As the 2023 summer camp season draws to a close, we will soon celebrate what many have called, “a return to normalcy”. Without a global pandemic lingering in the shadows, for the first time in four years, camp professionals have had to deal with the more predictable issues that typically come up – weather challenges (torrential rain, extreme heat, Canadian smoke), routine childhood illnesses (fevers, strep throat, stomach bugs), and a return to the logistics of planning large scale, camp-wide programs, outings, and offsite trips. Of course, in camp parlance, normal means wonderful!
Our Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) team has had the privilege this summer to visit over 100 camps – close to one-third of our network of Jewish day and overnight camps across North America. We’ve seen the return of positivity, joy and fun, creative and innovative Jewish programming, effective efforts to create cultures of kindness and empathy, and the development of life skills like independence, leadership, communication, and collaboration. Making the ‘magic’ happen isn’t easy. We admire the camp professionals who work hard to provide quality experiences for both campers and college-age staff with great intentionality and diligent care.
And, yes, more needs to be done especially to address a persistent and unfortunately growing challenge with the mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health crisis of today’s campers and staff. This problem is not unique to Jewish summer camps, but rather, these camps are a microcosm of larger societal trends with youth mental health.
To address these challenges, FJC’s Yedid Nefesh (Beloved Soul) Mental Health Initiative continues to make a big difference by helping camps remain places where youth and young adults can explore their identities, find support in community, and make friends that last a lifetime. In fact, the camp environment provides built-in health and wellness benefits: being immersed in nature, taking a real break from screens (and especially social media), and overcoming feelings of loneliness and isolation by living with peers in a bunk. FJC wants every Jewish child to experience this special “magical” experience no matter the circumstance – whether they have a physical disability or face a mental health challenge.
Furthermore, we know Jewish camp may be even more important for those kids who come from smaller Jewish communities. I witnessed that story first-hand last week, when the Second Gentleman of the US (SGOTUS) Doug Emhoff, returned to his childhood camp, Cedar Lake Camp (NJY Camps in Milford PA), for the first time in 40 years. Throughout his two-hour visit, he recalled how he grew up during his four summers there – learning to be independent, developing self-confidence, and solving problems – and, coming from a town with a small Jewish population, he cited how camp had nurtured his Jewish identity and pride.