When I was five years old my parents sent me to “sleep away” camp for the summer. That’s right–eight weeks. When people hear that today, they gasp. But at that time it was pretty common for children to spend the entire summer at camp. The idea of spending a summer set in a pine forest in the Pocono Mountains was a fantasy of my father’s that I got to live out. Not that it wasn’t special—it definitely was, but I was a New York kid among kids from Philly who thought I spoke funny.
The camp was set on lands that had once been inhabited by the Lenape Indians. I mention this because one of my favorite memories was Sunday night Indian camp, led by a Lenape Chief. We sat around the campfire as my cousin (the reigning Medicine Man) danced, and we were awarded different colored feathers for our accomplishments and sang Indian chants that praised the natural world. But the highlight was Jewish services on Friday night and Saturday morning. If it wasn’t too cold we got to wear our white shorts. What a scene that was as the entire camp, all dressed in white entering the “shul” to the strains of Chopin’s Prelude in C minor—which to me was majestic!
Camp was where I connected with my Jewishness—where when we sat, chanted the prayers and sang the songs, I felt—no I knew—I was part of something grand, important and magical. Never one to believe in myths, I loved the stories the rabbi told and his simple yet thought provoking messages—even for a young person. I went to camp from the ages of 5 to 14.
It is known that Jews who attended Jewish camp as kids are more likely to marry other Jews as adults, to belong to a synagogue, to donate money to Jewish causes and to identify with Israel. The Foundation of Jewish Camps conducted a survey that compared the attitudes and behaviors of adults who had attended Jewish camp as children with those who did not. In conclusion, the survey found “children with pivotal Jewish camp experiences are more likely to become adults who value their Jewish heritage, support Jewish causes and take on leadership roles in their communities.”
My camp experience included an extensive variety of sports, including horseback riding, and nature study, arts and crafts and theater. Jewish summer camp gives kids from all sorts of homes—from the most secular to the most religious—the chance to forge their own Jewish identities in a fun and exciting way. So look into Jewish camp for your child; you might be surprised by the range of activities they provide.
Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004