The minute my daughter was born, I started to dream about sending her to a Jewish sleep away camp. Not because I wanted to shake her, but because I knew we wouldn’t be sending her to Jewish day school and I wanted her to embrace our religion in a different way. Also, because I know from personal experience what kind of long-lasting impact it would have on her.
Growing up in Atlanta, it was more important to send your kids to Jewish sleep away camp. We were a small community and I was one of only a handful of Jews in my grade. Camp was the best way to really bring your kids together with other Jewish kids for an extended period of time. I went to a sleep away camp called Barney Meditz in the heart of Georgia. It was an oasis for me where I could be anything I wanted to be and I loved it all – everything from the Sabbath skit to Israeli dancing to getting dressed up for Shabbat and singing under the stars to Kosher food. I relished in the familiarity of a culture I belonged in.
When I entered high school, it became more necessary to find Jewish extra-curricular activities. I went to a performing arts high school where there was an even lesser Jewish population. It was then that my mother discovered the Young Judea movement. She drove me 15 miles to the meeting. Little did we know but those meetings would change my life. It was there that I would get turned on to Young Judea sleep away camps, and later Year Course, where I would spend my freshman year of college in Israel. For me, Young Judea represented a way of life. It’s a movement with a commitment to Jewish values, Jewish pride, and love of Israel.
When my daughter turned 10, I decided it was time to start thinking about sleep away camp. For some reason, she wasn’t that interested. She thought she’d be too homesick. My husband, who wasn’t raised with the idea of sending your child away during the summer, wasn’t particularly in favor of the idea either but I didn’t give up. I even took her to meet a little girl who had been to the camp before. My daughter didn’t show much emotion as the girl raved about the camp and after our meeting, the mother pulled me aside and told me not to push my daughter into it. If she’s not ready, she’s not ready. And I let her know that.
Eventually, she agreed to go for one week, and only with a friend. Fortunately, one volunteered, her parents acquiesced and the camp agreed to take them for a “taste”. As the weeks led up to her first day, I’ll admit that I experienced a resurgence of feelings about the experience and I was terribly excited for her. Her level of excitement didn’t match mine at all, however. If it did, it was mild.
The morning of departure, we both woke up unusually early and sat together in the den. I could sense her fear but there wasn’t much I could say to make her feel better. As we drove the short distance to camp, she cried quietly beside me.
We got there in the middle of lice check and took a number. While waiting our turn, I was asked to attend the parent orientation in the chapel. I was to leave her behind and come say “good bye” at the end. She started to cry and my heartstrings felt their final pull. An Israeli counselor came over to see what was the problem and instantly took over. I told myself that if it didn’t work out, I’d just move on. She didn’t inherit all of my interests and passions, and I certainly can’t force her to be anyone but herself.
When I returned an hour later, she was glowing. Adults weren’t allowed to enter the bunks, and she informed me that she was ready to unpack. We said our goodbyes and I left, looking back once or twice, kind of relieved and shocked by the turn of the events. It was then that I looked around the camp, remembered how much it changed my own life, and knew it was about to change hers.
As the week progressed, we went online nightly to search for photos of her. In every single one, the same smile looked back at me – as she performed the Sabbath skit to Israeli dancing to getting dressed up for Shabbat and singing under the stars to eating Kosher food. And each night, I took a deep breath, knowing the experience was everything I imagined it would be for her…and more.
Two days before we were set to pick her up, I got an email explaining why we hadn’t heard from her and that she had gotten stung by a bee. She said there had been too much rain and she hadn’t had a chance to write. At the end of the note, she wrote: “I kind of want to stay longer, but it’s probably too late for that.”
Success! We did pick her up two days later. She looked both happy and disappointed and the stories about her weeklong adventure haven’t stopped. She’s speaking more Hebrew than I’ve ever heard and is telling me stories about Jewish heroes like Hannah Senesh. She has changed and we are already planning next summer, when she’ll spend a full session.