There’s a place where kids can just be themselves. Where they build community, take on challenges, become independent and develop leadership skills. And with everything they think it’s just fun and friendships. That is the magic of the summer camp – a healthy dose of nature and care.
A year after sleeping camps across the country were closed by the pandemic, many children were packing their shorts and walking shoes again, dug out their sleeping bags, and met with camp pals to revive old traditions.
We asked the directors of three Jewish summer camps in Washington state to share their perspective on the camp’s role in children’s social and emotional health and how it was especially important in the summer of 2021.
Welcome back to the camp
“The return of the children this summer was very special,” says Zach Duitch, director at Camp Solomon Schechter in Tumwater. “We could see it in their faces. After being online for a year and a half, they were ready to be out with their friends and have fun. “
Many parents were understandably concerned about sending their children back to camp last summer. The number of visitors declined somewhat, but families also recognized the value of getting their children back to healthy summer fun outdoors, says Duitch. Away from the everyday social pressures, the camp staff work to create an environment that is a safe place for the children to be their authentic selves.
“Parents trust us with the safety and health of their children – as well as their spiritual and emotional needs. We take this trust incredibly seriously, ”said Rabbi Ilana Mills, director at URJ Camp Kalsman in Arlington. “The camp changes life in many ways. It’s a chance to grow as a whole person. “
Games and fun with lasting effects
When kids come home from a week, two, or three weeks to summer camp, the changes may not be immediately apparent. In fact, it is only as adults that many campers and advisors realize how much the experience has shaped them and awakened courage, compassion and independence from an early age. As early as the summer after the first grade, the children can leave for camp. Many develop into consultants over the years and take on leadership roles as high school and college students in what many describe as “the best job ever.”
Ask a child and they will say the camp is all about boating, hiking, the arts, sports, barbecues, and the thrill of a high ropes course. In addition to the fun, each camp has its own unique culture with familiar traditions that are passed on from summer to summer. The camp culture connects the community with singing and partying, skits and games. Jewish summer camps also incorporate religious observance and fellowship into daily life.
“Camps are these bubbles – their own societies – in which children play a central role,” says Rabbi Kenny Pollack, camp director at Sephardic Adventure Camp in Cle Elum. “Our children immerse themselves in the camp’s culture and it helps to shape their identity.”
A healthy dose of silliness
When camp leaders describe how their programs benefit children, it can sound pretty serious. But one thing they take very seriously is having fun.
“At Camp Solomon Schechter we do a lot of ‘shtick’. Campers love it when their advisors act silly, ”says Duitch as he explains a popular quiz game that ends with participants being messy and everyone laughing.
Mills describes how “we really try to think outside the box as much as possible. We encourage our consultants to teach their passion, be creative and try new things. ”She even had the chance to join in the fun playing a zombie during the climax of her outdoor survival session at URJ Camp Kalsman.
A chance to leave the real world behind
Children leave their parents and their digital devices at home when they arrive at camp. It may be homesick at first, but soon your days are full of activities and friendships. And as more and more camps become device-free, campers get a break from their screens.
“The camp is a place where children can be their authentic selves,” says Pollack.
Every summer, when children find old friends and make new ones, they connect across borders. Camps are increasingly bringing advisors from international locations to supplement the program with games and traditions from their home countries.
“As much as children love their parents, the camp is a great opportunity for them to learn from other role models,” says Duitch, explaining how the camp experience broadens children’s perspectives and connects them with lifelong friends.
Many parents, children and camp staff found it heartbreaking to cancel the camp in 2020. Because of this, camps across Washington have come together to lobby the state government to ensure camp takes place in 2021 and will be a safe and memorable summer. In the end, it can be difficult to measure the social and emotional impact of returning to camp after a busy year. But the parents could undoubtedly see it in the hugs, joy and happy exhaustion when they picked up their children at the end of camp this year.
the Samis Foundation was founded in 1994 by Samuel Israel z’l and is the largest Jewish philanthropy in Washington State. Grantmaking focuses on the foundation’s mission to support local Jewish education and initiatives in Israel.