Last time we looked at the profound impact that summer camp can have on Jewish identity. That may sound good in principle, but how do you know if your child – and you – are ready? And what are your alternatives if your child has special needs or interests?
Here are some questions to consider:
- How old is your child? Day camps typically begin serving kids as young as 4 or 5 while most overnight camps require campers to be at least 7 or 8 years old to attend.
- Is your child comfortable spending the night at a friend’s house? Does being away from home excite and enrich your child or does it cause anxiety and tension?
- How does your child describe relationships at school?
“Both difficulties and successes there could carry over to camp,” says the American Camping Association’s Connie Coutellier. “If a child is being bullied at school or feeling insecure, you could talk to him or her about the opportunity to make new friends or how he or she could be a good friend to another child.”
If you have decided the time is right, there are several things you can do to get a positive start including going through the camp’s website together or shop and pack together. Has your child had to share a bedroom – let alone with eight other people? Do they know how to handle toiletries and what to do with dirty clothes? And above all, have realistic expectations about the camp experience. “It’s like the rest of life; it has high points and low ones,” says Bruce Muchnick, Ed.D., a licensed psychologist who works extensively with camps. “There are times when your child will feel great and other times he or she may feel unhappy or bored.”
And for parents, Maya Cohen debunks some summer camp myths:
- MYTH: My child gets homesick easily, so he or she should attend a sleepover camp that is close to home.
REALITY: It is important to find the right camp for your child, but location should not factor in.
- MYTH: A letter from my child indicates that he or she is unhappy at sleepover camp.
REALITY: It is always unpleasant to hear that your child is unhappy at sleepover camp, but before you rush to pull him or her out and bring them home, take a close and careful look at the situation.
- MYTH: He or she is my child; I can contact them anytime I please.
REALITY: Once you entrust your child to the camp officials, you must abide by the camp regulations. Camps typically do not allow parents to call their children, except on designated days.
Now consider whether your child has special interests. Despite the price tag – or because of it – there is fierce competition to attract summer campers. Chanan Tigay writes that campfire stories and lumpy pottery are making way for Jewish specialty camps. Jewish camps have even offered basketball tips with NBA coach, swimming advice from an Olympic gold medalist swimmer and filmmaking guidance for budding Spielbergs. Jewish Specialty “Incubator” Camps have been created to offer non-traditional summer experiences and attract campers who would not otherwise have attended a Jewish camp.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Find-A-Camp page lets you search for programs that focus on the environment, equestrian, outdoor adventure, science, service, sports and travel in Israel or within North America.
Camp HASC – for children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities
There are Jewish camps which cater to campers with special needs. These may be specialized camps or camps which run parallel (camp within a camp) programs for these campers, including:
- Ramah camps in Canada and the U.S. which offer Rama Tikvah programs for campers with special needs.
- Camp Yofi in North Georgia caters to Jewish families with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
- In New York’s Catskill Mountains, Camp HASC provides “mentally and physically handicapped children and adults with the opportunity to enjoy a seven week sleep-away camp experience, just like many of their siblings and friends.”
- Located in Glen Spey, New York, Chai Lifeline’s Camp Simcha provides an overnight camping experience for Jewish children and teens with cancer and other blood-related illnesses. Camp Simcha Special is for children and teens with chronic and genetic disorders. As for the cost, “camp is totally free. When we say free, we mean it. Even our well-stocked canteen is free. We even pay for transportation from your home city.”
This is just a sampling of camps which welcome children with special needs. You can find many others (including contact information) in this document.
Chai Lifeline & Camp Simcha – There When it Matters Most
For Karen White and her daughter, the decision to go to overnight camp was not a calm discussion. It was a battle of wills. Although her daughter had had pleasant stays at Camp Newman, a Union of Reform Judaism camp in California, White’s daughter was pretty much set against returning. “I don’t want to go!” she shouted.
“‘You’re going,’ I replied. End of discussion. … I had my reasons.” Karen White had loved overnight camp as a child and felt her daughter would too. After several tense encounters, White started to feel pretty bad. “I really believed in the Newman experience. But was I doing the wrong thing by forcing it on an unwilling child? Where did this fall on the list of decisions you do and don’t let your child make?” But the mother persevered.
And how did things go? “When we picked my daughter up from the bus, she was buzzing with excitement. She chattered the whole way home, sharing one story after another about her camp experience.”
Why was it worth the fights and the risk? “Because Camp Newman is the closest thing my daughter has to living with a Jewish identity. Our home life, with the exception of Ha-Motzi, is remarkably secular. Most of the girl’s friends aren’t Jewish. But for two weeks, my daughter lived a daily life that made her feel connected to and happy with who she is. And for a pre-teen girl, I can’t think of anything more important.”
Next time, love, romance – and respect – under the summer sky.