The lovely nostalgia article written by The Huffington Post’s Antonia Blumberg on the 27 indeed made us miss our childhood -- and, more specifically, our childhood summers spent at Jewish summer camps in upstate New York.
As Jewish girls from conservative backgrounds, it was inevitable that we would be shipped off come bat mitzvah age (12 for you goyim), to a Zionist, religiously-inclined-but-culturally-centric Jewish sleep-away camp. Because we were raised on the East Coast (Connecticut and Buffalo, respectively), it was equally inevitable that its location would be upstate and, more than likely, in the Catskills, or, as an old Borscht-Belt comic once referred to the Catskill Mountains, the Jewish Himalayas. Our parents (read: mothers) chose the Hadassah (at the time)-sponsored Young Judea camps, Sprout Lake, and Tel Yehuda.
“Your child will return home as the Jewish MacGyver, or in this case, the Jewish MacMosh.”
It was everything a tween and then a teen could have hoped for: learning, but not too much. Religion, but not too much, with a good amount of social justice education to spark a lifetime (a profession or two?) of interest and commitment. Perhaps most importantly, free time for socializing. Lots of free time.
When Jews first arrived in America (in 1654 from Recife Brazil for those interested), they were allowed by the Dutch West Indies Company to stay “provided that they never became a burden” on their newly adopted country. This small group of Jews took that mandate seriously. They formed a civil society for the immigrants that arrived after them, along with the social structure we now see as modern-day social service and philanthropy. Summer camps kept poor immigrant children off the street. It gave them access to fresh food, and milk daily and some religious instruction.
With the rise of fascism in Western Europe and the Nazi takeover of Germany, Jewish summer camps were established under the pretense of specialized sports training, medical needs, or simple travel exchanges. In fact, these camps, many of whom were founded in NY State but elsewhere as well (some still operational) were veiled efforts to rescue European Jewish children. After their summer, they were placed with distant relatives or hastily found foster families to protect them from what awaited back home in Europe.
“Your family will save on your electricity bill for a few months when they come home and announce they have become Sabbath observant.”
But we digress.
If this fascinating history wasn’t enough to inspire you to send your kids to a Jewish summer camp, here is a top 10 list of reasons you should, from two gals who know.
1. Sending your child to a Jewish summer camp will get your kids out of your hair for 2-8 weeks. So that’s a win right there.
2. Your child will come back with a new respect for nature and the great outdoors… as much as any Jew can have any respect for nature and the great outdoors.
3. If your child is not popular and has not found his/her peer group, they will return with a knowledge of Hebrew folks songs, Israeli line dances and experiences that may still not make them popular, but they will have good stories to tell. Also, they will find a peer group at camp that will accept, love, and stay with them for a lifetime. It happened to us.
4. Your family will save on your electricity bill for a few months when they come home and announce they have become Sabbath observant. But fear not, this is only temporary and magically wanes when the first high school party of the year falls on a Friday night. (They will, however, gain a healthy tolerance and respect for a variety of different observance levels which will serve them throughout their lives.)
5. You need not worry about your children losing their clothes. Just buy the cheapest clothing to send them with because they will lose all their clothes anyway.
6. Your child will return home as the Jewish MacGyver, or in this case, the Jewish MacMoshe, able to clean a toilet with a stick and a rubber band, make a toothbrush out of old pipe cleaner or shoulder pads out of maxi pads (yes, we did that).
7. If they stay in Jewish camping long enough, their first Israel trip between the ages of 15 and 18 is inevitable. What could go wrong when a group of teenagers, chaperoned by 22-year-old college students in a country with no drinking age and attractive young soldiers, leave their parents 5,000 miles away?
“Your child will learn how to make yarmulkes, pot holders, lanyards and other crafts. There is literally nothing that can't have "shalom" embroidered onto it.”
8. A Jewish summer camp experience will part your teen/tween with their electronics, as the majority of these camps do not allow phones or tablets (the good ones at least). This creates an excellent opportunity to “accidentally” access their social media accounts, post embarrassing things as them, go through their texts and contacts, and delete all the annoying kids that hang around your house.
9. Your child will learn how to make yarmulkes, pot holders, lanyards and other crafts. There is literally nothing that can't have "shalom" embroidered onto it. In case you don't know, that means "hello, goodbye and peace." It’s like "aloha," only for Jews. Now you too speak the Hebrew.
10. Cue the accordion music, which is for some unknown reason, the instrument of choice at Jewish summer camp. The best reason to send your child to a Jewish summer camp is to meet and one day marry a nice Jewish boy or girl. More than one marriage was born and lasted from the mosquito-laden nights full of stars while bunk hopping across the road to the girls and boys sides (though mostly the boys came to us -- as it should be). After all the years we spent in Jewish camp, neither of us managed to marry Jewish men. Both of us married card-carrying members of the WASP tribe, but we are in fact both raising our children Jewish with the blessings of our non-Jewish baby daddies.
Stop rolling in your graves, Bubbes. We did all right.