The early bonds that bring us together.
Recently, I attended a bat mitzvah party in Cincinnati. The mother is a camp friend of mine, and the reception felt like a camp reunion. There were easily twenty camp friends from my time at Camp Livingston in the 80s and 90s.
It was wonderful to see so many people that I have not seen in years. Even though we have followed each other on social media, there is something special about putting your arms around people you have not seen in years. We fell right into the same old patterns—making fun of each other and laughing over our awkward dance moves, though we added kvelling over our growing families to our repertoire.
We didn’t talk about camp specifically, but it was the impetus behind our revelry. We all met at Camp Livingston in the backwoods of Southern Indiana. The cabins there were rustic at best, the food was not bad, and the mosquitoes were the size of bats.
We rode horses that we rode in a slow circle twice a week, did a ropes course with nothing over 8 feet off the ground, enjoyed a lake in which we would swim, boat, and fish, and used a huge athletic field that was really just a field onto which we would bring different sports equipment.
The weather in Indiana over the summer was incredibly hot and humid, unless it was raining in which case it was wet and miserably cold. A rainstorm in the first week could leave mud through week seven, and the staff was mostly ages 16 to 20. As far as amenities and atmosphere, it was not that big of a deal. But I went back summer after summer.
I went because of the people. The people I ran into at the bat mitzvah party in Cincinnati, the people I call regularly when I am aware of a simchah or sorrow in their life, the people for whom I would do anything in my power if they asked. Camp brought these people into my life, and I returned year after year because they mean so much to me and my family. They were at the bat mitzvah party in part because they are still close after all these years, but also because the bat mitzvah herself goes to that same camp, as do most of the children of our camp friends. They are creating a true sense of L’dor Vador that I am confident will continue for years to come.
Surely there are camps frequented by New Jersey Jews that have the same phenomenon. It’s because we get it. We understand that Jewish summer camps create a powerful experience in our Jewish youth. We know that sending our children to summer camp is an incredible gift to them. Actually, it is the gift that keeps on giving because sending kids to Jewish summer camp gives us the one thing most of us want as Jewish parents.
It gives us Jewish grandchildren.
A Jewish summer camp experience is well documented as being one of three things that greatly increases the likelihood of its participants engaging in Jewish life as adults. (The other two are Jewish Day School and an organized trip to Israel.)
So send your kids to summer camp. It will be greatest gift you give to them, and the greatest gift you give to yourself.
Rabbi David Young is a contributing writer to Kiddish magazine.