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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.
One of the things Iâve learned about being a parent is that while my husband and I are our sonâs primary role models and key influencers of the choices he makes, raising a child is a communal effort. Teachers, coaches, siblings, camp counselors, clergy, extended family, babysitters, and peers play a part in shaping who and what our child will become.
Cameron and I often talk about how fortunate we are to have found many excellent teachers and coaches for our son Sammy. Over the years, they have helped to nurture his love of learning, bolstered his confidence and self-image, and reinforced the values and behaviors that we work to instill at home.Â
But some of the most influential people in Sammyâs life are not the adults or family members he interacts with, or even his peers, but rather his teenage and young adult babysitters. For Sammy, our first and only child, these young people are like older siblings and the influence they exert on him is significant.
This isnât surprising. Recent research has shown that older siblings are often more influential than parents. While many studies focus on how bad behavior by older siblings foreshadows similarly bad behavior by younger ones, findings also suggest that older siblingsâ good behavior can be just as contagious.
Weâre lucky, the kids â well kids to me â who sit for Sammy are mensches. A mensch has rectitude, dignity, and a sense of what is right. It is a person to admire and emulate. What makes this Yiddish word a fitting description of our sitters is that they also all happen to be Jewish.
The hiring of Jewish babysitters was coincidental. We were connected to them through friends, teachers, rabbis, and acquaintances at our synagogue. This access to teens and twenty-somethings with strong characters and a desire to earn a few dollars watching children has been a fringe benefit of temple membership.
Over the years our sitters have shown Sammy how to interact with adults and children in positive ways, be responsible, respectful, and goal- and achievement-oriented. They have nurtured his love of reading, architecture, and sports; and encouraged creativity and physical activity.
This accidental Jewish babysitter pool also has, through their actions and choices, fostered Sammyâs connection to Judaism. These Jewish teens and young adults show Sammy that there is more to living Jewishly than services, religious school, and holidays; and demonstrate that there is Jewish life post-
For example, our teen sitters have all continued or are in the process of continuing their Jewish education through confirmation. They attend or attended Jewish summer camp. They play baseball in the JCC Maccabi Games, a yearly Olympic-style sports competition for Jewish teenagers in North America. They travel to Israel.
One is active in his campus Hillel and is a founding member of a Jewish fraternity at his university. Another teaches in our synagogueâs religious school, sits on its board of directors, and is involved with the templeâs young adult group.
Hearing about all of these Jewish experiences is making an impression on Sammy. He tells us that he wants to engage in Judaism in similar ways.
When one of Sammyâs favorite sitters told us he would spend the spring semester of his junior year on the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel program, Sammy announced that he would do the same. After this teen returned home and shared his experience, it intensified Sammyâs desire to go.
Listening to another talk about participating in the staff-training program at the Jewish summer camp that both he and Sammy attend caused Sammy to state that he too will be working as an Avodah when he is old enough. Knowing that another teen that helps us will be traveling to Israel with his family next summer on our synagogueâs trip is one reason why Sammy is eager to go.
I love that Sammy has Jewish young people to look up to because, as a kid, I didnât. I lived in a town with only a handful of Jews, didnât go to Jewish summer camp, and didnât have any Jewish babysitters.
The closest person in my life to a Jewish older sibling was my youth group advisor, who was married with young children. While he encouraged me to participate in youth activities, taught me the importance of social justice, and nurtured my connection to Israel, he was not participating in Jewish activities that could be part of my Jewish experience in the near term.
I also didnât meet him until I was in high school. Sammy has had young Jewish role models in his life since age four, exposing him to Jewish activities that he will have the opportunity to do in the coming yearsâyouth group, Israel, confirmation, working at Jewish summer camp, and participating in high school and college programs. He plans to be very busy.
With all of the talk in the Jewish community about encouraging Jewish engagement, maybe what we need is a corps of Jewish babysitters who play the role of older siblings for our children. I know that I worry less about Sammy making Jewish choices when he gets older because of the teens that help us.
If you want to make Jewish life contagious, ask your Jewish friends, acquaintances, and fellow temple members if they know any Jewish teens or young adults interested in babysitting. It will not only give you the opportunity to spend an evening with your spouse or partner, but it will also be an investment in you childrenâs Jewish future.
Two weeks ago Sammy celebrated his ninth birthday. It was a day filled with love, excitement and camp.
The day started like all Saturdays do in our house, with cinnamon challah French toast and quickly progressed to getting ready for Sammyâs weekend sports event. This week it happened to be a swim meet.
Sammy was excited for this particular meet because he was going to graduate from the 8-and-under division to the 9-10 section. After his races we planned a celebratory family dinner at his favorite restaurant followed by his requested birthday dessert – a cookie cake like they make at camp.
The experience of overnight camp has been a powerful one for Sammy, and has impacted him in large and small ways. The cookie cake is an example of the little influences, while a phone call I received during his swim meet reminded me of the big ones.
Prior to one of Sammyâs races Gilad, one of the Israeli staff members from camp, called to say that he was in Dallas and would love to see us later in the day. âAbsolutely!â I responded, âJoin us for dinner and Sammyâs birthday celebration.â
We all have a special relationship with Gilad not because he was Sammyâs counselor, he was not, but because prior to the start of the summer we were his Texas host family. We volunteered to house for two days two staffers from Israel before they traveled to camp for orientation.
During that time we introduced Gilad and our other guest, Tal, to Tex-Mex food, Dallas culture, and the heat and humidity that is summer in Texas. They reminded us of the joy in welcoming the stranger and the magic that happens when we take time to disconnect from our busy lives and engage in meaningful conversations with others.
With Giladâs call we had the opportunity to reconnect with one of âour Israelisâ and give Sammy the gift of a little bit of camp on his birthday. When Sammy finished his race, I told him that Gilad would be joining us for dinner. âYes!â he said with a celebratory fist pump.
It is said that camp is a great way for children to develop lasting relationships and deepen their connections to Jewish life. But it has done both of these not just for Sammy but for Cameron and me too. Opening our home to counselors from abroad enable all of us to participate in this bonding experience. It expanded our sense of Jewish community and brought us into a more personal relationship with Israel.
No longer are the events in the Middle East just something we read in the media or are interested in because of our affiliation with Judaism. Now they affect real people who we are in real relationship with. As we listen to the news we hope that Tal, who is finishing his military service, is stationed far from any potential conflict and we are thankful that Gilad is in the U.S. for the year while he works for The Jewish Agency for Israel.
I know that as Cameron and I discussed sending Sammy to a Jewish overnight camp we did not think of how the experience might benefit our family. Like many parents we focused on what camp would do for our child â help him unplug, build character and community, develop self-reliance, and create habits of Jewish engagement and practice. But what we have learned is that campâs influence extends beyond the summer and children, and can touch the entire family.
My family is looking forward to Sukkot after the serious work of the Days of Awe. As I wrote about in my essay Beyond the Lulav and the Etrog, it is an easy holiday for my interfaith family to embrace. It emphasizes the concept of gratitude, a universal sentiment that is prized by many faiths and people, including those who subscribe to no religious tradition, and it directly connects to my familyâs daily life.
We are avid vegetable gardeners and Sukkot is the perfect opportunity for us to express appreciation for each otherâs work maintaining our garden space â Cameron turns the compost and prepares the beds, and I plant and weed with Sammyâs assistance. During the holiday we give thanks for the produce we produce and the elements of nature that enabled us to grow such a delicious bounty.
This year we are especially thankful because Texas is in the third year of drought with most of the state experiencing severe to extreme conditions. We see the effects of the water shortage in the cracked soil surrounding our tomatoes and okra, and in our dry rain gauge. We also notice the impact of the weather on our neighborhood pond, which has large areas where most of the water has evaporated.
Recently, while walking our dog near the pond Sammy gasped when he noticed the water level. âMommy, look at the pond!â he exclaimed. âThere is almost no water in some areas. Whatâs going to happen to the ducks, geese and herons if the water gets lower? Someone needs to do something!â
âI heard someone the other day ask if water can be pumped in, but that isnât feasible because of the city water restrictions and the energy it will require. We really need rain,â I said.
Sammy was quiet the rest of the walk and I could tell he was thinking. When we got home he said, âIâm really worried about the water. We need to do something. What can we do to make rain?â
âShort of cloud seeding which is a method used to increase precipitation, not much. We could pray for rainâŚactually, that would be an appropriate thing to do during Sukkot. Have you learned about the Water Drawing Ceremony?â I asked.
âAccording to the Talmud, Sukkot is the time of year when God judges the world for rainfall. The Water Drawing Ceremony, conducted in ancient Israel each morning during the holiday, asked for Godâs blessing for an abundant rainy season,â I explained.
âWhat was the ceremony like?â
âIt was very joyous. Water was brought from an area near Jerusalem in a golden flask to the Templeâs Water Gate. The shofar was sounded and the water was poured over the altar.â
âWell, I learned to make rain at camp,â he said demonstrating the hand and foot sounds designed to mimic a rainstorm. âBut thatâs not a ceremony and letâs face it, it wonât fill the pond with water.â He thought for a moment and then said, âI know, the next time it is supposed to rain we can put buckets outside in different areas of the yard and collect rain. Then we can bring the buckets over to the pond and pour the water into it helping to fill it up again. It can be our own Water Drawing Ceremony!â
âI like that idea,â I said.
âMe too,â Sammy replied. âI feel better knowing that weâre going to help.â
This year as you celebrate in the sukkah and give thanks for the abundance that fills your plate remember the precious natural resources that helped to make your meal possible. Show some appreciation for them too and please, donât forget to pray for rain.
Iâd like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogueâs pews, but we donât. Thatâs not to say we donât find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, itâs just not necessarily divine.
My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.
I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.
For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain weâve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.
Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.
Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but itâs not for others. In my extended family the ârightâ way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. Itâs OK to refer to a beautiful place as âGodâs country,â but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.
This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)
But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God â be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legosâ itâs the right way for him.
My son just returned from his second summer spent at the Union for Reform Judaismâs (URJ) Greene Family Camp. While Sammy is glad to be reunited with his puppy, he misses his other home.
I know how Sammy feels. I was a diehard camper too and Iâm so happy that he thinks camp is as magical as I did many years ago. But having a deep attachment to camp is not unique to campers attending Jewish institutions.
I spent my summers at a YMCA camp, and as I watch the videos for religious and secular institutions alike I consistently hear children describe what makes their camp stand out with the same words I used almost 30 years ago – lasting friendships, great activities and a place to forget your worries. All of these endorsements are of course tied to images of beautiful settings and examples of camp spirit.
But even though there are universal aspects to camp, I always suspected that there was something special about Jewish camp.
As a teen, I envied my fellow youth groupers who spent their summers at the URJâs Camp Harlem not only because I longed for a Jewish camp experience, but also because their camp connection seemed richer in way that I could not explain.
Now that Iâm seeing Jewish camp through adult eyes, I feel that there is truth to my teenage suspicions – there is something special, something different about Jewish camp. Call it an X factor, an indefinable quality that we recognize when we see or experience it, but canât easily describe.
My husband thinks what makes Jewish camp different is personality and soul. He sees the experience that Sammy is having as one imbued with life and character beyond the rah-rah kind of spirit depicted in shots of color war competitions and heard in the lyrics of official camp anthems.
An acquaintance of mine thinks the uniqueness comes from the experience of being with all Jewish kids, regardless of whether or not their parents are both Jewish, and engaging with Judaism in a way that makes being Jewish cool.
I think the specialness comes from the incredible sense of community that is embodied in the phrase âWelcome to campâ that greets you as your car enters the gates and is repeated continuously by staff and campers alike. Immediately you know that you are part of the larger camp family. You belong.
Curious to get a camperâs perspective, I asked Sammy what he thinks makes camp special. He replied, âIt just is. Itâs sacred ground.â
Maybe thatâs the best description of all. What do you think?
I just loaded my baby on a bus and sent him away for a month.
Ok, I realize it isnât exactly a month. It is 4 weeks. Ok, I realize that it is 2 days shy of 4 weeks. Yes, you are right, my baby isnât a baby reallyâŚ he is a big boy of almost 12. But, still, I loaded my baby on a bus and sent him a way for a month.
He is going to, what we call, Jew Camp. We laugh about Jew Camp, because we are the only family in our general area with a kid going to Jew Camp. We arenât going to Happy something camp, because we arenât Christian. All the kids in our area go to the Happy something camp. The parents talk to me endlessly about it. You would think I would be able to remember the name. I always tune them out and smile sweetly and say, we got camp covered. One parent persisted in knowing exactly what our plans were, and my daughter looked up at her and said, âWe go to Jew Camp. You canât come.â End of conversation.
As I watch the bus pull out of the parking lot, I know that for many reasons it is the right thing. First, he loves it. He loves the activities, the kids, the counselors, everything. Second, he will come home referring to most things in Hebrew. He will sing the prayers every night. He will come home from this experience feeling entirely Jewish. He will feel like he is part, of as my daughter implied, an exclusive club and it is a pretty awesome club.
My oldest son has many things about him that arenât like the other kids. Aside from the fact that he has some special needs that separate him from the others, he is a Jew in a sea of Christianity. For a month this summer he will be just like everyone else. When he makes a joke in Hebrew the kids will get itâŚ well if they donât at least it wonât be because they donât understand. When he references Torah and his
I am certain that these kids donât really talk about that sort of stuff. But, I think they know that the other kids âgetâ them. They know that no one is going to give them a hard time because they are not going to see Santa or celebrate Easter. These kids will all embrace Shabbat and celebrate it as it was meant to be celebrated. There is a party going on right here and it is all about being Jewish. Mac comes home from camp feeling love for his Jewishness. What more could we ask for?
As I watched my somewhat socially awkward child board the bus without a care in the world, laughing with his friends, I knew in my heart I did the right thing. He was confident, happy and full of joy. I realized that I was in fact doing a good job. We will miss him.