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Last summer I wrote about that sometimes-indescribable element that makes Jewish summer camp special (See Jewish Summer Campâ€™s X Factor). I said that I thought Jewish summer campâ€™s 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 weâ€™ve 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 sonâ€™s camp community. As a camp staffer recently said in a blog post, â€śWe have one of the most welcoming communities I have ever been a part of.â€ť
Now, this is not an advertisement for my sonâ€™s 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 sonâ€™s 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 Israelâ€™s summer shlichim program. This program places Israeli young adults in staff positions at Jewish summer camps in various countries including the United States. My sonâ€™s 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 everyoneâ€™s 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 â€śour Israelisâ€ť with huge embraces on opening day.
2) Camp is for children and families. One thing that impresses us about our sonâ€™s 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 otherâ€™s 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 sonâ€™s camp is its welcoming spirit. Hospitality is embedded in the campâ€™s DNA and is embodied in the phrase, â€śWelcome to camp!â€ť
The family guide begins with â€śWelcome to GFC.â€ť Counselors and campers yell out, â€śWelcome to campâ€ť in videos. Staff and volunteers from the camp committee greet you with a hearty â€śWelcome to campâ€ť 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 itâ€™s neither. Itâ€™s simply genuine hospitality practiced regularly, by many people, and in many ways. And itâ€™s 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, â€śWelcome to camp!â€ť We shared with them what we love about the place, and introduced them to â€śour Israelisâ€ť and other people we knew who stopped by our table. Iâ€™m 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, â€śWelcome to camp!â€ť
As you evaluate camps, consider more than the facilities, philosophy, and cost. Think about community. Itâ€™s what makes camp special.
My son just returned from his second summer spent at the Union for Reform Judaismâ€™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 Iâ€™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 URJâ€™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 Iâ€™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 canâ€™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 â€śWelcome to campâ€ť 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 camperâ€™s perspective, I asked Sammy what he thinks makes camp special. He replied, â€śIt just is. Itâ€™s sacred ground.â€ť
Maybe thatâ€™s the best description of all. What do you think?