What Is More Crucial for a Pre-Teen Girl?

March 7, 2018
Girls at Camp Newman. Photos courtesy of Camp Newman

Editor’s note: While the cleanup continues after the historic Tubbs Fire of last October that leveled the buildings at URJ Camp Newman, near Santa Rosa, this summer’s schedule has been shifted to the campus of Cal State Maritime Academy, Vallejo. Enrollment is nearly full at “Newman by the Bay.”

The summer after I finished fourth grade and my mother finished law school, my sister and I were shipped off to sleepaway camp in the mountains of West Virginia for four weeks.

My mother was studying for the bar exam, and she decided that this would go a lot better if we weren’t around.

In my memory, it went something like the scene from “Poltergeist” (“Get Out”), but, in reality, I’m sure it was a much gentler experience, where our parents deposited us at camp with loving hugs and promises to send care packages.

I loved camp. Living in a cabin full of girls my age, giggling and singing songs, doing scavenger hunts and washing our hair in the rain, was about as good as it could get.

Somehow, even making the bed didn’t seem like such a chore when it wasn’t your mother telling you to do it.

My daughter started going to sleepaway camp the summer after first grade. She started with three days of Girl Scout camp, then a week.

For the past two years, she has gone to Camp Newman, a Union of Reform Judaism camp that is a few hours away in Santa Rosa.

This camp had me at “Hello.”

It was everything that I liked about Girl Scout camps — the fun, the silliness, the friendship — but with a halo of Jewish values wrapped around it.

From Newman’s mission statement:

Our mission is to inspire campers and staff to take camp home and apply their Jewish learning to their daily lives, ultimately bettering themselves, their communities and the world.

We fulfill this mission by creating a spiritual oasis that bestows on campers and staff enhanced self-esteem, a more positive Jewish identity, a greater knowledge of Judaism and lifelong friendships. We create an enriching, enjoyable community of living Judaism for all ages, all seasons and all of life.

Last summer, my daughter had mixed feelings about going back. In fact, she was pretty much set against it. Although I had hastily shoed in her enrollment during one of her narrow windows of nostalgia, she reacted with horror when I told her that a slot had actually opened up for her.

“I don’t want to go!” she shouted, furious with me for actually doing what I said I was going to do.

“You’re going,” I replied. End of discussion. I wanted to wave my white scarf like the devil who wears Prada and say, “That’s all.”

I had my reasons. The weeks leading up to camp last summer involved a slew of emotional exchanges about how awful camp was going to be.

“Was I doing the wrong thing by forcing it on an unwilling child?”

“They make us pray all the time,” she complained. I bit my tongue, knowing full well that they were swimming and playing a lot more than they were swaying.

Nonetheless, I suggested that she might be more receptive to prayer in her life, being a year older, and that if she got bored with the prayers, she could just think about what was in her heart.

“That’s what prayer really is,” I reasoned.

She insisted that 10 days was too long to be away. I failed to correct her with “It’s actually 12 days,” figuring that once she was there, it would be hard to keep count.

Two days before she left, we were doing some last-minute shopping for a bathing suit. “Camp Newman has ruined my entire summer!” she screamed to all the shoppers in the Sports Authority parking lot.

It was an interesting observation, given that Camp Newman hadn’t even happened yet.

“What a great attitude,” I shouted back. “You’re right. If you’re going into it with that attitude, you’re definitely going to have a horrible time. Why don’t you spend the rest of your summer playing on Poptropica instead!!”

After I collected my Mother of the Year award, I started to feel pretty bad. I really believed in the Newman experience. But was I doing the wrong thing by forcing it on an unwilling child? Where did this fall on the list of decisions you do and don’t let your child make?

Fast forward to July 29, when we picked my daughter up from the bus. She was buzzing with excitement. She chattered the whole way home, sharing one story after another about her camp experience. She talked about the night they spent tent camping in the wilderness, the highlight of her week.

She described the games they played to build trust and teamwork. She recounted a beautiful and moving evening when each of the girls shared something about her personal fears.

“Everyone cried,” she told us.

She commended the chef for always making peanut butter an option. She proudly presented the beautiful candles she had made for a friend as a birthday present in arts and crafts. And she did so with such confidence and energy that I couldn’t help but feel proud.

“I want to go back for three weeks next year,” she said, unprompted.

I was trying to play it cool, but inside, I was ecstatic.

Why? Because Camp Newman is the closest thing my daughter has to living with a Jewish identity. Our home life, with the exception of ha-Motzi, is remarkably secular. Most of her girlfriends aren’t Jewish.

But for two weeks, my daughter lived a daily life that made her feel connected to and happy with who she is. For a preteen girl, I can’t think of anything more important.

She still silently plots the day when she will take revenge on me for making her go to Sunday School. She still refers to prayers in Hebrew as “a bunch of gibberish.”

But there are things I care much more about: Tolerance, kindness, humility, generosity, gratitude, respect for nature… all Reform Jewish values, and all things I see developing in her as she gets older.

Of course, they’re not exclusively Jewish values — but they’re not exactly cultural norms in today’s world, either.

Karen White is a startup executive, blogger and mother of two. She lives in the Bay Area.

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