This post, by Amy Sessler Powell, originally appeared on InterfaithFamily.com in June, 2009.
When my son Scott was in second grade, he once said, “I didn’t ask you to sign me up for Hebrew school.”
But when he started overnight camp in sixth grade at Camp Tevya, a Jewish camp in the Boston area, the first comment was quite the opposite. “Why didn’t you send us to camp two years ago?”
When I pointed out that he didn’t want anything to do with it at that time, he said on behalf of himself and his co-triplet brothers: “You should have made us. We missed everything.” Then they all chided me to make sure I start their younger sister “on time” so she doesn’t “miss everything.”
Everything, I wondered? But as they piled into the car to return home after their very first session, I got a good look at what they meant by “everything.” They promptly started singing the birkat hamazon for me, complete with all the silly words and hand signals unique to their experience.
I joined in singing with them as my own memories of the USY camp mess hall came flooding back. It was a true dor l’dor (generation to generation) moment for us. I thought of how much work it can be to learn all the prayers assigned in religious school, and all the nagging that requires, and contrasted it to the joyful 24-hour camp experience when it just soaks in through osmosis.
If you are intermarried and raising children Jewish, it is important to show children different observances and Jewish exposures because you may have less opportunity to experience this variety at home. Instead of seders with mom’s and dad’s side of the family, you only have these experiences with one side. Therefore, it is even more important to shore up their Jewish base, to create more Jewish family.
One of the first hurdles will be convincing your spouse that Jewish overnight camp is important. Though many Jewish families grew up with a camp tradition, my husband did not. Yet after a few days and a few detailed letters from the kids with the scrawled, “Camp is great,” he was on board. He saw their friends walking around town, bored with their iPods. It was not a huge leap to appreciate that our children were boating, swimming, singing, playing sports, attending services and sometimes doing silly things like swimming across the lake reading a newspaper or having a pie-eating contest.
It doesn’t hurt that children learn some secular lessons in camp. If you leave a wet bathing suit curled into a ball on the floor under your bed and it starts to grow green furry mold, you might actually hang it up next time. There is a wonderful beauty in knowing that when they want to say, “Mom, where are my shoes?” they have to hold their tongues and figure it out. They actually come home from camp with slightly better habits and a willingness to do some chores around the house, to chip in for the community, so to speak.
I knew that Jewish camping was important to me. I went to YMHA Camp Cedar Lake in New Jersey and USY Encampment at Camp Cejwin in New York, and I was looking for a Jewish camp with a legacy. The Cohen Foundation camps—Camp Tevya, Camp Pembroke and Camp Tel Noar–have a long track record of campers returning from summer to summer, even across three generations. It was love at first sight for all of us. I am constantly baffled by friends who try a less-than-ideal one-week camp for their children “to see if they can be away from home.” To my way of thinking, choose one you can stick with and begin to build the important relationships that make camp special.
When my three oldest children returned from their first year of camp, they asked me, “Why does our last name not sound Jewish?” This had been their first time in an all-Jewish environment and they immediately noticed that though they have been raised exclusively Jewish, their names did not sound as Jewish as “everyone at camp,” who had names like Schwartz, Cohen or Feldman, they informed me.
The simple answer, of course, is that their last name is not Jewish. My husband, Bob Powell, is not Jewish. The comment highlighted for me the many reasons that Jewish camp is especially important for children of interfaith marriages. At camp, the Jewish side of the family, ordinarily part of a minority, is the norm.
I like that they are immersed in Jewish culture at camp, even when it comes out in funny ways. I will never forget the time I put out a spread with burgers, pickles and salads, only to hear, “At least at Camp Tevya I can get a slice of onion with my burger!” Is this my Zayde talking, or my son who went to camp without ever thinking about a slice of onion on his burger? Seriously, after my children have had four straight weeks of Shabbat observance, I would not dream of skipping a candle-lighting ceremony at home. It warms my heart when one of the children remembers the kippot if I do not. When the kids return from camp, it provides an opportunity to reset the family’s Jewish agenda while it is still fresh. If we have missed a few Shabbats because of our busy schedules, camp provides an excellent reason to get back on track.
As my children enter their teen years and all the turbulence that brings, I see camp providing them with an extended Jewish family that can be a social oasis. These are friends that love unconditionally, creating a strong and reliable bond.
Amy Sessler Powell is a freelance writer and publicist with many clients including the KIPP Academy Lynn, the Cohen Foundation camps and the Jewish Journal of the North Shore. Formerly, Amy was the publicity director for the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, a reporter for the Boston Globe and a reporter for many local daily newspapers. A graduate of Tufts University and Boston University, Amy lives in Swampscott with her husband, daughter and triplet sons.