There’s snow on the ground still, but summer is coming, and I just signed up my kids for Jewish Summer Camp. Of all the things we do as a family each year, this is one of the most meaningful: it bolsters our kids’ Jewish identities, strengthens our family’s bonds, and helps all of us to enjoy our Jewish life more.
Not everyone feels the way we do about Jewish camp. So before the camp deadlines are upon us, I thought I’d comment on a few myths I’ve heard about the Jewish Summer camp experience, and share the reality we’ve experienced.
“I want my kids to enjoy summer, not have to learn about religion!”
A lot of children spend long hours each year in Sunday or Hebrew school, or with a bar- or bat-mitzvah tutor. Shouldn’t summer give them a break from all that studying?
The beauty of Jewish summer camps, of course, is that they make Jewish life fun. In fact, for many children Jewish Summer camp is the one time all year when being Jewish is a joy, not a burden.
When you’re with a group of kids and counselors, all singing along to beautiful Jewish songs together, it creates a magical Jewish experience that has nothing to do with studying or tutors. When kids do fun crafts together that have a Jewish theme, they are learning about their religion in a fresh, new – and non-threatening – way.
Summer camp is also a chance for kids to try out fun aspects of Judaism that they might not get to at home. Most Jewish camps have some sort of Shabbat celebration, for example. Even if your own family doesn’t always remember to “do” Shabbat each week, summer camp provides kids with the chance to celebrate Shabbat more fully, along with their friends and counselors, in a fun way.
Sometimes kids even bring home what they’ve learned at camp – like a new Shabbat song – and teach the rest of the family about it. My own kids learn a lot of traditional Jewish stories at their Jewish camp, and I always enjoy hearing them when my kids come home. It’s a chance to bring a fun new side of Judaism into our family each summer.
“Jewish Summer camp is too expensive.”
This is another complaint I hear a lot, and there’s no one answer. Certainly, the costs of Jewish summer camps vary widely. My own kids’ Jewish camp is cheap relative to others in the area, but I know of others that offer a “Cadillac” camp service: very fancy, but very expensive.
Luckily, there are a number of community initiatives that help to cover the cost of Jewish camp, particularly for kids who haven’t attended Jewish camp before. One place to start looking (in the United States) is your local Jewish Federation (www.ujc.org). Independent programs like the PJ Library (www.pjlibrary.org) and One Happy Camper (www.onehappycamper.org) also offer help with camp costs. Also, check with individual camps: many offer early-bird discounts.
Another option, if you can, is to talk with grandparents or great grandparents. Many grandparents would love to help enhance their grandchildren’s Jewish experiences, and some might be willing to help contribute to their grandkids’ Jewish camp costs.
Finally, one option for older kids might be to look into being a junior or a regular camp counselor at a camp for younger kids. At my own kids’ camp, for instance, a group of teenagers helps the younger kids with activities (swimming, going to amusement parks, crafts, putting on plays, etc.). The counselors get to have a fun summer outside, with the obvious benefit of being paid to enjoy the camp experience, rather than paying!
“Jewish Summer camp sounds nice, but my kids are really interested in soccer (or baseball, or space, etc.).”
Many of my friends’ kids have passions for extracurricular activities that they love to indulge during the summer. But this doesn’t mean that there’s no room for Jewish camp too.
One option is to combine sessions: spend half the summer at space camp, and the other half at Jewish camp.
Look into Jewish camps, though, and you might be surprised by the range of activities they provide. Theatre, music, swimming, sports: these are all common at Jewish camps, but often more esoteric activities such as gymnastics, rocket-building, computers and ballet are part of Jewish camp schedules too.
Take a look at some nearby Jewish camps. Talk to kids who’ve attended them if you can, or browse the internet. The number of Jewish camps is growing year by year, and there truly is something for everyone.
Finally, take a moment to think of what your kids will gain from Jewish camp, even if going means they can’t indulge their every specific hobby. Kids often outgrow particular interests and activities, but they never outgrow being Jewish. Giving children the gift of Jewish summer camp means giving Jewish memories and knowledge that will never leave them, and will enrich their whole Jewish lives.
“Jewish Summer camp isn’t for us because we’re just not that religious.”
Jewish summer camp gives kids from all sorts of homes – from the most secular to the most religious – the chance to forge their own Jewish identities.
Away from their homes and parents, kids find new Jewish friends and role models. In a Jewish camp, it’s “normal” to be Jewish, and fun too. Small wonder that many kids find that Jewish summer camp is a welcome break: a chance each year to live and grow fully in their Jewish identities.
And the results pay off. Jews who attended Jewish camp as kids are more likely to marry other Jews as adults, more likely to belong to a synagogue, to donate money to Jewish causes, and to identify with Israel.