Homeshuling goes to camp

moshI had the wonderful opportunity to spend the last two days (without my kids!) at Camp Ramah of New England with a group of authors. The trip was organized by the PJ Library, with the goal of inspiring us to create children’s literature that takes place in Jewish overnight camps, another passion PJ Library’s founder, Harold Grinspoon.
While I was visiting as a writer of children’s books, it was hard not to view camp primarily through the eyes of a parent  (and a blogging parent to boot.) I began to consider what choices we might make down the road. Will we send out daughters to overnight camp? And if so, will we send them to Jewish overnight camp? And if the answer is still yes, what kind of Jewish overnight camp? 
As a child, I attended Habonim Camp Moshava (aka Mosh, with a long o), a labor zionist overnight camp in Maryland.  I was there in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and at that time, there was no one on staff over the age of 24. A majority of the counselors had spent a year living on kibbutz and, although most were from affluent families, they were what I would now politely refer to as dirty long haired hippies. But really nice dirty long haired hippies. I worshipped them all, and wanted to be just like the girls (ok, women, but now that I’m in my 40’s it’s really hard to say that with a straight face) with peasant skirts and long hair and unshaven legs. We sang songs about communism and boogers after meals, performed an hour of labor before breakfast, watched Norma Rae on “Yom Union” and were so anti-authority that once a summer the campers and CIT’s staged a revolution when we kicked the counselors out of camp for 24 hours. We had a no boats, no water skiing, no ropes course, no advanced arts or sports, and not a lot of supervision. It was a wonderful, wonderful place.
Camp Ramah is also, clearly, a wonderful place. The campers we met and observed were just as blissfully happy as I remember being back in 1979. But the culture of the camp is a world apart from Mosh. First, and most noticeable to me, was the number of grownups. There were lots of them, many of them even over the age of (gasp) 30. Also, Ramah is not just a Jewish camp, it’s a religious camp. As part of the conservative movement, the campers pray for half an hour every weekly morning, and for two hours on shabbat morning. They say blessings before and after they eat, and at bedtime, and there were torah scrolls and tallits all over the place. (The only time we saw these at Mosh was when we watched Fiddler on the Roof.) They have a gorgeous waterfront with a floating trampoline and climbing wall, beautiful cabins, movie making, Rick Recht concerts and, Yom Foam. (Don’t ask, but it involves the fire department, and trust me, it’s nothing like Yom Union.)
Sleepaway camp is one of the first places kids can define themselves away from the constant gaze of their parents. They try out new ways of eating, bathing, speaking and being. And at Jewish summer camp, they can start to think about what kinds of Jews they want to be. So, it seems to me that the Jewish summer camp we choose might make a huge difference in the Jewish lives our children lead as adults. What kinds of role models do I want them surrounded by for 4 or 8 weeks every summer? Rabbis, professional teachers, and clean-cut young men and women who pray and observe kashrut and shabbat? Or a bunch of pot-smoking lefties who fancy themselves socialists (albeit with very nice houses) and plan to change the world?
I think I know the answer, but I’m not telling.
author’s note: i’ve edited this piece slightly from the original after some well-deserved whomping from my Mosh friends. To put my comments into perspective, know that I married a (not-so dirty) long haired hippie. Feel free to consider the line about pot-smoking a metaphor.

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Helene Rock

posted July 8, 2009 at 8:41 pm

One can certainly raise caring committed Conservative Jewish children WITHOUT sending them to camp. My whole family can go to Israel for the price of one camp session. I’m a homeschooling parent so our summer activities revolve around the same things as “camp kids'”. We go to the beach, libraries for summer reading club activities, arts and crafts, jam making, etc. etc. Young children do NOT need to be away from their parents to become independent. Only when their dependency needs are met, can they truly become independent. Sending an 8 yr. old to sleepaway camp for 8 weeks is akin to child abandonment for me. Parents are the very best role models for their kids. The Conservative movement makes a big deal about their Ramah camps. Sorry the Jewish camping movement is not on par with the expenses of belonging to a shul or the local Jewish Center, or even Day Schools. It’s become an expensive luxury for parents anxious to rid themselves of their offspring for a period of time.

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posted July 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm

I agree with you about the expense, and I agree that for us, 8 years old would be too young for sleepaway camp. However, I do believe strongly in the value of overnight camp for older kids (i started at 12, that was just right for me.) I hope we can afford it when the time comes. In the meantime, I’d love to get a 2-week faculty stint at one of the NFTY camps!

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the Rebbetzin

posted July 8, 2009 at 9:34 pm

or, how about a combo? that would be interesting! observant rabbis, teachers, young men and women who could be pot-smoking lefties who fancy themselves socialist? Just joking! I am a product of Jewish camping and youth group and I’m having fun watching my kids enjoy it now!

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posted July 8, 2009 at 10:08 pm

“Ah, ya Mosh! You look so good to me (ho ho ho ho).” When we go down for Visitor’s Day I always shed a tear of regret that I can’t stay. And my kids LOVE it.

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Laurel Snyder

posted July 10, 2009 at 8:14 am

I have to believe there’s somewhere out there with a little Ramah and a little Mosh. I hope so, anyway!
It was SOO nice to meet you. And now I have to wonder if yur parents were (like mine) Baltimore Jewish lefties?

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posted July 10, 2009 at 1:03 pm

not so much. my mom is a liberal, but not a left-y, and my dad was a career office in the military.
i’m so glad to have met you too! i love your blog, can’t wait to read your books.

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Yoni Stadlin

posted July 15, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Hi parents,
I want to invite you all to explore a brand new Jewish summer camp that is founded on principles of environmentalism, social justice and spirituality~
We have a great plan, funding, and hope.

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Frume Sarah

posted August 20, 2009 at 1:17 am

I LOVE Jew camp and feel so fortunate that I get to go EVERY summer…as a camp rabbi! My kids go and they love it. They reference it throughout the year. And only one of them is even old enough to be in a cabin. The other two go to the daycamp run just for the faculty kids. But it has the ta’am of the rest of the camp and my littles LOVE it.
I am totally committed to the URJ camps. BUT, that Eden Village Camp looks pretty darn amazing…

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