It’s that time in America. The sun burns brightly. School is out. And parents all over this United States are stockpiling large duffle bags for summer camp. Care packages will be carefully prepared for posting, lest children in their air-conditioned cabins lack, heaven forfend, a snack or two. You need not make these packages yourself because there are now companies that make luxury boxes for the luxury children who will receive them.
I never went to camp. Growing up in a seaside resort, the summer was the best part of the year. “Why would you go to camp?” quipped my parents, “Everyone comes here for the summer.” We went to the beach, played hours of tennis, rode our bikes everywhere and listened to music on porch swings and rooftops. Having been bullied as a child in elementary school, the thought of being alone in a bunk in a Lord of the Flies universe dominated by children was in no way appealing.
But the distinct absence of adults was true of our non-camp summers as well. We spent most days in this listless summer cloud, uninterrupted by the abiding authority of grown-ups, something that in these days of extreme parenting, is hard to imagine. Life was so different then. Parenting was so different then. I recently asked a friend if he thought during those summers, we suffered from benign neglect. “Why benign?” he responded.
My English husband went to Bnei Akiva camp, an experience that seems nothing like American Jewish camping. There was no sentimentality in his description. “It was basically two weeks in white tents set up in the soggy field of a school where we spent most of the time trying to get dry.” He couldn’t remember any actual activities. Fun was never mentioned. He did remember the legs of dinner tables sinking into the mud making the eating area a haphazard mess. He has no idea why he went. He didn’t look forward to it and, for the most part, has blocked out any memory of it.
My youngest daughter has had three glorious years of summer camp and is going on a teen tour of Israel this summer. In my next life, I want to come back as one of my children. She can’t wait for camp. She has a whole new group of friends, a whole new setting in which to experience life without the shackles of school and, dare I say, parents. Her Jewish life for a few months is not straightjacketed by the Jewish institutions of school and shul, dominated by the adult demands of behaviour, ritual and decorum. It is filled with songs and cheers and fields and lakes. The community of campers and counsellors is thick with joy and meaning, friendship and warmth. No wonder so many children look forward to it. It’s simply magical.
Research on the impact of Jewish camping shows an important causal link between Jewish life and the strengthening of Jewish identity. Amy Sales and Leonard Saxe from Brandeis University in How Goodly are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socialising Experiences analyse the component parts of Jewish camping that contribute to a meaningful and personal engagement with Judaism. The academic study, Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp, demonstrates that many of today’s Jewish communal professionals and leaders came up the ranks of Jewish camp and decided that their summer immersion was so rewarding that they made careers out of their passions. In fact, Jewish summer camp is often regarded in these studies as most important and transformative in the lives of those least Jewishly affiliated back home.
What’s summer camp like in Great Britain these days? I imagine there are still a lot of overcast days. Maybe the white tents have been replaced by something a bit more durable. What we know about camping today is the durability of the experience in the crafting of a better Jewish life. And it’s not because there is rich content knowledge to be disseminated in camp. It’s because nothing beats havdalah by the lake, arm-in-arm with your new best friends and a counsellor who really cares about your life. Camp is expensive, but the experience is priceless.
I don’t know about you, but my Judaism could use a little adult camping right now. Just imagine what it could do for your Jewish child.