In 2007, my three daughters asked me if they could go to summer camp along with their school friends. For the previous several years, I had always said no. It was far, it was costly. And summer was the only time I had vacation from work, and I wanted to spend that time with my children. I said I would think about it.
That day at work I stopped in to see one of my colleagues and told her of my dilemma. She asked me if I had ever attended a Jewish summer camp as a child. I told her I had never been to a camp of any kind. She went on to explain what camp had meant to her growing up, and following her bat mitzvah, she said, it was the only thing that kept her involved in her religion, temple and Jewish community. I decided that there would be no harm in sending my kids for one summer, and we would get back to our normal summer plans the following year.
What I did not realize then was that camp would indeed change their lives, and our days of long family summer vacations were over. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make once I realized the impact camp would have on their confidence and development over the next five years.
My girls have all graduated from Camp Ramah, the eldest having just finished her second summer as a camp counselor, my two younger girls pining for their turns to become counselors as well. They have taken away from camp several important life lessons from their camp experience. The first is the importance of committing themselves to service within our Jewish community, in spite of living and going to school in a secular environment. My girls have participated in the Friendship Circle, working with Jewish children with special needs. They have been teaching assistants in our Talmud Torah Program, as well as active members of United Synagogue Youth. Most of their volunteer activities are within our Jewish community, and I believe this stems from the concept of tikkun olam, healing the world, which was emphasized and modeled so strongly at summer camp. My girls always told me that a big part of camp was learning the importance of the passing down of tradition, and providing others with the experiences they were privileged to have themselves.
My girls learned that all Jewish kids do not come from middle-class, two-parent families. At camp they became friends with kids from varying backgrounds who had family problems including divorce, illness, financial stressors and mental-health issues. They met kids being raised by grandparents and kids who had been in foster care. They roomed with kids who were very wealthy and others who were financially challenged. Everyone was treated equally, and most shared openly. When we had our own family stressors, camp became a safe haven for my girls and a place they could talk to friends and counselors, and receive unconditional love, support, understanding and plenty of healthy advice. In the last year my girls were at camp, our financial situation had drastically changed and we were unable to afford the expense. I explained our financial situation when I applied for financial aid. I was asked what I needed for them to attend and was granted that amount. I will always be grateful for the generosity shown to me and our family during our own time of need.
Each summer when I picked my kids up from camp I observed a maturity that had developed over the course of the month. When they came home to their own neighborhood and school, they were able to make good decisions for themselves in terms of who they chose as their friends and what they chose as their entertainment. I have never had to worry about what my girls were doing on a Friday or Saturday night when they were out with their friends. The foundation they received from home was the same as they received at camp. Camp prepared them for the many temptations faced by our teens. Their sense of right and wrong, moral and not, can be credited as much to camp as what we have tried to instill as parents.
Jewish summer camp has made my children better people. There are only so many life lessons that a parent can impart. To experience goodness, kindness, learning and a commitment to Judaism, all on a grassy knoll and under tall pine trees, is more than I could have ever wished.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is holding its first Tour de Summer Camps on Oct. 27. This community-wide cycling event is raising funds for Jewish summer camp scholarships, in support of Federation’s ongoing work ensuring our Jewish future. Riders can choose from one of three scenic routes of 36, 62 or 100 miles. To sign up, make a donation, become a sponsor or volunteer, visit TourdeSummerCamps.org.