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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Peanut Butter and Ziplines: Perspectives from Jewish Overnight Camp

A week ago, Hannah returned from her first two-week stint at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. And did she like it? Her standard response is that it was "awesome." Dig a little deeper and you'll hear stories about ziplines and waterslides, having a different best friend every day, new dances learned, leading services, swimming in the lake and eating good food (including peanut butter, which we don't typically eat at home). The stories are sprinkled with bits of Hebrew, names of buildings and activities. She managed feelings of homesickness and learned to roll with it when she had to wear clothes more than once. Her counselors said she was rarely without a smile on her face. She didn't really want to come home and can't wait to go back next summer. Mission accomplished.

I went to six summers of Jewish overnight camp, five of them at The Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Zionsville, Indiana. Some of the best parts of my childhood were spent there, and I still regret not being able to apply for Avodah (a summer spent working in various capacities around the camp) and then going on to be a counselor there (I was a counselor for two summers at my local JCC instead). Those summers, and the people I spent them with, had a profound impact on the person I became, particularly with regards to my Jewish identity. At camp, I wasn't the singled-out Jew of my middle school class, forced to explain a holiday or the one Hanukkah song we'd sing in choir. Instead, being Jewish was the baseline, and imbued in everything we did. When we played sports, we had to "cover our heads with a kohvah (hat)!" We sang songs in Hebrew for hours on end. We discussed ethics and placed ourselves along a continuum of points of view. We contemplated the nightmare scenario of the last living Jew being an exhibit in a museum. For the other 11 months of the year, I loved my public school, my friends and my regular life. But the months spent at camp were truly magical, and I'm grateful that through the wonders of social media, so many of those camp friends are still a part of my life. They have all become amazing people, and I have to believe that camp had something to do with it.

So years ago, when Marc and I contemplated some of the many decisions we would make as parents, Jewish overnight camp was nonnegotiable. We decided that we wanted our children to go to public schools, but to try to find a Jewish overnight camp that would give them the same amazing summers I had. I am so grateful that we are in a position to provide that, and that Hannah loved it as much as I expected she would. Max is already anxious to get there too. And while I missed Hannah desperately, I am so happy that she got her first taste of the Jewish camp experience, and that there will be much more to come.

And for those of you that followed my anxieties over packing her up for the two weeks: she used all 10 towels, but never needed a bathrobe. To make unpacking at the start of camp easier, next year I'll send her with a set of plastic drawers filled with all of her clothes. And when she's ready to come home, hopefully next summer she will empty her water bottle before packing it in the middle of her duffel bag. :)

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