Sarah, left, and Amy came back from Jewish camp gushing with the joy of Judaism. (photo from Lauren Kramer)
Come on Mom, let’s bench after dinner tonight!” My 13-year-old daughters are just back from three weeks at Jewish camp and, for the first time ever, they’re suggesting we say birkat hamazon. I try to conceal my shock and pure pleasure and act nonchalant, as if this is something I hear every day. But, inside, my heart is singing. Amy and Sarah have come back gushing with the joy of Judaism, their eyes alight as they describe how much fun they had, especially on Shabbat.
There are lots of stories about dances and boys, of course. At 13, there’s nothing more exciting than having a boy ask you to the dance. Or taking a late night swim in the lake with your cabin-mates and heading to bed at midnight. But it’s the Judaism they celebrated and lived at camp that’s made the strongest impression on my kids. The decade’s worth of seders, Shabbat meals at home, synagogue visits and holiday festivities with their family can’t even come close to leaving them this excited about their Jewish identities.
I’d seen the research about Jewish sleepaway camp and its profound effect on Jewish children. Considered one of the most impactful ways to imbue your child with a strong, proud appreciation of their Yiddishkeit, Jewish camps are prime recipients of funding and scholarships from philanthropic organizations like the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. But, it’s one thing to read the data, and quite another to see your children beaming with positive Jewish energy and making their parents promise they’ll send them back to camp next year.
At Jewish camp, my twins received an intensive Joy of Judaism course, but one devoid of stress or a sense of deliberate learning. Rather, the instruction they received was experiential, conveyed in the chorus of song as kids bench together after meals, sing Jewish songs around the campfire, eat kosher food (and love it!) and gather each morning around the Israeli flag.
My son, now 16, had convinced his sisters to go. “You’ll love it,” he assured them, regaling them with stories of his camp antics. The girls knew they wanted to try it, but at first weren’t convinced they were ready to leave home. One was homesick months before she even boarded the bus at the prospect of being away from Mom, Dad and the comfort of her own bed. As her fears and apprehensions heightened in the weeks before camp, I imagined a series of worst-case scenarios. Camp counselors calling me about my distraught child, tearful conversations over the telephone and the sense of disappointment and failure she’d feel if she left for camp but came home early.
I voiced my concerns to the camp counselors, raising a warning flag that this was a kid they would need to look out for. I sent letters and emails daily and I scrolled through the hundreds of photographs posted online each day, so that worried parents like me could be comforted by the smiling faces of their kids thriving at Jewish camp. Forty-eight hours after they left, I called to check up. “They’re fine,” their counselor reassured me. “They’re having the time of their lives and they’ve not been homesick for a second!”
I knew deep down my girls would have an amazing time, of course. But I forgot how completely Jewish camp can change your perceptions of Judaism – from a religion full of restrictive rules to one that’s filled with meaning, celebration, camaraderie and pride.
No question about it, Jewish camp has changed my girls’ lives.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.