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Kids Learn at Camp, and We Learn S’more

Kids Learn at Camp, and We Learn S’more

I've been greeting the mailman as if he were Brad Pitt these days. I practically attack him, and by now he knows why.

Three of our seven grandchildren - Carly, Danny, and Emily - are away at summer camp. While they have faithfully promised to write, the grand total so far, nearly halfway in, is one letter from one granddaughter.

Eleven-year-old Emily, suddenly tall and graceful and the wordsmith among our grandchildren, has sent a full description of life up there in the Poconos. The oft-occurring word: "Great!"

I adored it. And her mail made me yearn even more for word from the others.

But if history is prophecy, firebrand Danny, now 12, will send one postcard, under pressure from his counselors. I can pretty much recite what that postcard will tell me: "Camp is good. Food is good. We played a trick on our counselor. Love . . . "

But then there's Carly, the youngest. This is her first year at URJ Camp Harlam, a special place for our family. Our three daughters walked the same trails, lived in the same cabins, and experienced something that this grandmother never did.

I was too chicken to test myself away from the familiar. Ostensibly the "social" daughter, I steadfastly refused to try summer camp, even when my older sister, the shy one, took the leap and loved it.

Over time, I've deeply regretted my decision.

My daughters, and now their children, have had to learn what it means to live with a dozen other people in close quarters, and make it work.

In the process, they've almost surely experienced the ache of homesickness, but that's a kind of learning, too. And so is finding out who you are away from the comfort and security of home.

Carly is 10 - about the age her mother, our daughter Amy, was when she started in Girls Bunk 2 at a place where Jewish values are emphasized, and Sabbath services in a glen are woven into the experience.

Not many kids expect to enjoy that - but almost all find out that it's pretty amazing to welcome Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, surrounded by your summer soul mates as dusk settles over the mountains.

It's all new this summer for Carly, a confection of a little girl. As the caboose of the cousins, she has made herself tame the terrifying. Carly has conquered roller coasters, thunder, and the ocean in order to keep up with the older kids. At times my heart broke at her raw courage, but it was the cost of being one of the gang.

Carly's now at a wonderful age, before the angst and maelstrom of the teen years - a perfect time to try camp.

But still, I detected a little trace of anxiety when Carly and I talked in late spring about her going to camp. For just a moment, those blue eyes clouded over with who-knows-what worries.

I'm hoping that up in that mountain bunk she's learning how to thrive in a group, and discovering new sides of herself.

I want Carly to find new passions, test new waters - maybe rock climbing or boating or archery, things she's never imagined herself doing.

Our youngest grandchild will go without the sound of her parents' voices for four weeks because calls at camp are not permitted - nor, thankfully, are cellphones.

She will go without amenities like privacy, like air-conditioning - and it can get hot in those cabins. But Carly will learn from that, too.

And hopefully, the newest Friedman camper will return to us the same spirited little person who left us four weeks ago. Maybe even more so.

I picture her hiking in streams, dancing at song session, plunging into the pool, giggling with her bunkmates, and screaming with delight at the joyful breakout of Color War. I dare not picture her missing Rosie, the family puppy, or her best friend, or her lavender and green bedroom - her exotic color choices - back at home.

Four weeks can seem like a blink - and forever.

For Carly's parents, that last mile up to the gates of camp on pickup day will seem endless. How well I remember those days with my own daughters, and how desperate I was to see those faces, and to try to catch up on all they had said and done and thought and learned - without me.

But there's no way Carly will be able to share it all. Camp is her experience now. Those memories are already stored. And Carly owns them.

Yes, camp teaches us grown-ups, too, and a profound lesson at that: At the heart of being a parent is gently teaching your children how to leave you.

Sally Friedman and her husband, retired New Jersey Superior Court Judge Victor Friedman, are members of Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., and their three adult daughters were ecstatic campers at URJ Camp Harlam. Sally is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in English. She currently contributes personal essays and feature stories to national and regional newspapers and magazines about relationships, health, homes, and more.

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