5 ways Jewish summer camp changed my life

February 9, 2017
Juliette Finkelstein-Hynes (left) with Chloe Sesar at Camp Hess Kramer in 2016. Photo courtesy of Juliette Finkelstein-Hynes.

Ever since my first summer at Jewish sleepaway camp, it has been my favorite place in the world. I remember going my first year — I was 8 years old and terrified to be away from my family. The only person I knew who was going was my twin brother, and I was scared for a ton of reasons.

And yet, by the end of the eight-day session at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, I knew I had found my second home. I have gone back every summer, bright-eyed and full of excitement. Every year has its milestones and amazing stories and little things that I’ll remember forever.

Now that I’ve been going back to camp for seven years — these days for a monthlong session — I think it’s safe to say it has changed my life for the better, and here are five reasons why it can change your child’s, too:

1. Connecting with Jewish identity 

When I’m not at camp, I go to temple only during the High Holy Days. I don’t consider myself very religious. I don’t think about Judaism that often, but at camp I feel like I am part of this ancient tradition. Going to services and learning about what being a Jewish youth in America means, not to mention how to interpret and learn from the Torah, has exposed me to so much amazing Jewish culture that I would be missing out on otherwise.

2. Trying new things

At camp, I discovered my love for art and archery, philosophy and gardening. I never would have had the opportunity to play games like ga-ga and angleball or try new things like climbing rock walls and Israeli dance without going to camp. Sleepaway camp is a place where you can step out of your comfort zone and try new things without being worried about being judged.

3. Learning to get along

Living with a group of 10 girls or guys in one cabin for a month can breed a lot of drama if people don’t communicate. On the first day of every session, each cabin makes a brit, or covenant. It is a list of things that we agree will make our summer as conflict-free as possible. Not all summer camps do this, but it’s made a huge difference at mine. Rules can range from straightforward and serious (“Don’t take other people’s things without asking”) to a little silly (“Don’t yuck other people’s yum”). We all sign the brit, creating terms for us to coexist in peace. I’ve become more mature at camp, learning to be the bigger person and acquiring problem-solving skills that I can use year-round.

4. Exposure to caring counselors 

Counselors at my summer camp are between the ages of 18 and 21. They’re responsible, caring and wise while still being young and cool. Think of them as older sisters and brothers — they take care of you no matter what. My camp counselors have helped me to be strong, kind, adventurous and so much more. When I injured myself last summer and got upset that I couldn’t participate in some activities, it was my counselor, Ofir, who put it all in perspective, saying, “Being unable to do something because of an injury doesn’t mean you are weak, it means you are strong enough to try and be here. I am so proud of you.”

5. Making lifelong friends

Camp brings together people from different places and walks of life. Cementing the bond you make is a love of Judaism and these four weeks of summer bliss. My best friend, Julia, lives in Paris, so I see her only during camp. Although we text as much as possible, I miss her so much during the year. When we see each other on the first day of camp, we become conjoined at the hip for the whole month. Every friend you make at camp is a friend who will be there for you through thick and thin. The people I’ve met at Camp Hess Kramer are the most caring, loving and amazing people in the world. We all have inside jokes and keep in touch year-round, whether we are next-door neighbors or live thousands of miles away. In fact, I’d say we aren’t just friends — we’re family.

To parents who are on the fence about whether to send your kids to Jewish camp, you can read a study that says campers are more likely to engage Jewishly as an adult, or you can listen to someone who’s been there. Everyone I have spoken to who attended Jewish summer camp has said the same thing: Camp changed their lives.

It’s a place where young people grow, learn and evolve. It’s where we make unbreakable bonds, memories and friendships. It’s the place where we can become the best versions of ourselves, full of love, kindness and positivity. In short, camp is the place we become who we truly want to be.

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