The Extended Influence of Camp

Sammy with "our Israelis" Tal and Gilad. Two weeks ago, Gilad was in Dallas to help Sammy celebrate his 9th birthday.

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 Sammy’s 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 Sammy’s 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. “Absolutely!” I responded, “Join us for dinner and Sammy’s birthday celebration.”

We all have a special relationship with Gilad not because he was Sammy’s 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 Gilad’s call we had the opportunity to reconnect with one of “our Israelis” 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. “Yes!” 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 – 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 camp’s influence extends beyond the summer and children, and can touch the entire family.

Pray for Rain

The drought and high temperatures have caused large sections of our pond to evaporate.

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 family’s daily life.

We are avid vegetable gardeners and Sukkot is the perfect opportunity for us to express appreciation for each other’s work maintaining our garden space – Cameron turns the compost and prepares the beds, and I plant and weed with Sammy’s 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. “Mommy, look at the pond!” he exclaimed. “There is almost no water in some areas. What’s going to happen to the ducks, geese and herons if the water gets lower? Someone needs to do something!”

“I heard someone the other day ask if water can be pumped in, but that isn’t feasible because of the city water restrictions and the energy it will require. We really need rain,” I said.

Sammy was quiet the rest of the walk and I could tell he was thinking. When we got home he said, “I’m really worried about the water. We need to do something. What can we do to make rain?”

“Short of cloud seeding which is a method used to increase precipitation, not much. We could pray for rain…actually, that would be an appropriate thing to do during Sukkot. Have you learned about the Water Drawing Ceremony?” I asked.

“No.”

“According 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 God’s blessing for an abundant rainy season,” I explained.

“What was the ceremony like?”

“It was very joyous. Water was brought from an area near Jerusalem in a golden flask to the Temple’s Water Gate. The shofar was sounded and the water was poured over the altar.”

“Well, I learned to make rain at camp,” he said demonstrating the hand and foot sounds designed to mimic a rainstorm. “But that’s not a ceremony and let’s face it, it won’t fill the pond with water.” He thought for a moment and then said, “I 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!”

Water used to connect one bank of the pond to an island. Today little water remains.

“I like that idea,” I said.

“Me too,” Sammy replied. “I feel better knowing that we’re going to help.”

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, don’t forget to pray for rain.

Finding God

Sunset on Lake Kezar

Finding God at sunset on Lake Kezar in Maine

I’d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogue’s pews, but we don’t. That’s not to say we don’t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, it’s 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 we’ve 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.

Breckenridge, CO

Connecting spiritually at 11,000 feet in Breckenridge, CO

Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but it’s not for others. In my extended family the “right” way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. It’s OK to refer to a beautiful place as “God’s country,” 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 – be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legos– it’s the right way for him.

Jewish Summer Camp’s X Factor

Shabbat at camp is "cool" and adds a sense of sacredness to the camp experience.

My son just returned from his second summer spent at the Union for Reform Judaism’s (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 I’m 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 URJ’s 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 I’m 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 can’t 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 “Welcome to camp” 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 camper’s perspective, I asked Sammy what he thinks makes camp special. He replied, “It just is. It’s sacred ground.”

Maybe that’s the best description of all. What do you think?

Jew Camp

I just loaded my baby on a bus and sent him away for a month.

Ok, I realize it isn’t 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 isn’t a baby really… 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 aren’t going to Happy something camp, because we aren’t 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, “We go to Jew Camp.  You can’t come.”  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 aren’t 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 it… well if they don’t at least it won’t be because they don’t understand.  When he references Torah and his Bar Mitzvah it won’t be like he is speaking a foreign tongue.  He will be surrounded by other kids and some will understand what it is like to be a Jew in the sea of Christianity.  Many come from a family where one parent is not Jewish.

I am certain that these kids don’t really talk about that sort of stuff.  But, I think they know that the other kids “get” 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.