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Karen Reiss Medwed

All I Needed to Learn About Jewish Parenting, I Learned at Summer Camp

Official photo of Camp Ramah in the Poconos where the author worked for some twenty years, many moons ago

A real-life story in two parts

Part One

Stop!” The shout came from my oldest daughter while we were in a large supermarket, walking down the cereal aisle. She was standing in front of a display of sugar cereals, and having recently begun to read, was perusing the boxes. “I did NOT know you could eat sugar cereal any day of the week!” She proclaimed this to me rather loudly.  Confused I asked her to clarify. “Ima,” she continued, “I thought sugar cereal was only available on Shabbat.”

As camp summer sessions are ending, and as campers are talking about ways they will “bring camp home with them,” there is another, less spoken of but equally significant group of Jewish adults bringing camp home in a myriad of ways, and that is the ever present and large number of young adults who find themselves at camp, developing a myriad of leadership and career based skills. As important as the obvious skills these staff developed over the eight weeks, are also a set of Jewish competencies which they will bring home from camp.

Part Two

It was the middle of lunch with fellow rabbis, and we were commenting on the wonderful meal before us, and how we had such a nice breakfast earlier that day, in the way colleagues coming together to break bread might do. Reflecting on breakfast, my colleague, Rabbi Ruberg, noted, “you know, my kids don’t really have sugar cereal served to them.”  Interrupting him I exclaimed, “when my kids were younger we only served them sugar cereal on Shabbat, like at camp.” To which he replied, “same with us.”

In fact, there is significant Jewish parenting that staff at camp learn.  From dedicating special routines to help differentiate one day from the next, to realizing that all children can take on responsibilities from sweeping floors to putting out the trash, to understanding that even older teens appreciate the pause of evening to have a story told to them, and that all Jews can create space for the spiritual reciting Shma at bedtime with campers.  Our children learn so much at Jewish camp and our staff learn so much as well.  The former on living lives enriched with Jewish meaning and the later on being able to facilitate, teach and engage others in lives empowered and rich with Jewish meaning.

Jewish Parenting from Summer Camp

The rabbis teach us to always acknowledge those whose wisdom we share in the world, and so it is with great gratitude to Robert Fulgham for inspiring us, that all we ever needed to learn about Jewish parenting, we learned at summer camp:

Shabbat breakfast is for fun sugar cereal; cold showers still clean your body; even high school kids like to have a book read aloud to them once in a while; all children can be responsible for sweeping the floor or folding the laundry; dance in the rain and sing in the storms; start and end your day reciting the Sh’ma; we can all speak some Hebrew; we all do better when pause to rest and recalibrate in the middle of the day for sha’at menucha; say a prayer for the rainbows in life; and look around you – life is about the people you let in and together you can get things done. 

These Jewish parenting (and multi generational) skills learned at camp teach us ways to support self care and self differentiation, resilience, grit, joyful celebrations and spiritual marking of time and place.  We spend a lot of time talking about the value of sending Jewish children to camp.  The adults who work with our children, who come into their young adulthood, middle adulthood and grow old at camp also bring camp home with them. They go back to their college campuses enriched and empowered by experiential learning from staffing summer camp, and they provide an immeasurable ‘add value’ to Jewish life on campus.  And the lessons they continue to instill as active adults and with their families and communities are as valuable as the priceless camp experience they afforded to their campers.  Jewish summer camp ROI is immeasurable when we count all each of us learned at summer camp and do now as Jewish adults in the world.

Written with gratitude to my thought partner on this piece, Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg, to Camp Ramah in the Poconos where this author worked for close to twenty years, and to the incredible mentor, educator and person I get to call dear friend who taught all of us what camp could be, the extraordinary Educator, Coach and former Camp Director at Ramah Poconos, Cheryl Magen. 

 

About the Author
Rabbi Karen G Reiss Medwed, Ph.D. is the only certified practicing female identifying mesadder gittin in the Conservative movement, and is an appointed member of the Joint Bet Din of the Rabbinical Assembly. She works as a Teaching Professor at the College of Professional Studies of Northeastern University.
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