Celebrating Shabbat at an Italian Summer Camp

By Andrea Pigey

August 31, 2012


What would you say if the director of your children’s summer sleepaway camp asked if your children wished to celebrate Shabbat?

Now let me frame it another way, how would you react if I said their summer camp was in Italy?

No, we are not talking about Jewish camp… We are talking about the summer camp sponsored by my company! Every year my employer gives its employees the opportunity to send their children to sleepaway camp. This is one of the benefits of working for the oil and gas sector. I know where the profits from the gas hike are going — to pay the wonderful counselors who look after my kids for two weeks. And trust me, they deserve every centesimo they earn!

Our daughter Rachele has attended my company’s sponsored camp for 3 years; this was her 4th consecutive year. She absolutely loves it. Since this was the first year our youngest child, Sarah, would be attending, we decided to go up for family day, an open house before the summer camp sessions start where the kids and families can see the dorms, grounds, and facilities and get a chance to meet with the directors, coordinators, and counselors. The cooperative that runs this summer camp has been doing it for years and the staff is extremely dedicated and professional. During a question and answer session, I brought up the subject of bullying — a topic I think every parent should be concerned about regardless of the age and the setting.

Rachele had experienced an unfortunate episode of teasing one summer that came to light 6 months after the fact. I think it was a typical experience for any kid that could happen on the playground, at school, or at camp. When it came out, it was difficult to get to the bottom of the story right away. I had to dig around and learn how to ask the right questions and establish a dialogue with my daughter, framing my inquiries in the right terms in order to get the full details. The teasing was innocent, it did not get out of hand, and the counselors became aware of it quickly and intervened immediately. In the end, the kids actually became close buddies and Rachele was looking forward to returning next summer. While it was happening, Rachele never said there were any problems and I did not detect any signs of distress in her voice during our brief, noisy, daily telephone conversations (there are 3 numbers to call at different times of the day and you can talk to your child daily at the camp).

Of course, when I did find out she was being teased for being Jewish that summer, my first reaction as a mother might have been to go off the deep end, point fingers, and possibly throw a temper tantrum aimed at the administration in charge. Instead, I calmly went to talk to the management that is responsible for the summer camp program. This turned out to be a very productive meeting. I learned a great deal about what goes on in the preparation and the objectives of the summer camp program. First of all, my company pulls off quite a feat bringing 3 sessions of 60 youngsters, aged 6-11, together in the mountains for 2 weeks over a 6 week period. These kids hail from every part of Italy. The staff also represent a slice of every part of Italy as they come from Turin, Palermo, Bari, Milan, Bologna, Genova, you name it. Now double those numbers for the older kids, who are on the same campus in a different dorm. That’s quite a lot of diversity. Employees can be Italian or hail from any of the countries where the company has subsidiaries, which means kids can come from any corner of the world.

Given this context, I was told that the staff are trained to ensure that each child feels welcomed and is integrated smoothly so that they have the time of their lives for two weeks. No easy task, but the proof is in the pudding. Rachele had a successful 4th year, as did Sarah during her first stint, despite a 2 night, 1 day visit to the infirmary. She already confirmed that she wants to return next summer.

We had established a pretty intimate rapport with Francesco, the director of the summer camp program, when he asked me for details of Rachele’s unfortunate bullying incident. I reassured him that it happened 2 years ago, when he was not yet director. I was concerned that I was not informed of the incident at the time. I think I needed to know that my child was being made fun of because she is Jewish. On the other hand, it was handled so well that it was a non-issue.

I did not want the focus to be what happened to my child and why wasn’t I informed. I wanted to know that they have genuine training and sensitivity to the risks of kids being singled out because they are different (or, how best to make my Italian-American, bilingual Jewish kids who happen to be vegetarian fit in). During the tour of camp, I casually mentioned to some first-time parents that if you do not want your children to attend Catholic Mass you have to tell the director in writing because they send the kids en masse to Mass on Sunday nights. While Italy is a Catholic country, not many parents send their kids to Sunday Mass. In fact, there is a growing trend not to send their kids to summer day camp at the local parish church. (Often run by teenagers, the complaints I hear is the fear of sex offenders, untrained/inexperienced staff, and the religious brainwashing their kids will receive. This is an unscientific, informal survey of people I know in Northern Italy and is not representative of the entire population. In some places there are no alternatives to parish-run summer day camps.)

This casual conversation led to quite the surprise. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to hear a counselor ask if my girls want to celebrate Shabbat!

Enter Francesco, who discretely asked if we were kept kosher. I explained that being Reform Jews, by Italian Jewish standards, we are probably more vegetarian than Jewish. It was meant to be a joke but I think he was disappointed. I had also asked questions about how food allergies were handled and the management were already familiar with my past vegetarian request for my older daughter (the vegetarian American-Italian bilingual kid). He asked my husband if we wanted the girls to celebrate Shabbat. Francsesco explained that he used to work as a social assistant for a Jewish family in Rome, helping care for a handicapped boy. This involved accompanying the child to synagogue services. Francesco said that he was privileged to be introduced to Judaism through his work and he was marked by those years. Exposure to Jewish rituals and holidays was a truly enriching experience for him. He does not work for that family any more but he still stays in touch with them. He misses the contact he had with Judaism and he offered the opportunity for the girls to light Shabbat candles. My husband was truly delighted by this offer. So we agreed that we would send a Shabbat kit for our daughters.

Francesco was very eager to be accommodating. Every Friday, the girls went to the main office and said their Friday night prayers with Francesco. They complained that I didn’t send up the prayers for Kiddush (over the wine), so I sent an email for them for the following Friday. Sarah reported back that next time Francesco wanted a real challah cover. I wanted to point out that that they did not even have challah. (Better not with her egg allergy.) The coordinator, a lovely young woman, also joined the three of them out of curiosity. This was a big thrill for Sarah, who talked about it each weekend. She said it was special and made it feel like home.

Next year they could have a real following! And the girls sounded delighted and empowered to celebrate Shabbat privately at summer camp.


About Andrea Pigey

Andrea Pigey, trained in foreign languages, works as a translator in Italy where she resides with her Italian Sephardic Jewish husband and their 2 daughters. Although both her mother and grandmother came from interfaith families before the term existed, her Hungarian immigrant parents gave her a Catholic upbringing in Ossining, New York. She recently converted to Reform Judaism and is now living a multilingual, multicultural, vegetarian Jewish life in Italy.