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Camp, Then and Now

Three decades, two very different trunks

Marjorie Ingall
June 28, 2010
(Illustration: Leela Corman)
(Illustration: Leela Corman)

Josie, 8, is going to Jewish overnight camp for the first time this year. I’m fine. I’m ready. Don’t mind me, I’ll just sit here alone in the dark.

Her camp, like mine back in the day, offers t’filah (prayer), omanut (art), sports, chofesh (free time), swimming, weekly sending of Shabbat-o-grams and attendant social anxiety: How many will I get? If I send one to That Cute Boy, will he think I like him That Way? Do I want him to? What is the encoded meaning of this particular Shabbat-o-gram? Could I possibly parse it more if it were the Talmud?

For many of us, sleepaway camp is the first sizeable chunk of time away from parents. It’s a taste of adulthood. Nikayon, daily cleaning time, was the first time I really scrubbed a sink or swept an entire floor. Because camp means building a society in miniature, in which kids have more independence and power than they do back home, friendships there seem more vivid, more intense–a lifetime poured into a concentrated month or two.

But some things have changed. My parents sent in a two-page form and bam, I was a camper. I, on the other hand, filled out some 60 pages of documents about Josie, including a “social media policy” in which our entire family had to pledge not to defame the camp on Facebook or Twitter. Today’s camps ask so many questions about our children’s mental health, it’s as if our tweens are applying for jobs with the CIA. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, the world outside of camp is far more connected today. When kids head for the machaneh, they leave behind a million ways to chat, extensive online universes and multi-player games, gazillions of TV channels. Writing and receiving letters rather than email feels quaint now.

But I chose the camp I did because the kids and the camp’s values seemed like throwbacks in the best way. I want the feeling of a bungalow colony, not a country club. I want Jo to have the experience I did. Of course, every generation is a little different…

When Josie’s generation enters a sylvan, bunk-dotted landscape, they’re entering a more retro world than we did. But I think they need it even more.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.