The sun has just set. From where I sit, up on a ridge, I hear music from two simultaneous song sessions filling the Valley below. When campfires turn to embers, youngsters will peel themselves away from the festivities and make their drowsy way to their bunks. Their dreams will no doubt be filled with obstacle courses and tie-dye, hikes and ropes courses. Another day at summer camp is done.
I’m a Camp Rabbi. That means I lead programs for the kids in my unit, and prayer services. Recently, I told a story about a water carrier with a cracked pot, and the kids supplied beautiful meanings. I led evening prayers, and advised counselors about delicate interpersonal dynamics. I engaged kids who seemed lonely or out of sorts. I sang silly songs with them before s’mores. But most of all, I got to observe.
I got to observe kids make tentative moves towards friendship, asking awkward questions of each other until they found something in common. I got to observe a counselor playing basketball with the shortest boy in the unit. I got to observe a group of pre-teen boys singing and dancing wildly to Jewish music, unself-consciously goofing it up. I got to observe kids tearing through a box of costumes, parading around in outfits that definitely did not gender-conform; nobody batted an eye. I got to see youngsters practice reading Torah and saying prayers in preparation for becoming bar and bat mitzvah. I saw older kids treating younger kids nicely. I got to see kids being themselves.
What didn’t I see? Electronics. There are no iPhones or tablets at camp, and no Wi-Fi access anyway. And — wouldn’t you know it? — the kids aren’t bored. They are happy to go swimming and do arts and crafts and play silly games on the lawn, just as kids have done for generations. They don’t require the constant barrage of image and entertainment. It turns out that these are unnecessary distractions from life. “Here at camp you don’t need electronics,” one little guy told me, “except light switches.”
We’ve robbed our children of their childhood. We’ve sacrificed them on the altar of busyness — theirs and our own. We don’t have the time to engage them, so we plunk them in front of the TV (even while driving). We want them to acquire skills, and so we send them to hockey and dance, martial arts and French lessons, shrinking to a wisp time for play and self-discovery. We test them over and over again, and contort their schedules to our adult need to quantify. As we cram them into little boxes, we neglect their souls, their individuality, their passion, and their play. We call these folly, but they are the stuff of which fulfilled adults are made. Let us not be surprised if they become passive, unable to think for themselves, self-absorbed, without dreams to propel them through the years. What else could they be, when this is how we have raised them?
This summer is ending; school will soon be in session once more. Parents: make a pledge now to send your child to camp next year. Let them experience exuberance and freedom. Let them meet positive, caring role models in their counselors — responsible people who are not yet full adults and who can show them the way beyond the boundaries of boy- and girlhood. Let them meet new people and make friends. Let them find themselves.
Camp is certainly expensive, but it’s worth it. If you start saving now, a bit each month, the bite won’t be so bad. Grandparents: please help. Your kids need camp more than they need new clothes or video games.
I went to sleep-away camp for five years, from 8 years old to 12. I tried things I’d never imagined before. I was put into new social situations and I learned about myself — my personality, my interests. I remember returning home one year, stepping through the front door, and gasping. “Our house is so small!” I remember my dad chuckled. The house hadn’t shrunk, of course. My world had grown.
My fondest memories: swimming in the creek, sitting under the apple trees, completing the lake swim, square dancing. This is the stuff of childhood. Everything else is folly.
• Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his “Rabbi Dean Shapiro” page on Facebook.