My father, of blessed memory, was born in 1935. Four years later his father unexpectedly died, leaving him with just his 32-year old mother and then 9-year old brother. Three years later, at the age of seven, my father’s brother celebrated his bar mitzvah and received a gift that would actually change my father’s life.
My father grew up with very little. He lived in a small two bedroom home next door to the main synagogue in Jacksonville, Florida where his mother was the administrative assistant. (My father claimed that every morning after his bar mitzvah he would hear a scream from the synagogue informing him he needed to come for morning services to make a minyan.) She had very little money, yet had the dream for her children to attend Jewish overnight camp. In 1942, that dream became a reality.
My father’s brother received a bar mitzvah gift from their aunt and uncle to attend Camp Airy, a Jewish overnight camp outside of Baltimore, Maryland. My grandmother, who worked full time, would still require care for my father during the summer months and inquired if he could accompany his brother to the camp. Camp Airy was founded by a philanthropic Jewish family and the camp was well known for never turning down children due to financial need. So, my father was able to attend.
Imagine in 1942 putting a 13-year old boy and his 7-year old brother on a train – with no adult supervision – overnight from Jacksonville to Baltimore. The two of them had the opportunity to spend four incredible weeks in a wonderful camp.
My father shared his two most important camp memories with me. First, my father claimed he came to camp as a skinny little boy, yet while there gained 35 pounds. How, you ask? The aunt who provided the gift so my uncle could attend would send to camp two large salamis each week. One was for my father – to make sure he was eating well – and the other for his counselors – so they would “protect” the 7-year old boy. Second, and more importantly, my father would share that his pride about being Jewish developed while at camp.
Now, for those of us who send our kids to camp today, we recognize that food is not allowed. But creating a positive Jewish immersive experience is what camp does best. In many ways, "the Jewish" (whether through Shabbat services, kosher meals, or games of ga-ga) happens in both formal and informal ways. Yet, every study shows…"the Jewish" sticks…just as it did for my father.
My children just recently returned home from three weeks at their Jewish camp. They loved their experience – the fun, the social, the bonding, the sports, special Israel programming, and yes, the Yiddishkeit that infused everything at camp. They came home more knowledgeable about Israel, Judaism, and most importantly, themselves. One of the great aspects of camp is the “growing up away from home.” Camp is its own family. Living, learning, and sharing together 24/7 creates a unique private community whose bonds and impressions can easily last a lifetime. Yes, each child can have their close friends, as well as counselors or activities they love the most, yet at the end they recognize they experienced something so magical together – their own camp family. Ever experience the “coming off the bus” or “reentry into the home” when a child returns from camp? That is how you know the impact is truly there.
The CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp recently wrote about his own experiences on “visiting day” with his children and I encourage you read his beautiful impressions.
Overnight Jewish camping is shown to be one of the most powerful forms of Jewish engagement for young people with long-lasting positive effects. Lucky for us, we are blessed to have many wonderful Jewish overnight camps in the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon’s own B’nai B’rith Camp, Camp Solomon Schechter, Camp Kalsman, and Camp Miriam. In addition, there are over 160 Jewish overnight camps in North America – check them out at www.jewishcamp.org. Although this year’s camp season is still in full swing, there is no reason not to research and sign up for camp for next summer. Your children will thank you!
For many, camp is a difficult choice and a financial sacrifice. One goal for the Jewish Federation is to expand the amount of incentive and scholarship grants (over and above what the camps provide) so more children can attend. We want every child who wishes to go – to go.
For those families enrolled in PJ Library (age appropriate children’s books for children ages 6 months to age 6), there is an opportunity to make camp more affordable for your child’s first overnight camp experience. Click here to learn more about the PJ Library Goes to Camp program. One of the key eligibility factors is to have at least one of your children enrolled in PJ Library by September 1, 2013. The child going to camp can be a subscriber or the sibling of a subscriber. Enrolling in PJ Library is easy.
Anyone who has ever been to camp has their own narrative about their camp days. My father had his one and only camp experience in 1942. My wife and I had the opportunity to each attend for many years, including four summers together as counselors and unit leaders. And now my children are creating their own camp memories. I could not be happier for them, because although overnight camp has its costs – the experience is truly priceless.
PS – Did you know that the University of Western States (UWS) in NE Portland sent seven chiropractic students to the Maccabiah Games in Israel, led by Dr. Sara Mathov. They raised their own funds to make it possible to attend.