1984. I was a 10-year-old homebody who begrudgingly went to Jewish overnight camp with my two best friends. I have very few memories of that month up in the North Georgia mountains. I remember the petite girl in my cabin who wore a single, studded Michael Jackson glove every day for the four weeks we were there. I remember getting stung by a wasp when I plopped down on my bed one afternoon during rest time. I remember my mom throwing away my Georgia red clay-stained clothes and shoes when she picked me up at the bus stop near Atlanta.
I was homesick for most of the four weeks, and though I had fun with my two best friends and enjoyed some of the activities, I had no desire to return. And my parents didn’t make me.
1997. One evening while working the night shift at our local JCC, I met my now-husband, who I discovered was a lifelong camper at the same North Georgia camp. He loved camp so much that he went back as a staff member for years and even worked as director of the nature staff after law school while awaiting his Bar results.
For years, I was envious of the deep and enduring friendships he established during his 15-plus years as a camper and staff member. I also discovered that he had a much stronger connection to Judaism than I did as a result of his camp experience. It’s a connection that’s hard to explain, but one that every lifelong Jewish camper seems to share.
2015. I desperately wanted my then 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to have the same meaningful camp experience that my husband had. But every time we asked them if they wanted to attend, we were met with a resounding chorus of, “No.”
Then, one afternoon as my husband and I drove to Charleston on our first adults-only getaway in years, we talked. Without the stresses of everyday life hanging overhead, and without our kids around to register their opinions, it became easy to make a decision: We would send them to the camp’s 12-day program. It was the perfect compromise. They would get a taste of camp without having to spend a full four weeks away from home.
Our daughter teared up when we delivered the news, but she quickly came to accept the idea. Our son wasn’t thrilled either, but as always, he followed the lead of his big sister.
When I picked them up after their mini-session, they were sporting golden tans, their clothes were stained with Georgia red clay, and they were bubbling with excitement. They loved everything about camp: they adored their counselors; they rode horses for the first time; they had a blast at the lake; they learned the songs that every Jewish camper everywhere knows backwards and forwards. For the rest of the summer, they talked nonstop about those 12 days. When registration for the summer of 2016 opened in October, we enrolled them for a full session.
June 2016. There were no tears this time and no trepidation, but my now 10- and 11-year-old kids were not eager to board those busses and head to the mountains. Even though they had an amazing experience the year before, their enthusiasm waned as the school year wore on. Thoughts of home—private bathrooms, cozy beds, and access to TV and electronic devices—danced through their heads.
Nonetheless, their first letters home were optimistic. “I am having a great time,” wrote my son. “I am having a good time at camp,” my daughter wrote in cheery pink ink.
And then the letters went downhill. “Camp is OK,” my daughter wrote in several consecutive letters. “I hate camp,” her final letter read.
My son’s letters were worse. One arrived in a tattered envelope, his already messy handwriting nearly illegible on the stained stationery: “Camp is weird and I want to leave now. Nothing is better only worse.” There was no greeting and no signature. It looked like a note scrawled by a hostage and passed to a sympathetic guard who sent it hundreds of miles by horseback to its destination.
Several of my friends, who also had kids at the same camp, encouraged me to call the camp director. He was brilliant at solving problems like these, they said. But I have a pretty laid back approach when it comes to certain aspects of my kids’ lives. I don’t like to meddle. And besides, by the time I realized just how miserable they were, it was too late. The session was coming to an end.
October 2016. Registration for returning campers opened, but it was the last thing on my mind. We were right in the path of Hurricane Matthew and evacuated to Atlanta for a week. Everything was put on hold.
But something happened when we returned home. We were lucky to escape the hurricane with no damage to our house. Though our city was in shambles, it had been spared the worst. The ominous sky that preceded the storm was now sunny and clear. It felt like a second chance.
I picked up the phone and called the director, a seasoned camp veteran who started working at the camp back when my husband was on staff. My friends were right. The director had an almost eerie ability to understand adolescent personalities and dynamics. He knew my kids well and immediately honed in on the issues that made them reluctant to return. After talking to him for the better part of an hour, I texted my husband and told him we were signing our kids up.
“The beds are rusty and old and unsafe,” my daughter, now 12, complained upon hearing the news. “They’re metal. You can hurt your head on them,” my 10-year-old son added. Their discontent lasted about 60 seconds. Because somewhere deep down, I think they know it’s the right decision to go back. I know I do.