My first summer at Jewish camp was back in 1994. In a move a bit out of character, I returned home from school one day
my parents to send me to camp. And while my family supported this choice, I'm sure there was some hesitation about having an unknown bunch of college students "parent" me in their stead for a month.
And I get it. As a parent now, I still have a hard time trusting my kids with a babysitter for a night out. But camp? There's no question about it. If my kids want to go, I'll make it happen. Because when it came down to it, that summer in '94 and those that followed helped me grow into the person I am today.
An awkward 12-year-old, I arrived at camp in my oversized t-shirt and wispy bangs,
soundtrack in hand. I was quiet, accustomed to having the privacy of my own room, and didn't know a soul in my age group. That first week could have been disastrous. But surprisingly, I loved it!
My counselor (Bethany--are you out there?) was awesome. She was cool, sooo mature--at the terribly old age of 19--and she got me. Without any sappy pep talk, she taught me by example that being quiet had nothing to do with being confident, friendly, independent, curious, or otherwise. And she did that by just being herself.
Bethany was just one of many role models I gained that summer. Have you ever lived in a room with 12 other people for a month? There's nowhere to hide your mood swings, your broken heart, or the childhood stuffed animal you couldn't part with. And while that initially horrified me, it may be the best part of the camp experience.
When there's no way to hide the personal, embarrassing, emotional parts of you, you learn how to let people in and love you for your whole self. That's something that I was lucky enough have at home, but a group of strangers? That kind of acceptance and friendship is life-changing. I learned from every single bunkmate I had that summer. They taught me about being courageous, welcoming, and ultimately, they taught me more about myself.
When it was my turn to become a counselor, I took all those lessons with me. And you know what? Knowing that my campers would learn from my example forced me to reevaluate, once again, the person I wanted to be. After all, if I'm not willing to face my fear of the lake, how could I expect that of them? No matter how old I got, camp continued to help me become the best version of myself. It was one of the greatest gifts my parents ever gave me.
So, when my own kids became old enough to attend our local JCC day camp, I was thrilled. Jewish camp is so much more than sports or arts and crafts. It's a thoughtfully crafted world that is built to help each person in the community connect, explore, and thrive. It's a place that champions our unique characters, experiences, and skills as well as our commonalities. And if my kids come home one day begging to go to Jewish overnight camp, my answer will be a resounding, "Of course!!" Because Jewish camp is the gift of a lifetime.
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Aimee Lerner is the Marketing Director at Foundation for Jewish Camp, a proud alum of Camp Ramah and a grateful JCC day camp parent.