I have just returned from “Visitor’s Day” at my daughter’s camp. In America, youngsters often go off to a rural setting where they enjoy a month or two in an environment of structured play. It is extremely common for Jewish parents to send their kids to these places where the days are long and the fun never seems to end.
I remember a few years ago, when my daughter first started going to camp, I mentioned it to a friend and he asked, “What is it about you Jews? You’re always sending your kids away.”
That was a complex question, and I’ve actually given it a lot of thought. “You have to understand,” I told my friend. “We live as a minority in this society. Obviously, we like living in a heterogeneous country or we’d move. But it’s nice, just for a month or two, to not have to explain, ‘Oh, actually, I attend services on Saturday instead of Sunday.’”
And while most Jewish camps do not have restrictions on religious affiliation, by definition, they do attract that demographic.
There are a lot of theories as to why Jewish camps are so popular. The one my daughter attends has been in operation since 1902, when Jews lived almost exclusively in tenements in the city and they needed some fresh air. Now they are “escaping” mostly suburban neighborhoods, so why is it still going strong?
Could it be that the parents enjoy a little time alone together? Sure that’s an element. Is it an elaborate dating service designed to help Jews breed? That’s a theory too. But there’s even more going on.
I’ve heard that the Dalai Lama, in an effort to learn how a people can survive in diaspora, apart from their homeland, identified a few things that the Jews have been doing right. Among them are the Passover seder (a festive meal held each Spring which commemorates the biblical story of Exodus) and summer camp.
Not everyone thinks camp is a great idea. My mother-in-law, for instance, seems to look at it as one small step above child abuse. I myself wasn’t a “happy camper.”
But my daughter begs to return again and again and has announced that she intends to start working as a camp couselor when she is too old to attend. As I’m driving her there each year, I’m the one who needs to be consoled and reassured.
But I’m glad I’m giving her this little taste of independence. These days of playing in sunshine and forging relationships. And this taste of what it is like not to have to explain oneself, not to be in the minority.