What Is It About Camp?

By Rabbi Stacy Rigler, MAJE

“As long as there’s camp.” I don’t think a day of quarantine has passed that I haven’t had someone share some version of that sentiment when we talk about the status of summer camp. Now that some camps have made decisions, the conversation has a new tone, but is still ever present.

Our community and the world at large are experiencing significant, life-altering losses: deaths of family members and loved ones, declines of careers and companies. At the same time, we are encountering a different and more ambiguous type of loss: a loss of our ability to live our lives as we knew them. While we may have minimized the emotional impact of these kinds of losses, the grief felt this past week as some Jewish summer camps announced they would not open this summer was palpable.

This sense of loss feels familiar to me, to a life I have lived before. Five years ago I heard a similar question from my daughter… “I know it’s bad, but can I go to camp? This was the first question she asked after being diagnosed with cancer. While we were processing the news, she wasn’t thinking of medicine, school, friends, or 5th-grade graduation. It was camp. As I’ve heard questions emerge about this summer, I’m brought back to that moment in her hospital room when our world was crumbling and the only thing she cared about was camp.

As a mom of a cancer patient, I experienced many ambiguous losses; lifecycle events, vacations, routines, work, and school were all cancelled or changed. And though I was focused on limiting my daughter’s exposure to outside germs and staying within close proximity to our hospital, as time passed, I too found myself wondering, could she go to camp? Reflecting back on why we shared such a strong desire to have her attend camp that summer, I realize it was not about a retreat or Jewish education; role models and life lessons could wait. We cared about her spirit – her emotional wellbeing.

Camp is a security blanket, a best friend, a community, and a second home all wrapped into one. It offers an unparalleled sense of safety. Often described as a bubble, it is an intentionally planned, immersive environment created to help kids thrive. Campers regularly state that they live 10 for 2, meaning they live 10 months of the year awaiting their 2 months at camp. The purposeful construction of community and the transformative Jewish leadership create more than a Sukkah (shelter), they form a Mishkan (sanctuary in the wilderness).

Camp feels safe not because nothing goes wrong and no one gets hurt, but because there is always a plan, a guide, and a friend to lead the way. Jewish camps create a values-based community beating to the rhythm of Jewish time and simultaneously, existing outside of time at all. In their summer home, the physical, social, and emotional needs of campers and staff are met in ways that caregivers can only dream about.

Some members of our Jewish community are already grappling with the news that their children will not go to camp this summer, others are still waiting to hear. For everyone involved the possibility that their safe place will not open this summer is devastating. As a parent, I know we all wanted our kids to feel this summer was that sense of safety and security. As a camp professional, I also know that the only thing worse than not having camp, would have been having camp without safety and security, both physical and emotional. I have seen this pain and struggle in every article shared this week over the pros and cons of Jewish camp this summer.

June 2015 was the most challenging month of my daughter’s years-long treatment. On opening day, I called camp in tears asking if we could visit, just to have a moment. Our URJ Camp Harlam family welcomed us with open arms, but it wasn’t the same. My daughter couldn’t sleep in the bunk or keep up with her friends, and though she was able to feel the joy of driving through the gates, we knew we couldn’t stay. What we were able to do was let her feel the love of her camp community, let her remember that she had a place where she belonged, even if she couldn’t be there physically.

In the coming weeks our camp professionals will do what they do best, work to sustain our camp community and remind our camp family of the lessons they have learned from camp. In June 2016 my daughter returned to camp. That summer she shared with the camp leadership how the skills she learned from camp enabled her not only to survive a summer without camp, but helped sustain her through those challenges. Whether or not your child attends camp this summer the camp professional team will be there, to guide them, to help them learn, to remind them what Jewish camp is really all about: role models, resilience, and being part of a holy community, a Mishkan.

Rabbi Stacy Rigler, MAJE is the Senior Program Manager for Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp.  She has spent her career as a Jewish educator and rabbi helping kids and families in synagogue and camp settings use Jewish tradition to add meaning to their lives.