By Sharna Marcus
As I see the pictures of friends who had children before me waving goodbye to their tweens on their first journey to the overnight camp where their parents met, or moms had their first kiss, or dad had the lead in the play, I can’t help but hope that they have a great summer, while wanting to shout through the Facebook universe:
You may not like camp and that’s okay.
As a Jewish educator, such words are risky to state out loud. Jewish camp is considered to be the gold standard of our religion. Everyone always asks at meetings, “How can we make Hebrew school to be more like camp so kids will like it?” That question does not resonate with me. In fact, when I tell a colleague, after knowing them very well, that I didn’t like camp, it feels like making a revelation like I was a heroin addict as a child. The colleague doesn’t understand how someone like me couldn’t love camp. I have to give them some space and eventually their distrust of me fades.
I went to a Jewish camp going into 5th, 6th and 7th grades and really did not like it. It doesn’t mean I didn’t like every second of it. I wasn’t crying, homesick for my parents. I just did not enjoy it. I don’t blame the camp. Many of my friends went there through high school, ended up being counselors, and even professional staff there. However, it was just not for me.
Why wasn’t it for me? I was really into sports at a time when perhaps many Jewish girls weren’t. So all of the sports activities were with the boys, and they ranged from tolerant of my presence to mean about my physicality. There was also an advanced sexuality at camp that I wasn’t ready for. I had my first kiss at 16, not 11 or 12. However, I felt inferior because that milestone seemed to be the goal of camp, a goal I wasn’t interested in but without understanding why. My third year I was asked on a “walk” by a boy, David. He held my hand and I’m pretty sure it morphed into liquid as I sweated my way down the 100-foot path. As he wiped my sweat from his palms on his khaki pants, I walked away filled with embarrassment, never wanting to speak to him again.
I also often felt lonely and sad during rest periods or on Shabbat. I’ve never been great at relaxing and kicking back. As a kid, I needed a lot of stimulation and wasn’t much of a napper.
So you might ask, why did I go for three years?
Well, I thought camp was something you had to do like going to school. My older brothers had gone to camp and so I did too. I didn’t complain to my parents just because I wasn’t really much of a complainer. After my third summer, when they received a letter detailing the 20 times I had been to the infirmary in 28 days, they did catch on that something was wrong.
When they asked about it, I confessed that I didn’t like camp at all. So they asked me, “Why did you keep going?” and I told them I thought I had to. I also thought it might get better. When they explained that it cost a lot of money and that I shouldn’t go if I didn’t like it, I was astounded and relieved. I wish I could tell you that the next summer I went to an all girls’ sports camp and loved it. However, I also didn’t enjoy being with a bunch of snotty girls who had managed to not go through puberty yet, while at age 13 I wore two bras on the soccer field. At some point, I faked the intensity of an injury (I got hit by a fast ball on the thigh) so I could go home. At that point, I must admit I missed the Jewish camp.
Because there were good things at that Jewish camp. Some of the people I met were really nice. In fact, we connected later in life. I enjoyed the Debbie Friedman prayers that I had never heard before. Given that I went to Jewish Day School, I was the star of the Color War Quiz Bowl, forever known as Rabbi Sharna. I remember loving a couple of my counselors, one who bought me a journal because she could tell I needed one, (and perhaps a therapist). I had a few solos in performances. The one I remember was in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” I remember the campfire and the stories that Rabbi told in front of it that I would think about for days after. I still remember a relaxation exercise that a counselor told us and have used it many times since, including on my nieces who refused to go to bed one night that I was babysitting. I also still recall an activity that we did on whether the Messiah will come one day and bring the Messianic age or do we bring about the utopian vision by our good deeds.
So, whose fault was it that I didn’t like camp? Was the camp bad? Was I just a really weird, socially awkward, maladjusted kid? There may have been some parts of camp that could have been improved, and for sure I had some issues as a kid, but I don’t think it was anyone’s fault. A lot of parents I know would raise hell at the camp failing their kid, but I would just tell them:
Camp just isn’t for everyone and that’s okay.
If your kid comes home and doesn’t aim to be a song leader later in life, or isn’t begging to go to the reunion in October, or just plainly says I am never going back there even if you pay me, don’t feel like a failure as a parent. Even if you are asked to take your child home, again, it’s not the end of the world and shouldn’t necessarily indicative of many future failures.
Repeat after me: Camp just isn’t for everyone and that’s okay.
One year a student of mine asked me to advocate on his behalf with the director of a camp who had banned him from attending because of the student’s behavior the previous summer. I called the Director, a legend in the community, and offered my observations of the student’s growth in ninth grade. The camp director wasn’t having it and talked about camp being a privilege, especially for someone receiving financial aid, and how this kid did not deserve the privilege.
So I said to my student,
Repeat after me: Camp just isn’t for everyone and that’s okay.
That student has gone on to be very successful, in jail. No just kidding. He’s in medical school.
As an afterwards, I did end up going back to Jewish camp. This time I was 16 years old and attended a four-week seminar on Judaism and three weeks on leadership in Pennsylvania. I loved it. I did have my first kiss there, sweaty palms and all, but felt smothered by the relationship and broke up with the guy 24 hours later.
Sharna Marcus is a high school history and English teacher in Israel and works as an educational consultant for special needs Israel trips.