To sleep-away camp … perchance to dream

Going to overnight camp for the first time. It is — in many circles — a Jewish rite of passage. Unlike becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, however, the perfect timing for transitioning from day camper to overnight camper is not preordained; on the contrary, it can vary significantly from child to child.

With no magic age to rely on, how do we determine whether or not our little camper is ready to take the sleep-away plunge? By taking a deep breath, separating our own conflicted emotions from the question at hand and looking for the following overnight camp readiness markers in our child (adapted from guidelines by Chris Scheuer, director of camping for YMCA camping services of Greater New York):

  • A desire to go to overnight camp. True, some kids require gentle nudges to get them into the sleep-away state of mind. But if you notice your child turning a ghastly gray every time you broach the topic of bug juice or s’mores, chances are you should wait another round of the calendar before bringing them up again.
  • Successful experiences away from home. Generally speaking, kids who spend the night with friends without 3 a.m. pleas for pick-up — or survive a week at Grandma’s with minimal trauma — are probably ready for an extended stay at overnight camp.
  • Adaptability to new routines. Every child takes a little while to settle into new schedules and routines, but some kids become prohibitively anxious in the absence of familiar protocol. Simply put, if you believe your child may wig out if he doesn’t have his favorite Scooby-Doo mug of water and crushed ice delivered to his bedside every night, sleep-away camp may be a Scooby-Don’t for now.
  • Ability to interact with other children. Your child needn’t be a social debutante, but a basic knack for integrating into a group, relating to other kids and forging friendships is vital for group/bunk life.
  • A handle on hygiene basics. While overnight camp provides an excellent forum for promoting hygienic independence in kids, a child who has yet to nail down the basics (e.g. face and body washing, hair and tooth brushing, nose and tuchis-wiping) can quickly become disheveled, malodorous and embarrassed.
  • Ability to express needs. Plenty of shy kids thrive in a sleep-away setting, but profound hesitance to communicate personal needs — especially when a child is not feeling well, needs help learning a skill, or isn’t sure where an activity is taking place — can compromise a camper’s physical and emotional well-being.
  • Ability to make basic decisions. Overnight camp provides a steady stream of choices: Tennis or archery? Macramé or batik? Top bunk or bottom bunk? Consequently, campers who excessively grapple with run-of-the-mill decisions are liable to feel overwhelmed and frustrated.
  • Willingness to experience the outdoors. No matter how expensive an overnight camp might be, it is not going to be the Ritz. On the contrary, bugs, spiders, snakes, rain and mud are part of the overnight camp fabric. Most kids take well to the opportunity to connect with nature on such an intimate level. Some kids, however, do not.
  • Respect for adults. Enjoying a bit of parent-free abandon is part of the fun of overnight camp. Still, basic kavod, or respect, toward counselors, specialists and other authority figures, and a willingness to adhere to adult-initiated boundaries, are sleep-away camper prerequisites.

Finally, if after careful consideration, you determine that your child is not quite ready for prime-time overnight camp, don’t despair. Embrace the coming months as an opportunity to help your child reach these readiness milestones, and reassess the situation next year.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally-syndicated Jewish parenting columnist whose work appears in more than 50 publications; an award-winning educator; and a mother of four. Her Jewish parenting book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?” will be released by Broadway Books in 2007. Peers give Orthodox teens lesson in drug use and abuse

Camp Helps Teens Strengthen Identity

When I grew up in the outskirts of Philadelphia in the early 1980s, going to a Jewish overnight camp meant spending eight weeks in the Poconos with a bunch of pampered girls with last names like Greenberg, Cohen and Leibman.

The religious part of camp included Friday night services, singing the "Motzi" before meals and an occasional explanation of the words to "Adon Olam" for a non-Jewish counselor. Aside from a few token Jewish traditions, camp was a lesson in surviving girls who perpetuated the term "Jewish American Princess." Not only did this painful summer ritual reinforce my dislike of sports and snobs, somehow it also helped solidify my Jewish identity.

Does Jewish summer camp still have that effect on kids today?

This summer, I visited Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, one of two summer camps owned by Wilshire Boulevard Temple. In an effort to parallel my teenage experience, I spent the day with the girls in Cabin Emuna, a group of 14- and-15-year-olds entering their sophomore year of high school. These 10 girls were part of the camp’s Leadership Program, a group of 60 teens who had applied and interviewed for spots as the oldest campers and emerging Jewish leaders.

Driving along Pacific Coast Highway, I wondered if the modern-day Greenbergs, Cohens and Leibmans would have much to say about their Judaism. In my experience, Jewish camp had not been rich with Jewishness.

When I pulled through the camp gate, I was stunned to see a painted mural bearing the world "Shalom." Walking to the camp office, I stopped to study a group of kid-created paintings depicting Stars of David, the Western Wall and other Jewish symbols. I quickly realized I was entering a world very different from my own past.

Camp Director Howard Kaplan led me to Baruh Hall, a recreation building where the Leadership teens were gathered. Scanning the crowd of seated 15-year-old girls, I saw traces of the Greenbergs, Cohens and Leibmans of my past in their sloppily perfect loose ponytails, but the similarity ended there.

It was time for Limud, the daily Judaic studies hour. A Jewish rock singer named Danny Nichols was there to play guitar and teach his original songs. As I wondered whether the campers had any interest in their guest, a girl excitedly called out to the singer, "Can you play ‘B’tzelem Elokim?’" Nichols began playing and, to my surprise, many of the kids sang along and cheered.

"I really like the feeling of being in a Jewish community," Lindsey Herron, 15, told me after Limud. "Not very many of my friends at home are Jewish and sometimes I feel left out when they talk about their Christian youth groups."

Amazingly, after the Limud, the group was headed for another educational program: meeting with the camp’s 10 shlichot (emissaries visiting from Israel). Even though these kids had sports in the afternoon, I don’t think in my time we would have been happy with so much educational programming. But they don’t seem to mind.

"Do you guys feel that Zionism has become a tool in politics?" a boy asked the shlichot.

"Do you feel safe living in Israel?" a Leadership girl wanted to know.

I had my own question, but it wasn’t for the shlichot: When did Jewish camp become so Jewish? And when did Jewish teens become so motivated and interested?

"I think it’s really cool when we’re able to communicate with Israelis," Rachel Braunstein, 15, told me as we scarfed down tacquitos in the noisy dining hall. "With kids our age, we’re being so manipulated by the media, so it’s great to talk to Israelis and hear the true story."

During rest hour, some girls try to catch up on sleep lost during an intensive three-day hike.

Danielle Gruberger, 14, rises from her bed and sits next to me on the cluttered cabin floor.

"Outside of camp, I’m not very religious," the Encino resident admitted. "Being able to go to services every night at camp and being in touch with God makes me feel much more connected."

Overhearing our conversation from her bed in the bottom bunk, Carla Wirtschafter, 14, from Beverly Hills, says she’s not religious, either, but that camp "reinforces it in my mind that when I go home to make sure I keep in touch with the Jewish part of me."

The girls become animated when they discuss the weekly Israeli dancing after Shabbat dinners, which they describe as "a big mosh pit" where everyone dances.

Unlike my own camp experiences, Jewish camp today — at least this Jewish camp — seems like more than simply spending time with other Jewish kids. Tradition seems to permeate Hess Kramer at all levels — from the presence of a local rabbi-in-residence to the daily services to the "Hebrew Word of the Day" at lunchtime. Even the kids seem different, although it might be a self-selecting sampling — kids more into tradition might be the ones who come to camp. But still…. When I spent my summers with Jewish kids — most of whom I didn’t even like — it helped forge my young Jewish identity. I can only imagine the strong ties Hess Kramer campers have and will continue to have toward Judaism.

Carly Ezell from Solana Beach is already thinking about her future as a Jew.

"I want to raise my kids Jewish and send them to this camp," the 14-year-old said.