I WITNESS THE sweetest of sights from my office window during the summer months: five-year-olds, fresh out of our preschool, stepping up the stairs of a school bus with the aid of counselors, who were once those small children climbing up the stairs. Jewish summer camps provide a good time and enhanced Jewish identity: happy outcomes that emerge from interactions with other young people.
This year is the 20th year of Camp B’nai Ruach, at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, a milestone of happy-memory making. Our director, Barbara Sherman, has offered weekly field trips to theme parks, the beach, public pools, and excursions to factories and farms. We are so fortunate to live in Orange County with all these wonderful resources an easy drive away. And yet, what most endures for our young people is the quality of care of their fellow youth. After so many months of classroom learning, there is joy in freedom and play and deep learning that takes place informally.
Social psychologist, Robert Cialdini, once told me the story of trying to teach his young son to swim. Fearful, the boy made little progress. One day, the dad came to the public pool and saw his son swimming. “How did you learn to swim?” the surprised father asked. “I just followed what my friends were doing,” the boy announced confidently. Professor Cialdini concluded, “Peers are our greatest motivators.”
When I think of Jewish summer camping, I hear in my mind the song by Allan Sherman, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” which describes a young boy’s complaints of being away at Camp Grenada. In his guilt-inducing letter home, he describes the rain, the poison ivy, awful food, dangerous bears, and missing his younger brother. And then there is a shift: “Wait a minute, it stopped hailing; Guys are swimming, guys are sailing; Playing baseball, gee that’s better, Muddah Fadduh, please disregard this letter.”
I too remember the homesickness at my first stays in sleep-away camp, and that I got over that longing and enjoyed my new found friends. It was in summer camp that I learned that traditional prayer and its hummable melodies, whether in the morning or after a meal, brought me together with others. In summer camp I experienced Jewish holidays, like Tisha B’Av, that conveyed Jewish memory of hard times and victories, and tastes of the goodness of Shabbat. To this day, I recall moments of mischief, and achievement in play with my friends and counsellors. Jewish camping, whether a day camp or sleep-away, is immersive and brings out the best in both the summer and Jewish belonging.
Each Jewish summer camp has a distinctive personality. Parents and children need to do their research to find the setting that best meets their needs. And yet, what all the camping experiences share in common, are peers with whom to make friends, living Jewish values, new experiences of growthful stretch, and the giving and receiving of caregiving that will endure as a happy memory.
Rabbi Spitz is a caring mentor to his congregants at Congregation B’nai Israel, a scholar, and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee of Law and Standards. He lives in Tustin, California with his wife, Linda; they are the parents of Joseph, Jonathan and Anna Rose.