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Before my son, Sammy, left for overnight camp, my husband made him commit to writing us weekly. Sammy was not happy about being forced to communicate with us while he was enjoying his four weeks of freedom from parental oversight. About a week before camp, he complained to me before bed.
âDaddy says I have to write to you once a week. Iâm going to be too busy having fun! You know that. I told him you didn’t care if I write. I’ll write you one letter, but I don’t want to have to do it every week.”
âWe would love to hear from you while youâre away,â I said, âbut we also know that if we donât get a letter itâs because youâre having a great time.â
âThatâs what I told Daddy!â
âSammy, itâs up to you whether or not you write home. Neither Daddy nor I will be at camp to make you write. Weâd love to get an update on what youâre doing, but itâs your choice. Itâs not a big deal if you donât write.â
I donât like contradicting my husband and giving Sammy mixed messages, but as a former camper, I also know the reality of campâno news is usually good news. I was willing to suffer through a month of one-way communication.
But a few days after my conversation with Sammy, I changed my mind about him writing home. The catalyst for my change of heart was The Seesaw, the column about interfaith life in The Jewish Daily Forward.
As some Parenting Blog readers know, in addition to writing for InterfaithFamily, I am a contributor to The Seesaw. Shortly after my discussion with Sammy, I was asked to respond to a question submitted by a young woman raised in an interfaith home, who is now dating a Modern Orthodox man.
She said that her boyfriend asked her to dress modestly and participate in reciting blessings when they visit his mother. She goes along with his request even though it makes her uncomfortable. She asked, if she should continue to show respect to her boyfriendâs mother, or if she should âput her foot downâ before itâs too late.
I began my answer by reminding the questioner of the fifth commandment. I said, âThe Torah commands us to honor our parents by showing them appreciation, dignity, and reverence. It doesnât require us to love, blindly obey, or embrace our parentsâ choices.” I added that even though her boyfriend’s mother was not her mother, she still deserved deferential treatment. I also noted; that to get respect from others we need to show respect.
As I wrote my response to this young woman, I considered Cameronâs request that Sammy write weekly letters and my response to Sammy âputting his foot down.â I thought, âHow can I advise this woman to show respect for her boyfriendâs mother, and not ask my child to show respect to his father?â
I couldnât. So later that day, I spoke to Sammy. âYou know how I told you that it was your choice whether or not to write to us weekly as Daddy has asked you to do?â
“Yeah,” said Sammy.
âWell, I changed my mind. You do need to honor the commitment that you made to Daddy to write, and this is why: If you want Daddy to honor his commitments to you, such as taking you for your weekly father-son breakfast on Sundays or coming to school events, then you need to honor your commitments to him.
We respect the fact that you will be having fun and be busy doing things with other kids in your bunk during rest time. The letters you write do not have to be long and you can have fun with them, even be silly. But you have to write once a week as you promised Daddy. We work hard so that you can do fun things like camp. Writing to us shows us that you appreciate what we do to give you these kinds of experiences. Does that make sense?”
âYes,â said Sammy. Then in a perky voice, âMaybe Iâll write a silly letter like that one we read on that blog, you know, where the boy said he was using his toothbrush to dig for worms and using another kidâs to brush his teeth!â
âYou can be as creative as you like as long as you follow through on your commitment,â I said.
I didn’t consider what the letter writing debate was about until I began drafting my Seesaw response. Then I saw it for what it was â an opportunity to reinforce a core Jewish value.
In Deuteronomy 6:5-8, we are told to teach Godâs words diligently to our children, but often, imparting the lessons of the Torah to our children only happens in religious school classrooms. We think teaching Jewish values and ideas needs be explicitââThis is what the Torah says.â We forget, probably because we are caught up in our busyness, that there are opportunities in our daily lives to connect our actions and behaviors to Jewish teachings even in subtle ways.
The Seesaw question reminded me to be on the lookout for these opportunities. I donât expect to be present enough in every situation to seize each one of them, but hopefully Iâll be mindful enough to grab them more often.
And in case you’re wondering, Sammy has followed through on his promise. We’ve received two letters from camp.
Last summer I wrote about that sometimes-indescribable element that makes Jewish summer camp special (See Jewish Summer Campâs X Factor). I said that I thought Jewish summer campâs specialness came from its sense of community and that feeling was recently reinforced when my husband and I brought our son to camp last week.
On the two-hour drive home after drop-off, my husband and I talked about camp and what makes the one weâve chosen for our son such a wonderful experience for our family. As we talked, one word kept coming up: community.
We all have many communities that we are a part of including neighborhoods, synagogues, workplaces, schools, volunteer organizations, social media, and ethnic and cultural associations to name a few. But while my family finds connection and fellowship through many of these outlets, there is something unique about our sonâs camp community. As a camp staffer recently said in a blog post, âWe have one of the most welcoming communities I have ever been a part of.â
Now, this is not an advertisement for my sonâs camp, but I do think our experience is worth considering as you look at and evaluate camps for your child. Here are several things that make our sonâs camp community remarkable:
1) Community is built before opening day. A connection to camp is nurtured months and weeks before a child (and family) arrives for the summer. New families are matched with existing camp families in their area who have children in the same age group. The seasoned campers act as buddies for the freshman, welcoming them into the camp family and getting them excited for the summer. The families form relationships too and parents of existing campers become a resource for first time moms and dads.
Another way community is created pre-camp is through The Jewish Agency for Israelâs summer shlichim program. This program places Israeli young adults in staff positions at Jewish summer camps in various countries including the United States. My sonâs camp brings the Israeli staff to the US several weeks before the start of summer for training.
When the Israeli staffers arrive, they spend two to three days with a camp family before traveling to camp for training and summer prep. This creates a beautiful home-camp connection. The families welcome the Israeli staff to Texas and the camp community, and in the 48 to 72 hour period, relationships are formed between the counselors and the families, deepening everyoneâs bond with camp.
We have been a host family for the past two years. It has been a great experience, especially for our son who greeted âour Israelisâ with huge embraces on opening day.
2) Camp is for children and families. One thing that impresses us about our sonâs camp is that the experience is a family affair. While there is a tremendous focus on developing a child’s relationship to other campers, counselors, and the camp itself, the camp also works to make the entire family a part of the community.
Camp starts on a Sunday, which allows parents to drop off their kids. This gives families a chance to experience the beginning of camp together, to visit the facilities, and meet the staff and other parents. Because of this opportunity to participate in the start of camp, we have developed relationships with the families of our son’s bunkmates and stay in touch with them throughout the year.
On opening day, parents and campers reconnect in the field outside the camp gates while they wait to check in. In between lines of cars are clusters of parents and children, greeting each other with hugs, talking, laughing, and catching-up on each otherâs lives. Parents are encouraged to stay for lunch to continue the bonding. I think my husband and I had as much fun on opening day as my son did!
3) Audacious hospitality is practiced. One of the most notable things about our sonâs camp is its welcoming spirit. Hospitality is embedded in the campâs DNA and is embodied in the phrase, âWelcome to camp!â
The family guide begins with âWelcome to GFC.â Counselors and campers yell out, âWelcome to campâ in videos. Staff and volunteers from the camp committee greet you with a hearty âWelcome to campâ when you arrive. Campers welcome visitors in the same way, without a counselor asking them to.
You might think that this phrase sounds canned and insincere, but itâs neither. Itâs simply genuine hospitality practiced regularly, by many people, and in many ways. And itâs contagious.
At lunch on opening day, my husband and I sat with a couple that was sending their child to overnight camp for the first time. Neither parent grew-up in Texas or had a prior connection to camp. When they told us this we said, âWelcome to camp!â We shared with them what we love about the place, and introduced them to âour Israelisâ and other people we knew who stopped by our table. Iâm sure that if their child continues at camp, that one day this couple will welcome another new family in the same way.
This community is a big reason why we chose this camp for our son. We like the super-sized (or Texas-sized) Jewish welcome, as do many kinds of Jewish families including inmarried, intermarried, multi-cultural, LGBT, and more. There is something special about hearing someone say, âWelcome to camp!â
As you evaluate camps, consider more than the facilities, philosophy, and cost. Think about community. Itâs what makes camp special.
Thinking of sending your kids to Jewish summer camp (this year or in the future)? Not sure where to start or what you might want to keep in mind about the experience of your child, a child of interfaith parents?Â Itâs possible you havenât considered any of these questions yet, but a camp that may seem warm and fuzzy may not be the most schooled in how to project an open and welcoming atmosphere to interfaith families.
Hereâs what Jane Larkin, InterfaithFamily parenting blogger, Jodi Bromberg, IFF President and Lindsey Silken, Editorial Director, suggest asking the camp director. (Of course, youâll want to adapt these questions as appropriate for your family.) And once you’re ready to start searching for a welcoming camp, our resource pageÂ can help.
1. Do you welcome children of interfaith families at your camp?
2. Does the camp require that the child is being raised Jewish?
3. Can dual-faith or secular interfaith children qualify? What about children who are in the process of converting to Judaism? Does it matter which parent is Jewish?
4. Do you have a definition of who is considered Jewish by the camp and who is not? How is that communicated to staff and campers?
5. Whatâs the percentage of interfaith campers and counselors at your camp?
6. What training or education do administrative staff get on working with interfaith families?
7. What training or education do counselors or CITs get on working with interfaith families?
8. What programming is specifically done regarding Jewish education, ritual or practice? (Ask yourself: How âJewishâ do you want your childâs experience to be? There is a wide range of options.)
[Related questions to consider: Is the camp kosher or kosher-style? Is there Jewish education? Israel education? How frequent is it? Do the children pray? When? What about Shabbat? Is the camp aligned with a Jewish denomination or movement? Are Jewish clergy on staff? Are they welcoming and accepting of interfaith families?]
9. Will I receive information on what my kids are doing each week, including any Hebrew words that they are learning (or any other Jewish education), so that I can understand and participate?
10. Do you do specific outreach to children of interfaith families, or anything specific to ensure that they are welcome at your camp? And what will you do to ensure that my children are welcome at camp?
11. What philosophy does the camp emphasize? For example, Janeâs son Sammyâs camp places a strong emphasis on personal growth and positive self-image. They accept Jewish kids of every race and ethnicity, from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds including many who are from interfaith homes, with learning differences, etc. The campâs philosophy indicates that a significant amount of energy goes into making a broad spectrum of Jewish kids feel comfortable.
A few suggestions for parents:
1. Visit the camp. Go the summer before you are ready to send your child to see the camp in action. Take your child with you. Ask if the camp offers a family retreat weekend during the school year that your entire family can attend. The whole family can get a taste of the camp experience: see if they are comfortable with the Jewish aspect of the camp and meet other prospective camp families. Many families do this and friends their child makes during the weekend often plan to attend camp together or request to be in the same bunk during the summer.
2. Let your child experience overnight camp before they go to overnight camp for the summer. Many of the campsâespecially those affiliated with a denomination or movementâoffer weekend youth retreats for children, usually in third to fifth grade. These are kid-only experiences with camp staff. They are not billed as âcheck-out campâ but rather youth retreats so they are a mix of experienced campers and kids going for the first time. These outings are opportunities for children to âliveâ camp for 48 hours. If a child comes home excited about the experience, it is a good indication that they are ready to go to camp, and that the camp is a good fit.
3. Camp can be expensive. Determine what you can afford. If you need additional help, there are scholarships available for first time campers and some camps offer assistance for interfaith families. We recommend learning about Foundation for Jewish Campâs programs: BunkConnect (matches eligible families with affordable camps) and One Happy Camper (need blind grants of up to $1,000 for first-time campers).
4. Does your child have a specific passion? Jewish summer camps have become hip to specialization. There are now Jewish sports, art and sci-tech focused camps. Today kids can have an interest-specific and Jewish camp experience at the same place.
If you have questions we didnât cover, please comment below or email us at email@example.com and we will do our best to answer them, or find the answers for you from a camp expert.Â