This week for me was dominated by summer camp. I confess that I have always been a summer camp kid. The things children learn at both Day and Overnight camp are so critical for life lessons. The relationships they develop can be lifelong and I loved day camp and while my first overnight camp experience was challenging and not fun, I attribute that to being a bit too young. My second overnight camp experience was transformative and more than 30 years later I still talk to friends and even staff from that time. When my long-time camp director passed away, I was interviewed by the Baltimore Jewish Times about his impact. He was a mentor, guide, and friend.
This week I not only saw pictures and posts of friends picking up their kids from camp but also those dropping them off. I read about friends going to volunteer at my overnight camp and felt jealous that they got a week there as an adult. I walked around The Roth Family JCC and saw and heard the children attending Camp J laugh, sing, play, and smile. I watched the activity in the swimming pool and out on the back field. My heart was filled with joy. I got emails and phone calls from families whose children were having great summers and wanted to add more weeks before the summer ends. And I was blown away as I got to see and talk with a family who due to Covid had been isolating for over a year and Camp J was their first big outing. Their daughter was so excited to be able to attend Camp J and I couldn’t decide who was happier and more moved by what Camp J meant to her – the child, her parents, or me. When I got home that night I couldn’t wait to share this story with my wife. It’s why all of us who work in the Jewish world do what we do. We impact and change lives.
I decided to reach out to both Amy Geboff who runs Machane Ohev and Reuben Romirowsky at the Rosen JCC who have their own Camp J. I wanted to hear their stories and the impact of camp this year on them and their campers and families. As expected, I heard amazing things with amazing impact.
In speaking with Amy, the most powerful words she told me were, “It was amazing! Kids longed for it.” The importance of being together was highlight for Amy, especially the unplugged time together where they could just be kids. She told me that it truly became a Kehillah K’dushah, a holy community. Almost echoing my personal experience, the campers, counselors, staff, and parents found it to be “rejuvenating, motivating, and reminded everybody why we all do what we do – bringing Jewish kids together, it’s why we do what we do.”
I love stories and my favorite was when Amy shared this one. One the last day, Amy asked one of the campers what her favorite part of camp was. The little girl responded, “Just being with my friends.’ This is the power of camp.
When I spoke with Reuben Romirowsky, the CEO of the Rosen JCC, he was just as enthusiastic about the impact of camp this summer. They were pleasantly surprised with the robust registration of older kids as lots of new, older kids wanted to participate in Camp J. One of the most important things cited was the kind and respectful culture. Jewish values in practice! The desire to get back to normal and back in the building while also being safe and smart were important factors.
During the past year, it was easy to ask why we do what we do. We couldn’t be in person and the challenges of the pandemic were real. Just like Amy and me, Reuben was effusive about how Camp J was a reminder of ‘Why we do what we do. There were happy parents, grateful parents, and happy kids.’ Despite the challenges of the pandemic this was the largest number of campers in the history of Camp J at the Rosen JCC. Reuben said that camp brought life back to the Rosen JCC with an atmosphere of ‘controlled chaos. Lou and with an energy that has been missing. It was busy from 7 am to 7 pm.’ The other thing Reuben told me that I found significant was how Camp J provided campers with an opportunity to for them to talk about the stresses at home. The past 18 months have brought unprecedented stress to all of us and children often struggle to find the words to share their feelings. At Camp J they have found a place where they feel safe to explore their feelings and work through these stressors. What an incredible gift.
As we enter Shabbat, I hope I have given you a different way to look at summer camp. It’s not just a place to watch your kids in the summer when they aren’t in school. It’s not a place that just entertains your children and tires them out, so they sleep well at night. Camp is a transformative experience. It provides relationships, not just a transaction for care, that enable growth, development, exploration of values and Judaism. As a true camp kid myself, I long for the days at camp with my friends and often dream about finding a way to create an adult summer camp to allow us to experience the joy and relationships that our children do. Imagine how much better our lives would be if we could let go and spend a week or two immersed in joy, friendship, exploration or learning.