No matter your observance level, prioritizing a Jewish camp will boost your kids’ enrichment and ownership in the Jewish community. (photo by Joe Goldberg / flickr)
Day camp or sleepaway camp? Single sex or co-ed? Traditionally Jewish or liberal? Shabbat observant? Kosher? STEM or sports camp? The choices are endless. No matter your observance level, prioritizing a Jewish camp will boost your kids’ enrichment and ownership in the Jewish community.
As a parent, I often feel overwhelmed by the options available. Many say, “You’re the expert!” when it comes to your own kids. Yet, it can be hard to get inside kids’ brains to know what is right for them – and summer camp is one of those big decisions. It’s a time for childcare, enrichment and fun. But it must be decided in advance, it’s sometimes expensive and it can feel like a risky guess. Here are some tips to get started.
What do you need?
If you must get kids to camp before work, let’s be honest. Camp serves as childcare. It needs to be something you can pull off each morning. Make a list of what you need to make it through the summer. Early morning or afternoon care, a way to purchase healthy snacks and lunches, or a bus that picks the kids up? These may be essentials for some parents.
Some need much more. Kosher food? Stricter Sabbath observance? These may limit your choices. If your kid has special needs, your work schedule is unpredictable or you live far from Jewish camping options, things become complicated. Some parents start with geography. For many, it’s unrealistic to try to drive an hour to camp each morning with small kids before getting to work.
If your list of possible Jewish camping options is short, find out when sign-up opens and get your kids’ names on the list. Sign-up often happens in January or February – long before we’re ready!
What do your kids want?
I started my research by asking my twins what they liked to do most in the summer. To my surprise, playing outdoors with Mommy and the dogs ranked top on their list. When I prioritized the other “wants,” it became clear that taking swim lessons at a lake (with a half-hour drive on each end) and just getting a chance for free play in the sunshine were key elements of their summer. For that summer, we had only a month of camp and a long but inexpensive “staycation,” with trips to a lake with a parent. We fit in making challah, doing Jewish art projects and reading PJ Library books, too.
Other requests might include attending camp with a close friend or trying out a new skill (music, acting, soccer, coding) – and these could all happen at a Jewish camp.
Maybe your kids know what they want, but, sometimes, they don’t. That’s OK. A general day camp, with lots of activities and choices every day, may be just the ticket.
One summer, I was sent to a co-ed sleepaway camp far from home for a month. I didn’t know anyone. The daily activities included a large dose of sports, which I hated. Worse yet, there was an outbreak of head lice. It was awful. By contrast, I also spent two years attending an overnight girls’ camp for two weeks each summer with a friend. I loved the library and the arts and crafts stations and have vague but good memories.
A kid’s maturity level matters, too. I was an independent oldest sibling, ready for overnight camps at 8, but, at that age, it was clear my twins were not ready to go anywhere overnight. I did ask them though. Did they want to go to sleepaway camp with some of their friends? I got a resounding no. Your kids often know what they’re ready for and what they wouldn’t enjoy. Give them a choice.
Feel confident in safety
Camp is a lot more flexible than life during the school year. There’s swimming, group sports and many other ways to have fun – and get hurt. Many camps are staffed by well-meaning teenagers and university students, with only a few adults supervising. Be sure things are safe and the activities are a right fit for your kids. Even one bad interaction with a bully or an unsafe situation could make camp hard for your kid.
There’s also a feeling of confidence when you know that the people in charge are knowledgeable and making good decisions that you can trust.
Make sure the camp gives parents and campers lots of information from the beginning about what they will be doing each day, what they need to bring and how to have a successful experience. A camp that doesn’t remind you to bring towels or bag lunches may also be disorganized in other ways, too. See if the counselors offer you information when you drop off or pick up your kid so you can know more about what goes on. Tell those in charge that you expect to know about any injuries or tussles during the day.
Compromise is key
Sometimes, when you’ve gotten through your list of Jewish camps and kids’ desires, you find that the best camp for one kid might not work for the other. Or, the only horseback riding camp is single sex, and the kid’s best friend is not the same gender.
Sometimes, we need to choose out of our comfort zones to make things work. My kids attended a Chabad travel camp for years. It didn’t jive with my egalitarian sensibilities. Some of the theology concerned me. However, they definitely learned about Judaism and had fun. I trusted one of the directors, my kids’ former preschool teacher, completely.
It’s important to optimize things as best you can, and then compromise, too. There are a limited number of Jewish camps out there. Your kids have only a few summers to have fun outdoors with friends. Put aside some of the details you can’t change so you can make the most of their fun – and Jewish – times in the sun. They may remember their camp experience forever.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.