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We think our oldest son is ready for overnight camp. We know that we want to send him to a Jewish camp, but we’re struggling to decide between a lot of great choices. The camps seem like they’re all good, and I expect he will love camp and want to go year after year. So we’re trying to be deliberate about picking a good camp for him to start down that path. Any suggestions on how to assess this?
Future Camp Parent
We really are so fortunate to live at a time where there are numerous Jewish overnight camps available from which to choose. There are camps for the major denominations, specialty camps for interests like arts and sports, camps with gender-inclusive bunk options, camps in a variety of geographic regions, and camps for the whole summer and ones for just a week or two. Of course, all these options can make actually choosing just one that much more difficult.
Start by taking a look at a lot of websites and then narrow down to a list of three or four camps that look like good options. When making that short list, consider the logistics first, including questions like these: Do the available dates work for us? Will it be easy/realistic to travel to the location or pay for transportation on top of the cost of camp? Can we afford it/are there scholarships available? Depending on your son’s age and interest level, you may want to involve him, but you may also just want to do this research yourself.
Then start talking around to parents you know. Ask about people’s experiences with any camps you’re considering. Ask what they liked about it and about any challenges there have been for them or for their kids. Ask specifically about their children’s first summers, since that experience can set the stage for, as you describe, a lifetime of connection to a particular camp. If you have the chance to talk to any current campers directly, I highly recommend that, too.
After you have some basic ideas and intel, reach out to the camps themselves. Set appointments to talk to the directors, and don’t be afraid to get into nitty-gritty details of your child’s personality and interests and any specific needs. Ask directly if they feel like their camp would be a good fit. Find out about their health staff, including mental health professionals. Ask how they handle homesickness and discipline and social issues and anything else you want to prioritize. Ask about the role of religion at camp, and try to get a sense of whether their style will be compatible with the Jewish life your child has already experienced at home, and the Jewish experiences you’re hoping he’ll get at camp.
Find out if campers come from a wide or narrow geographic region, whether most kids already know each other (especially if your son is not the youngest age at a particular camp), and how they help kids get to know each other. Listen both to their answers and to their tone and willingness to take the time to answer your questions, as their attitude with prospective parents likely extends to their attitude to incoming campers.
If all this feels entirely too overwhelming, there are camp specialists who you can hire to do a lot of this work for you. But, I think you can do this on your own as long as you remember in all these conversations, and in your final decision, that you know your child best, and you are the best judge of what experience will be a good fit. Accept that sending your child anywhere without you requires a certain kind of leap of faith on your part and on your child’s, and even in the very best circumstances, you can’t control for every scenario, or predict how your child will respond. Finally, remember that this decision isn’t actually forever. If the first camp you try doesn’t work out the first year, there are all these other options you started with, and many more summers to try again.