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Adult Swim

Ignore the bugs and the Bieber; focus on the break from everyday life and the enveloping sense of community: Jewish summer camp can be fun and meaningful for growns-ups with families in tow, too

Jessica Steinberg
July 01, 2011

Today, I had eggs and biscuits for breakfast, grilled cheese for lunch, and sloppy Joes for dinner. I am at summer camp, and I am 42 years old.

Each summer for the past several years, my family and I have left our home in Jerusalem and come to Clayton, Ga., to spend the month at Ramah Darom. My husband works in Jewish education, and I am an at-home freelance writer with kids, so we have the flexibility to come, as we did earlier this month: my 14-year-old stepdaughter disappearing into her bunk and our 2-and-a-half-year-old twin boys becoming camp mascots. We serve as yoatzim, advisers. During the day, we take on a variety of roles, including helping counselors support their campers, speaking to parents with questions, and working with kids who are having problems. We get to know campers on a very different basis than their counselors, hearing all their frustrations, from losing a water bottle and a bad PMA—that’s a personal mental attitude, as coined by bunk 31—to homesickness.

Why do we do it? My husband and I each have intense memories of being campers when we were kids. But many people have those memories and don’t necessarily want to relive the experience. There is a pragmatic element—our work here offsets the costs of my stepdaughter’s camp tuition—but we also wanted to give back to the informal Jewish educational system that was so vital in forming our adult selves. And we had a real desire to live in the enveloping, kibbutz-like atmosphere that is summer camp.

It’s odd being a grown-up at camp. This is a community in which there are more than 600 people at any given time, most of them age 16 and under. We’re imposters in this world of tweens, teens, and young adults. About 250 of them—the staff—are mostly around 20. Two decades older, I’m socially invisible to them. When I attempt to make a casual, friendly comment to a counselor I pass in the dining hall or at the pool, they forget me as soon as our exchange is over. I, however, tend to obsess about our conversation, reviewing what I said and they said. (Do they like me? Did they laugh?) And then, eventually, I remember: I’m more than 20 years older; I don’t care what they think.

But some of the joys an adult finds at camp would never have occurred to me as a kid. There’s no cooking, no food shopping, and no laundry. It’s like having a rustic country house, complete with beetles in your room, with access to a pool and a lake nearby but without the upkeep. There are even blackberries growing on bushes behind the cabins and small countryside villages to explore on our days off.

At the eight Ramah overnight camps that are the camping branch of the Conservative movement, families like mine have almost always played a role in the camp’s attempt to create a vibrant Jewish community. “There’s a perception of summer camp being a Lord-of-the-Flies kind of place,” says our camp director, Geoffrey Menkowitz. “But Ramah in general and Ramah Darom—in inheriting the culture of the camp and steering it—pushes against that notion and tries to create a more realistic type of community that’s not just for kids.”

The campers see this community all around them. They get more than a glimpse when I’m changing my kid’s diaper in the girls’ dining hall bathroom and they still want to hang out with my boys. They feel our personal connection when I speak to a sibling trio and remind them that I went to camp with their father, 20 years ago. And I’m grateful for my fellow parent-friends; when I have to leave my kids at the breakfast table to grab a quick chat with a counselor, I know that they will make sure they don’t destroy the place before I get back. It’s a community that, even with all the beetles and Bieber, I wouldn’t want to be without.

Jessica Steinberg is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.

Jessica Steinberg is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem with her family.