to our son’s counselor as we dropped him off, for our kids camp isn’t wilderness, it’s their backyard.

So, it was with some nervousness that I registered him for this first real summer of camp. Last year he went to a “taste of camp” program at two camps, one Jewish, one not, one with his school friends, the other alone, one on an isolated island, the other tucked into what we in the North bemusedly refer to as “cottage country.”

But this summer it was time to make a choice. We can’t afford to continue sending him to two separate camps and, ultimately, camp will be one of the most important ways that our kids can build connections to the larger Jewish community so that Judaism doesn’t become an accessory in their lives, something they wear at home but nowhere else.

In many ways, the Jewish version of camp is very foreign to me. My experiences of camp involved going far away for several weeks, contact with the outside world being limited to the odd letter that bumped its way down dirt roads and possibly onto a boat before making it into the mail system. When I was a camp counselor it was in the pre-internet days (well, email only). There were certainly no daily Twitter updates or camp blogs. Our son’s camp, on the other hand, does Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and a blog! Partly, that was a different era; partly, I’ve realized, it was a different culture.

The camp called the night before we dropped our son off to check if we had any questions. “Um… no?” Then they called again the following night to let us know that he had eaten well at dinner and was settling into his new cabin. I texted a friend: “There is no non-Jewish camp that calls you on the first night to let you know that your kid ate.” She quipped back “G [her now 17-year-old] is in Poland for five days before going to Israel.

There’s also no non-Jewish camp that says: “This year we go to Auschwitz!” I laughed and put down the phone, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that these two observations are linked. It’s not an accident that the camps that send their 17-year-olds to Auschwitz for five days are also the camps that call you to let you know that your 8-year-old is eating and making friends.

That anxiety about safety isn’t something that I felt in my early days as a Jew. We live in a pretty safe part of the world and it’s easy to be complacent. Our governments and our police forces say all of the right things and we are proud to live in a country where minority rights are, in general, fiercely protected. Nothing is perfect, but Canada comes close. But when I drove up to that camp for the first time and realized that you had to call the office before they’d open the gate, I took a deep breath. This was a whole new ballgame. I was choosing to send my kid to a place that needs a gate. What was I doing?

But in we went, past the gate, the beach, the baseball diamond, the tennis and basketball courts, all the way to the cabins where a herd of eager counselors greeted us. Our son’s counselors ambled over, all long teenaged limbed, slightly awkward with enthusiasm. We squeezed him a few extra times, handed him over to wait on the bunk porch for his new friends, and drove away. And then I obsessively watched that Twitter feed, those posted photos, and that blog, and I saw him mountain biking, sailing, eating: smiling in every single one. He was clearly having a blast.

When we picked him up he insisted: “Next year, Mommy, I have to go for at least two weeks.” He’s been reminding us to say Motzi before eating and admonishing our lack of fluency at Birkat Hamazon. He’s told us how he got his two Kavod bracelets and how they play guitars at camp on Shabbat.

I can see those connections being built already and I know that we’ve made the right choice; he’s already starting to identify more strongly as Jewish, he already has a greater understanding of what that means, and he’s already more positive about it.

And, even though I’m not the one who gets to go to camp, I feel like my understanding is growing, too.


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