The Campfire

Gather round for news, perspectives, and tales of Jewish summer camp.

Please Consider My Case

“You’ll see, he won’t want to leave in the end,” my wife, Cynthia, said. “He’s going to have the time of his life.”

“Not if his soon-to-be bunkmates see him crying?” I replied. Cynthia and I were in the process of putting our son, Jonah, on the bus to Camp B’nai Brith (CBB). CBB is a little more than an hour drive north of our home in Montreal and the plan was for Jonah to be there, if everything went according to plan, for three weeks. It would be, by far, the longest he’d ever been away. All we could do was speculate – and we figured to do a lot of speculating in the next twenty-one days – on how he would fare.

Incidentally, Jonah wasn’t the crying boy. In fact, our son headed straight for a seat at the back of the bus as soon as we arrived at the drop-off point. I didn’t even have a chance to hug him. I had to mouth my “have a great time!” through the tinted glass of the closed window. In return, I received the most cursory of acknowledgements. As if he was saying: “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Cynthia, however, boarded the bus in order to get a proper good-bye. She insisted Jonah hug her. I got on the bus, too, to watch and glimpsed something I don’t think I’ve ever seen on my fifteen-year-old son’s face— the hint of a blush. Jonah is on the autism spectrum and one of that complicated disorder’s mixed blessings, in Jonah’s case anyway, is obliviousness to embarrassment. This has served to make Jonah a uniquely sweet, open-hearted individual; it also means he can miss signals from others, emotional signals he’d be well-served to pick up on. In fact, this was one of the main reasons we were sending him to sleep-away camp. We hoped he’d learn to understand other people a little better, pick up on their cues.

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Startup Entrepreneurship at Summer Camp in the Rocky Mountains

The following post originally appeared on Blog.RabbiJason.

After finally making my way up the mountain in Golden, Colorado (just outside of Boulder) the other night, I pulled my rental car into the parking lot of Camp Inc., the world’s first Jewish specialty summer camp with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. My interest was piqued half a year ago when I met with the leadership team of Camp Inc. and heard about their lofty plans for their inaugural summer. It all seemed like a great idea conceptually, but I didn’t know quite what to expect when I arrived.

Camp Inc. - Jewish Summer Camp for Startups

I stepped out of the car and walked into the “Ulam” (Hebrew for meeting hall) where the music was blaring and dozens of Jewish teenage boys and girls were dancing. I was greeted by Josh Pierce, the camp director, who yelled to me over the music, “Welcome to MJ’s bat mitzvah party!” The campers and staff of Camp Inc. were holding a mock bat mitzvah party for one of the camp’s counselors, complete with a bat mitzvah candle-lighting ceremony, a DJ playing the standard bar mitzvah music, and the hoisting of Jewish teens in a chair for the Hora dance. Meals at Camp Inc. start and end with Jewish blessings. Morning flagpole includes several Jewish prayers and Hebrew songs. Signs around camp are in both English and Hebrew. And a number of the counselors are Israeli, part of the Jewish Agency’s Summer Shlichim (emissary) Program. I have been to countless Jewish overnight camps and, at first glance, Camp Inc. seemed no different from the rest. Until…

What I then saw was amazing. At the end of the evening’s activity the campers begged their counselors to not make them go back to their bunks for “lights out.” However, they didn’t want to go on a night hike or stay up late playing card games in their cabin. Rather, these campers pleaded with the camp staff to let them stay up for another hour so they could work on their logos for their new startup companies. These Jewish campers, ranging in age from 12-17, morphed from your typical summer campers to CEO’s, CFO’s and Marketing Directors right in front of my eyes. They grabbed their black leather portfolios emblazoned with the Camp Inc. logo and fully charged notebook computers and headed to their workspace. There they met with their startup teams to put the finishing touches on their logos which will be printed on different colored t-shirts for them to wear at their pitches to business mentors and startup investors at the conclusion of the camp session.

Camp Inc. campers pitch DiabeTech at a practice pitch day in Boulder, Colorado
Camp Inc. campers pitch DiabeTech at a practice pitch day in Boulder, Colorado

My second night at Camp Inc. was no different. Campers were engaged in games of kickball and volleyball, preparing for a Beit Cafe (talent show), and just hanging out in the woods by the ropes course with their friends. And then they were instructed to go rehearse their pitches with their startup teams. Groups assembled to go over the final plans before they headed to Boulder the following day for a practice pitch day. I heard teens excitedly talking about their plans to make a mobile app to help the millions of people who deal with Diabetes on a daily basis, and teens building a prototype of a car that could display rotating ads for nonprofits, and teens creating a platform to schedule meals for groups of people based on dietary restrictions, food allergies and preferences, and geography. I was blown away. There was so much creativity in the room that I was left excited to see what these young people would do in the future. And, yes, once again the campers pleaded with their counselors for some extra time before bed to work on their startup businesses. Camp Inc. is a typical Jewish summer camp… plus.

Rabbi Jason Miller with the leadership team of Camp Inc. (Dan Baer, Jonathan Lev and Josh Pierce)
With the leadership team of Camp Inc. (Dan Baer, Jonathan Lev and Josh Pierce)

During the day, I had the opportunity to meet with the high school campers and discuss the importance of social media to their startup initiatives. That evening, I met with all of Camp Inc.’s campers in K’far Baya’ar (the village in the woods), where we discussed business entrepreneurship from the Torah (Noah didn’t wait until the rain started to build the ark and Abraham enjoyed a successful career as a shepherd instead of going into his father’s idol business). We talked about the ethic of social responsibility in business. Many of the campers relaxed in hammocks as we discussed what they are passionate about and the challenge of making their passion contagious to others. I asked each camper to choose a person from Jewish history (from the biblical period up through modern times), come up with a business, and then offer a startup pitch as if they were that Jewish character. Standing in the woods in the Rocky Mountains I listened as the Snake from the Garden of Eden, the Prophet Jonah, Moses, Theodor Herzl, Mel Brooks and Seth Rogen enthusiastically talked about their new businesses. It was amazing. This is what a Jewish summer camp that focuses on entrepreneurship looks like!

Rabbi Jason Teaching at Camp Inc. in Rocky Mountains
Teaching at Camp Inc. in Rocky Mountains

Not all Jewish kids will get excited about an outdoor wilderness camp, a sports camp or a drama camp. The founders of Camp Inc. have hit on something big here. There is an entire cadre of Jewish youth in North America who are business savvy and eager to start their own company. Camp Inc. gives them all of the experiences of a dynamic summer camp while also providing them with a high-energy environment in which they can dream, build, and create. The future is very bright!

Summer Camp, Life Skills and Confidence

In partnership with The Jewish Week’s “The New Normal” blog, FJC is pleased to present a series of blog posts featuring a range of different voices sharing the power and benefits of Jewish camp for those in our community who have disabilities.

disabilities series - marciaWe have all heard that Jewish summer camp is one of the most valuable experiences a parent can give their child to ensure a strong Jewish foundation. If you think of it as a construction project, the footings beneath the foundation is community and together, this community builds the foundation they share. As each child grows into an adult, the shared experience of community-building in a Jewish context continues to strengthen his or her Jewish foundation.

But the Jewish child with disabilities who cannot have a summer camp experience is left with an unstable foundation or worse; no Jewish foundation. As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I live with the fear shared by all parents of children with disabilities:  Who will be my child’s community when I am no longer here to provide it?

At age 11, we began sending our son to overnight Jewish summer camp with his younger sister.   A condition of his acceptance, we contracted with the camp for a one-on-one aide who slept in the cabin with our son and shadowed him as he moved with the mainstream campers. Each year it became more apparent that our son lacked the social and life skills his cabin-mates had developed and lacking these skills in a mainstream environment, our son would not be perceived as a full participant in this community.

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Teens & Screens Part 2: Cyberbullying

The following is the second in a three-part series on how to help safely navigate the world of social media with your kids from Sue Scheff, a mother, author, parent advocate, and expert in internet safety education.

teensnscreens2Cyberbullying is a concern for all parents.  We can’t be with our children 24/7 and the fact is our kids spend more time in cyberspace than they do with us. The most common form of cyberbullying among tweens and teens happens with cell phones. We need to equip them with the knowledge to handle cyberbullies and prevent them from becoming victims.

Since your child either just came home or will be coming home from camp soon, let’s be sure they are well-prepared to know how report online abuse and, most importantly, know they can come to you if they witness it or are a victim of cyberbullying.

Going back to the study of Teens and Screens that I referenced in my last post, in 2014 cyberbullying tripled.  24% of tweens and teens lack knowledge on what to do in the event they witness online abuse or are a victim of it.

According to Cyberbullying Statistics for 2014, 52% of teens report having been a victim of cyberbullying. Sadly, only 33% of those victims have reported bullying to parents or another adult.  A recent European study showed that over half of teens view some level of cyberbullying as a normal part of online life. By having open and frequent face-to-face chats with your child about digital citizenship, hopefully we can eliminate this opinion of cyberbullying.

First we need to understand why tweens and teens don’t tell their parents.

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Coming Home Different

I didn’t expect to cry when I picked my kid up from camp.

When I dropped him off at the bus? Totally. I skulked past the more experienced parents doing the hora in the parking lot as the bus pulled away, got into the front seat, shut the door and started crying.

But when I picked him up, I expected it to be all sunshine and happiness.

And it was.

But there was another component to it.

See, I mistakenly expected to get back the same kid I sent to camp. And I didn’t. And that made me cry tears of happiness.

This kid was taller. His hair was longer. He was definitely dirtier (“This IS my clean shirt!” he said as I pointed out that the shirt he was wearing looked a lot like he had cleaned the bunk floor with it before putting it on.). But I don’t sweat the small stuff, and that is all small stuff.

My son had changed for the better.

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Robots, Minecraft, and Shabbat

The following post is the next in our summer series hearing from the camps that were launched as a result of FJC’s Specialty Camps Incubator.

6 points2How does one describe the feeling of opening a new specialty camp? Awe inspiring, and an amazing challenge. I came into the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy with ideas, a framework, and a mission: to instill Jewish identity through science and technology. Over the last year, while fleshing out those ideas and expanding that framework, I still had only an inkling of what an incredible place this camp would become.

Sci-Tech is a specialty camp; similarly to our sister camp, URJ 6 Points Sports Academy, we offer dedicated periods of time to specific activities where our campers can learn about a subject in which they are passionate. In our case, those activities are robotics, digital media production, environmental science, and video game design. These workshops are supported by a variety of chugim (electives) taught by our stellar staff with backgrounds in programming, chemistry, and virology (just to name a few), who teach their subjects at a level very approachable by 5th-9th graders, but much more intellectually complex than I ever expected. Surrounding the workshops and chugim are camp’s core Jewish valuescuriosity, discovery, respect, and connectionand a Jewish camp frameworkmorning blessings, song session, and Shabbat.

We’re creating an environment for a group of campers who might have never experienced a Jewish camp if it weren’t for the science and technology. Our goal has been to meld in-depth science and technology learning provided by our workshops with a campy and fun feel that only song sessions and cabin bonding can offer. In daily song sessions, campers look forward to singing “Why Does the Sun Shine,” an informational, yet energetic song by They Might Be Giants, followed by “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.” At breakfast, a staff member examines a great Jewish scientist or innovator before we join together in Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) full of ruach (spirit).

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Teens & Screens Part 1: Raising Smart Cyber-Citizens in Social Media

The following is the first in a three-part series on how to help safely navigate the world of social media with your kids from Sue Scheff, a mother, author, parent advocate, and expert in internet safety education.

teens and social mediaDo you consider yourself a savvy digital parent? While your kids are away at camp during the summer, it can be a great time to get caught up on learning about the cyber-lives of youth today. The more you know, the more you can better communicate with your kids regarding their digital lives.

The results of a recent 2014 study by McAfee titled, Teens and Screens, should be a wake-up call for parents. Some of the staggering findings include:

  • 59% of tweens and teens engage with strangers online
  • Cyberbullying has tripled, yet 24% of the respondents admitted they don’t know what to do in the event of online abuse
  • Tweens and teens are still over-sharing their personal information, with 14% admitting posting their home address

Exactly what do you know about your child’s online life? Most know about cyber-safety 101:

  • Limiting screen time
  • Telling kids to never give out passwords
  • Parental settings/controls and monitoring kids’ and teens’ social media activity
  • Being kind online – explaining to your kids to think before they post
  • and other common cyber-security issues

This is all very important, but let’s look at some issues you may not have considered.

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Diary of a Camp Meal

Its ribs and wings night.  I’m with my husband and eight month old son for two weeks at the camp where my husband and I met and fell in love. He’s the rabbi in residence and I’m playing and relaxing for most of the day with the baby. Camp is peaceful and is mostly how I remember it. Except for ribs and wings night.

Campers are exiting the kitchen with trays laden with spicy buffalo wings and what, I must admit, are some of the best barbecue ribs I have ever eaten. Each time a camper reaches his or her table the entire bunk erupts in mad applause and then sets about the task of even more madly devouring the meat as fast as possible, only for the camper-waiter to return to the kitchen and start the process over again. The salad bar, roasted sweet potatoes and crispy fresh cabbage slaw are on the whole being ignored, and by the end of the night the bones strewn about the tables and heaped into trash cans make the dining hall looks somewhat like a very productive archeological dig.

As my son happily plays on the grass after dinner (after all, his tummy is filled with delicious wings and ribs as well) I ask myself: What’s with the meat mania?  There is meat almost every day at camp, and while the wings and ribs that the kitchen turns out are truly exceptional, they are no more so that the amazing roasted cauliflower or the Indian quinoa and tofu veggie meal from Friday night (yes, camp food really has improved!). Why does my otherwise peaceful camp go insane every time there are wings and ribs?

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Fine Writers

There is definitely an amusing sub-genre of literature to be found in the letters kids send home from camp (anyone interested in a book called “Sh*t My Kids Write From Camp”? Drop me an email). Let’s just say that it is fairly clear that we no longer live in an epistolary society in which people pour out their thoughts and feelings on tear-stained pages. I mean, I did as a kid, but we have clearly established that I am a freak.

No, instead we live in the era of the tweet, in which children seem to think that three sentences, tops, can distill the essence of experience. And sometimes, surprisingly, they can.

I asked my friends who are parents of overnight campers for their favorite camp letters received from their children. None of this, note, was ever mentioned in What To Expect When You’re Expecting. Here are some of my favorites:

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Cold Feet

Later this month, my fifteen-year-old son, Jonah, is off to Camp B’Nai Brith (CBB) in the Laurentians, about an hour north of Montreal. He’ll stay for a full session, three weeks, longer by far than he’s stayed before. Naturally, I’m feeling some anxiety on his behalf. Or projecting, as my wife Cynthia calls it. She has a point. The idea of being in an isolated place for a prolonged period with strangers and nature (i.e. mosquitoes and a lack of air condition and Wi-Fi) has never been my idea of fun. That’s why my case of cold feet will be getting colder as the day of Jonah’s departure approaches.  It’s in my nature, as a person and a writer, to find inspirational quotes that may be appropriate to any given situation. Inevitably, though, the quotes end up being inadequately inspirational.  Like this one from the British writer Julian Barnes: “Time… give us enough time and our best supported decisions will seem wobbly…”

I also find myself wondering how much Jonah really wants to go. Projecting again, no doubt. In any case this kind of information would probably be hard to pry out of any teenager. Still, I know kids must get cold feet about sleep-away camp, too. Cynthia enjoyed her time as a camper and later a counselor, but she also remembers her decades-old “Y” camp song word for word. The first couple of lines, alone, are a model of adolescent ambivalence: “I go to YCC, so pity me. There’s not a boy in the vicinity.”

Continue reading on The Canteen.