Why do Jews love sending their kids to camp so much? And how has the tradition of Jewish summer become more common than attending Sunday school or lighting candles on Shabbat?
What makes summer camp so special? Is it the camaraderie? The feeling of an elongated slumber party? The bug juice? (Probably not that one.)
It’s not just the s’mores and color wars that make people nostalgic. There’s something about Jewish summer camps that just keep bringing campers — and parents — back.
Even in movies like Wet Hot American Summer or Indian Summer, Jewish summer camps are perceived as a more significant coming-of-age experience than their own B’nai Mitzvah.
So why do Jews — especially in the Philadelphia area where surrounding summer camps nest on serene lakes with the backdrop of the Pocono Mountains — love sending their kids to camp so much?
How has the tradition of Jewish summer become more common than attending Sunday school or lighting candles on Shabbat?
I talked to some Jewish mothers — because, ya know, mothers know best — about what they hope their children learn from those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.
When campers write home for the first time — (Do kids write letters anymore? That’s a story for another time) — begging to be picked up and taken home, parents know that if they just stick it out, it’ll be worthwhile.
And let’s be real — mothers really do know best.
Take Ivy Frajerman, who has three children involved with Camp Ramah — Noah, 14, Brett, 11, and Alana, 9.
Noah and Alana spend their summers at Ramah at the Poconos in Lakewood, while Brett prefers day camp in Philadelphia.
But whichever type of camp involvement they prefer, Frajerman is just glad they’re getting a Jewish background.
“They do all the typical camp experiences — swimming, arts, sports — and yet are totally immersed in Judaism throughout their day. Without them even thinking about it, they are,” she said.
Although she misses the kids when they’re gone, “I know that the friendships they’ve developed and the wonderful time that they’re having is what’s important,” she added. “They still really make a point of seeing their friends throughout the year, and they’ve really made some wonderful friends through Ramah.”
The Frajermans, who belong to Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, don’t send their kids to a Jewish day school during the rest of the year.
Ivy went to a JCC day camp growing up, so she’s shared a lot of the moments that her kids are discovering now.
“Since my children do not go to a day school, I feel like at Ramah they really get the experiences that they’re not getting because they’re not at a day school,” Frajerman noted.
Both Noah and Alana have told Frajerman that they love celebrating Shabbat and Havdalah by the lake at Ramah.
“When they’re young is really when their love for Judaism develops and will take them throughout their life,” she continued. “They will always have those experiences to look back on, and I think because it’s such a natural part of their life, part of their summer, part of their year-long experience, it’s just like second nature to them and it’s important to them.”
Ali Reich, a mother of two who attend Camp Harlam in Kunkletown and an alumna herself, volunteers with Camp Harlam as the vice chair of the Camp Counsel board.
This will be her 18-year-old son’s 10th summer and her 12-year-old daughter’s fifth, but Camp Harlam has a deeper family history than that.
“Harlam is the same camp where my husband and I grew up, and we actually met there,” she said. “So, they’re second-generation ‘Harlamites.’ It really is their home. It’s where they feel most comfortable.”
She doesn’t see them often during the summer — as a lay leader, she’s only there for a few days for work — but she’s met a lot of camp connections as an adult in her volunteer capacity.
“Some of my oldest friends are from my camp days,” she said. “I guess you’re never too old to go back to camp.”
Reich added that camp gives her kids the opportunity to meet both staff and other campers who they might not run into in everyday life at home, like international staff members or campers from different states.
They get to bond with other Jewish kids over their shared religion, but grow and expand from their differences.
“All of that makes them feel like they’re a part of something bigger,” she said. “I hope that they take away lifelong memories, great friends, a feeling of really being connected to Judaism and a feeling that they want to stay connected to Judaism as they grow into adults.
“I know that both my kids wish that camp was 10 months of the year,” she laughed. “It really is their happy place.”
Shira Goodman’s two boys, 16-year-old Jason and 13-year-old Brandon, are also avid Camp Ramah-goers, heading to the Poconos since the earliest enrollment age.
This being Jason’s eighth summer and Brandon’s fifth, Goodman became more involved with her alma mater camp and joined the Board of Directors.
She attended Ramah in the 1980s, and her husband went to another Jewish camp in Michigan where he grew up.
“We always agreed we’d send them to Camp Ramah when we moved out here,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do if they didn’t.
“It’s a special place where kids are still doing all the normal camp stuff,” she continued, “but also is a place where everybody has the shared values, that their Judaism is important, that they like being Jewish, that being Jewish can be cool, that loving Israel is cool. It just infuses them with that pride and self-confidence in themselves that I think is really essential as they go out into the world.”
And when they do go out into the world, they can find those similar kids in places like United Synagogue Youth or Hillel, she said.
“Starting with a similar foundation and meeting people who have had that, maybe with a different Ramah or a different shared experience, I think it helps you make those connections and always find a home wherever you are.
“There’s always that connection,” she said of her own camp experiences.
“I like having that. It’s kind of like an identity badge that you wear, and it’s always like a common language and a common way to connect with people even as an adult.”
When Jason had the opportunity to join USY on Wheels, he chose Ramah instead.
“The fact that he can talk about how much he loves camp — I see the kids that he wants to be with,” Goodman added. “His first choice is always his camp friends and I think that’s special. Even if my kids don’t have the same observances in their kashrut or celebrate Shabbat the same way when they grow up, I think they’ll have a foundation and a spark and know that being Jewish is special.
“The evidence shows that Jewish camping is the way to have committed, confident Jewish teens, and I think it’s a critical piece of a Jewish future.”
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