July 29, 2004
Campers Display the Write Stuff
Almost every summer day, the Malibu Post Office receives a large amount of mail from the several hundred Jewish campers at Camp Hess Kramer and Camp JCA Shalom, a lot of them letters home written by girls.
When the 13-year-old girls at Hess Kramer's Cabin Rachel were asked if girls enjoy writing letters more than boys, the entire cabin shouted, "Yes!"
Letters from Jewish summer camps have not changed much since 1963, when Allan Sherman recorded the classic song, "Hello Muddah! Hello Faddah!" Kids still write about what they had for lunch, what their cabin is like and their bunkmates. Though a national Web site allows one-way e-mails from parents to kids, Jewish summer camps still expect campers to write their folks the old-fashioned way -- with pen, paper, stamps and envelopes.
"This is my seventh year going to camp; last year, I had to write like one every week, and the year before, I tried to write one every couple of days," said Hess Kramer veteran, Aaron, at 14 a part of the hipster crew at Cabin Jerry (actually Cabin Jeremiah). "Each year, I've written like less and less. We've matured, and we can handle being away from our family better."
The girls of Cabin Rachel know that quality paper is a must for a nice letter home.
"I have Winnie the Pooh stationery," Megan, 13, said.
"Polka-dots," a friend said.
"Hello Kitty," another volunteered.
One girl had two sets of stationery, and another had six.
"Boys don't even know what a letter is," Leah, 13, said.
"I really like to write long letters, because I can't talk to them over the phone," Carly, 13, said. "I love to tell my parents like everything that ... I've done in the day."
Care packages from home included shirts and candy.
"Girls love stuff," said Blake, 13, whose parents sent her Cosmo Girl, now part of the Cabin Rachel library of Teen People, Teen Vogue, Seventeen, etc.
"The more I write, the more stuff I get," one girl said .
In a world of junk mail overflowing in real and electronic mailboxes, Sara, 16, a Hess Kramer counselor in training, said, "There's something about getting a letter that's addressed to you."
"E-mail gets annoying," Carly said, "but letters, like they don't get old."
With so much Jewish summer camp mail flowing into the Malibu Post Office, "sometimes letters go out and take a week to get places," said Howard Kaplan, Hess Kramer executive director.
One solution for concerned parents is the www.bunkone.com Web site, through which parents can send their kids e-mails, but their kids can only reply by regular mail.
While the Wilshire Boulevard Temple-run Hess Kramer hugs the Ventura County line near Malibu's northern beaches, Camp JCA Shalom is close but requires a nerve-testing drive through empty, mountainous stretches of Mulholland Highway.
Once past its large Hebrew script gate greeting, Camp JCA Shalom has an almost hippie-like casualness. Jewish kids from throughout the Western United States converge at the camp, many wearing or making Grateful Dead-inspired tie-dyed shirts.
Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, which runs Camp JCA Shalom, said a rule of thumb with camp letter writing is that if kids are not writing to their parents every day, that may be a sign that they are busy and happy.
Here, too, middle school-age girls rule Camp JCA Shalom's letter-writing culture. The nondenominational camp also finds some campers writing in Cyrillic script. Of the 11 girls in this summer's Cabin G-5 Survivors, six were from Ukrainian or Russian Jewish families.
"I wrote about five letters in Russian," said Diana, 12, who had just received a one-page letter written alternately by her mother and father.
Among the 10- and 11-year-old boys in Cabin B-4 Shizzles, postcards were preferred over letters, partly to avoid wasting time during summer camp's short but memorable window of fun.
"We're brothers for three weeks," Austin 10, said. "Everyone in our cabin is like our family, our second family."
"We're never homesick!" shouted another B-4 Shizzles camper.
In Cabin G-5 Survivors, Mylan, 12, wrote 10 letters in three weeks. "I've written some to my parents so they don't worry about me," she explained.
Alissa, also 12, said she writes her own letters, but said that for her younger brother who's also at the camp, "my mom has to pre-write all the letters and put stamps on them -- he writes the letters but [not] the envelopes."
That afternoon's mail call included a letter from Alissa's parents -- about one-and-a-half ink-jet-printed pages. Spilling out of the envelope as she opened it were small silver and blue Star of David stickers, which she shared with her camp friends.