By Stephanie Kramer
Sometimes parenting is a hard mirror in which we look back at our own childhood, half the time in horror over the growing pains we wish we could forget, the other half in longing for the experiences we were never afforded.
Every year when I was growing up, the local camp director came to my religious school to give his pitch, and every year I went home begging to go to Jewish sleep-away camp. With two siblings in college, I am sure finances were tight, but that wasn’t the whole reason. As the baby, I’m sure my mother was reluctant to ship me off for a month.
By the time my first summer sleep-away experience arrived, I was already in college. I attended not as a camper but as a counselor.
And it was the worst summer of my life! Having always dreamed of spending the summer in Bruceville, TX, I was eager to get there early. During an intense ropes course training a week before camp began, I injured my ankle in a three-legged race and spent the rest of the summer shuttling between Bruceville and Houston for doctor appointments. Naturally, the car overheated, and we would be stranded for hours in 100-degree heat waiting for AAA. With a walking boot protecting my ankle and steep hills to trudge up and down, my choices were to risk further injury or end my summer early. Sadly, Boot Hill won, and I went home.
Needless to say, this was not my idea of an idyllic summer camp experience, yet I still managed to make lifelong friends and can still taste the special fried chicken oneg, cookie birthday cakes, and nearby frozen custard. I still remember the song sessions, bunk pranks, and bedtime rituals – to name just a few scenes from my camp highlight reel.
All of these treasured memories and long-buried emotional struggles come raging back as I prepare to send my son for his first summer at Camp Newman by the Bay. He is overflowing with excitement and anticipation. He has been accompanying me to Camp Newman as I served on faculty for the last seven summers, and he can’t wait to ditch me and sleep in a cabin. He would have done this years ago if possible.
A lot has changed between that first summer as a counselor and now. I moved to northern California and found my second home at Camp Newman. When I get out of my car, year-round staff is there to greet me, always with smiles and instantly making me feel part of the team. The camp directors are never aloof; rather they are among the first to welcome me with open arms and open hearts.
So no wonder I look forward to summers at camp, to catching up with colleagues and making new friends. I love watching the kids grow from year to year and the staff transform from rowdy adolescent CITs into responsible, caring, Jewish role models.
Camp is a magical place where children really are the most important people! A place where everyone lives on Jewish Time, putting their social justice values first, and having the most vivacious Shabbats together. It is a time of personal growth and interpersonal Jewish connection. And for a rabbi worried about over-immersing her children in Judaism, it is the comfort of knowing that attending Jewish sleepaway camp is the number one predictor of Jewish continuity.
Most important is what it will mean to my son: of course he will love the camp songs, activities, counselors, and friends. But more than all that, what camp provides better than anyplace else on earth is communitas – the spirit of togetherness and belonging that will endure for a lifetime. And I can’t wait to hear how it goes!
Stephanie Kramer is a rabbi at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, CA. She is the proud mother of Micah 7, Noa 3.