It’s camp Jim, but not as we know it.

Tis the season of summer camp meetings. Just the thought of camp takes me and my rose tinted spectacles back to the late 1970s – those heady times of campfires and no-tech fun. (Equally heady, but not in a good way, were the cess pits. Can you imagine an open cess pit at a kids’ camp now? Mind you, can you imagine a tent?)

Our first meeting, and yes I schlepped my husband along, was about our daughter’s Israel tour. We arrived fashionably late in unfashionable clothes. I am an extremely punctual (and unfashionable) person, but my husband assured me that the meeting would be running on JMT (Jewish Mean Time) so there was no reason to rush our supper. (G-d forbid.) We padded in ready for a long night of repetitions, justifications and extremely silly questions. How wrong we’d gotten it. Firstly, the meeting had already started on time and we had to take our seats at the front. (The parents had obviously been to a lot of comedy clubs and were petrified of being picked on.) Secondly, nobody interrupted, nobody talked over the organisers and there were only a few, sensible questions. Very strange Semitic behaviour. The mood in the car on the way home was deflated. What an anti-climax.

So when it came to our second meeting, for our 13 year old son’s first foray into summer camp, we assumed that Jews were now quiet, punctual and trusting of the supervisors who were going to be looking after their kids. As the kids would say “lol” and “jokes.” How wrong we were – again. We arrived five minutes early to be greeted by a strong waft of perfume. This did not bode well as my husband has an allergy to all smells cosmetic. (He also doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is passionately intolerant to silly questions.)

The meeting started ten minutes late and the madrich/poor sod leading it politely asked if questions could be left to the end. He and his 3 associates covered everything. EVERYTHING. However, a lot of the parents held their own simultaneous conversations. I glanced at my husband. He had ‘the face’ on. The face that he wears in shul when the congregation is talking louder than the rabbi. I tried to stay strong, hoping that because most of the people who were talking were women and women can multi-task, then they were still taking in the information.


The address finished and it came to Question Time. The madrich was not as green as he looked. (Sorry, I’m a middle aged women – police officers, tennis players, madrichim, they all look like babies to me.) “Could we have questions 3 at a time please?” The crowd looked delighted until they realised that they weren’t allowed 3 questions each, but he meant he would take one question each from 3 different people before he answered them.

Now, I am not going to go into detail about all the questions asked, but suffice it to say that sublime and ridiculous were amply covered. The poor guy had painstakingly gone through the minutiae of every possible eventuality at camp but this was not good enough. It was like a Jackie Mason sketch with the main Jewish topics of parental angst being food, medication and mobile phone battery life. Ethos had been explained: camp was about ‘ruach’, ‘chavura’ and making friends. Once again, the madrich, patience personified, elucidated that yes, given that most 13 year olds there had Smart phones,  it would be difficult to keep them all charged, but there were provisions for it and really that was not what camp was about. The crowd were galvanised by the level of the inquisition and piped in with their own entries in the ‘daftest question ever to be asked by a Jew at a meeting’ competition. I looked at my husband, his head was in his hands and he was muttering to himself: “they could write a letter home haz vechalila” and “no, of course they’re not going to feed your child on a 6 hour coach journey.” I wondered whether to fake a tummy ache and drag him out of there before it got ugly.

After about 37 rounds of questions, the meeting finally drew to a close. There is no doubt that the madrichim placated the parents well, but it did feel like the parents were being pampered. Things could’ve been different if my husband were the madrich:

“No, there won’t be somebody holding a tissue every time your Little Darling sneezes. Deal with it.”

“Your Little Darling doesn’t like peas? Tough.”

And more than once:

“I covered that in the meeting. If you weren’t talking the whole way through it, you would’ve heard.”

On the way home, we had a good laugh. The meeting was one of the most entertaining we’d been to (and both our kids go to Jewish schools, so we’d been to some corkers.) But I had a question. A question I’d wanted to ask but felt maybe wasn’t appropriate at that particular time. It was about the cost of these camps and the fantastic (and I mean that in the true sense of the word) activities that were to be provided. This camp would be at a purpose built outdoor activity centre in Wales where the kids would have chance to participate in abseiling, kayaking and windsurfing. Truly wonderful experiences, but they don’t come cheap. In fact the cost of the camp was over £1100.

Let’s go back to 1978 when I went to Habonim camp. For a start, it was ‘under canvas’ – an expression that I had to explain to my kids this lunchtime. We played games, we sang, we made lifelong friends and had the time of our lives. All of these things were promised by the team at the meeting this week. So why do they need the extras? Why do they need the frills and spills stuff when the ‘camp experience’ (in this case called a ‘bubble’) should be enough?

I know, I know, every generation talks about ‘their day’ and I’m in fact doing exactly what my parents did, so annoyingly, to me. Maybe we’re all wrong, as nobody really thinks of Adam and Eve as having much of a laugh.

I blame the parents. It’s the same at school. Your kid gets told off in 2013, what do you do? You go up to the school, or if you’re very restrained wait until parents evening, and wipe the floor with the teacher.

Not us. We support the teachers and have tried to instil into our offspring a strong sense of respect. The teacher tells me my kid is chatty, I tell them to be as strict as they like. That is their job. Don’t get me wrong, my kids can backchat to us with the best of them, but there has to be boundaries.

It feels like the youth movements running the camps feel obliged to keep coming up with bigger, better and more exciting activities to entice the participants and keep the coffers full. I do appreciate that there are bursaries, but surely it would be preferable to have a more affordable camp in the first place. (Our kids are using their Bat/Bar Mitzvah monies to fund  the holidays.)

I was soon brought down from my moral high ground however, when I got home and my son had his own question:

“Will there be a power point for my hair dryer?”

About the Author
Author of Two Kids One Bathroom for The Jewish News. (Oh and there's a husband too.)
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