My mother would give me and my brother a 72-hour reprieve after returning from camp to “clean our mouths out,” so to speak. Maybe it was an East Coast thing, but the language we routinely used among our peers would make the saltiest of sailors blush. Still, within three days, it was gone – all due to the force of my mother’s nonplussed looks combined with the absence of a culture where such language was regular and acceptable.
Profanity certainly wasn’t the best outcome – still, my experiences at camp and other summer programs changed me in positive ways, too.
Children all over North America will be returning home this month from Jewish summer experiences. These experiences are immersive and sometimes other-worldly. Granted, we are far more plugged in today with our “digital connectedness” than when I was a teen, but our children today still come home having not seen the summer blockbuster, taking part in the latest fad, hearing the cool new song, or even aware of the news across the world let alone the country. These summer experiences create new micro-universes that allow for our children to grow in intense incubator fashion. And the return home has the potential to reset the clock as if none of that transformation happened.
The way my parents and community empowered and encouraged me provided for my personal growth to endure – even when the profanity that might have come along with it went away.
Though the list can go on and on, here are some tips to help your child seize the growth they are likely unaware of (and unable to articulate), following what they may claim was the “greatest summer of their entire life.”
Sign Them Up Right Away
Certainly not the most important, but often the most overlooked: sign your children up for next summer. Do it with your child; Explain to them how much it costs and what it means for your family. Strike while the iron is hot. And make the case to them that it is a priority for your family – their happiness and their growth. (Heck, there may even be early bird discounts.) Some of the younger children who experienced homesickness or other challenges may have mixed feelings about trying again now that they’re home, but the positive feelings will fade away with each passing week.
Make Room For Teshuvah
Not everyone has a perfect summer. Profanity should be the biggest of our concerns. Some of our children get kicked out and sent home. Some incur fines. Some get fired. Consequences are important, but so is the learning that comes with it. The embarrassment that comes not only with the departure from what likely was an important universe for them, is hard enough. But to face the murmurings at home that likely carry into the coming year is sometimes torturous. Teshuvah is literally an about-face – allow your child to make things right and help them find a second chance when the opportunity arises (along with whatever help they may need).
Make A Countdown Calendar To Next Summer
This is a tough one. We don’t want to live life racing past other milestones, but for the child who sometimes experiences cloudy days on a regular basis, seeing a pull-away calendar on their desk that says 187 days until camp may actually get them through that day. Because 187 may seem like a lot to some, but it is one-day sooner than 188. The feeling of pulling off 187 and becoming 186 is a race of excitement that carries the summer into each day of the year.
Long distance bills are a thing of the past. Do not chide your children for not making enough friends at school, or for not spending more time with their friends who live closer. Encourage (but don’t badger) your children to text and call and use social media to stay in touch. Allow the late-night phone calls or Snap conversations. Remember, they used to stay up until the wee hours of the morning exploring all of life’s unsolved mysteries together – these are their “people.” Allow that to continue. Allow them to spend a weekend out of town visiting their friends in a different state even when you never traveled until after college. Encourage them to join their peers at their bunkmate’s bar or bat mitzvah at other synagogues, in other zip codes, in other time zones. And most important: Develop relationships with the parents of each of these friends. Who knows, they may become your “people” too.
Make Jewish Moments Natural
During these immersive summer experiences, of course we offer thanks to God before and after eating. Of course, we find moments during the day and/or week to reflect, to offer supplication, to experience humility and grandeur.
And it comes naturally: Kabbalat Shabbat overlooking the lake; Havdalah beneath the stars or in the Chadar Ochel/Bet Am/Ulam/Hotel Conference Room with the lights off; Shabbat whites and Candlelighting. All of it can become very foreign once we roll back into the “real world” routine.
You don’t have to go to synagogue to be Jewish and you don’t have to be at camp to feel Jewish. Ask your child to share their summer rituals with you – and begin to make them your family’s regular rituals.
Make Room For Prayer And Song
My father shared with me a story once that when he was serving in the pulpit, he found himself one day in the produce aisle at the grocery store. A member of his synagogue was there with her child, and the child was belting out the Shema. Embarrassed, as my father approached, the woman shushed her child. My father laughed and suggested that we should be encouraging our children to sing louder – even in the produce aisle.
This is not to say that od lo achalnu needs to begin every meal, or rad hayom must introduce every bedtime. But why not wake up with Modeh Ani or Mah Rabu? Why not play your favorite camp tefilot or shirim in the car? Why not sing together? Why not recite birkat hamazon together time and again if you do not already?
Prayer and song lighten the soul. The nostalgia for our peers’ voices drowning out our own encourages us to live life louder in the real world.
“I reside in Minnesota, but I live at [INSERT CAMP HERE].” Nowhere else do we become as comfortable as the new – or better, the real – us, than at camp. We are comfortable making fools out of ourselves because we’re only fools to the outside world. We are the most overzealous color war captains, because ruach rules the day, not actual athleticism. We may never sing in front of anyone else, but at camp, we try out for the lead in the musical. We volunteer for high ropes despite our fear of heights. We serve our peers and bus our tables even when we can’t find the time to empty the dishwasher or set the table at home. We discover hidden talents through the eyes of our encouraging peers. We become comfortable in our own skin, exploring our sexuality, our identity, our intimacy. We create – and sometimes shatter – bonds of trust. We live a year in the span of a day.
And when we return to reality, our bravery and carefree sense of self begin to fade. The walls of anxiety begin to tower over us as the pressure of the school year, of the sports team, of clubs and band and activities, begin to mount.
We can’t be our child’s bunkmate, but we can make space for them to be them. That is, we can support them when they make changes that may seem to be brash decisions out of nowhere. We can cut back on the pressure that we as the adults of the community (and it’s not only the parents) put on our kids to succeed. School is not that important. Making the team is not that important. Becoming president of this or that is not that important. Happiness – not “me first” happiness – but satisfaction in the world around us that leads us to embrace our passions and find our voice, that is what is most important.
Ask The Hard Questions
Once some time has passed, ask the harder questions. What was your favorite part of the summer is an easy question.
But: What was the hardest part of your summer? What do you wish you could have done differently? What do you feel like you left unfinished?
Those are the questions that our children are looking for someone to ask – even if they don’t realize it. And even if we don’t get an answer right away (or even at all), as long as they’re thinking about it, and they know we’re here to help process, that’s what matters.
There Is Always Tomorrow
This may feel like the best summer of their life. And the nostalgia will grow and grow – as it likely has for us, too. But it is our responsibility to help them understand that this was only the best experience thus far. Sure, other things may pale in comparison, but we must ensure that each day, each week, and each month, is that much better for our children. The sun may be setting on this summer, but we will be the ones to provide the next sunrise until they return to bask in the glow of next summer.