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Chaos Theory

When you’re the parent of a child with autism, you’re always bracing yourself for the endless string of theories headed in your direction. They come from health care professionals, the media, family, friends and, my personal favourite, complete strangers. One woman we barely know keeps asking my wife, Cynthia, for a sample of my son Jonah’s urine so she can run her own tests on it.

The good news about all this is it helps you develop a thick skin, though never quite thick enough. I figured out pretty soon on this journey through what is sometimes called Autismland that the reason theories about autism are so plentiful is directly related to the fact that no one really knows anything definitive about it. In my experience, that includes mental health professionals who are, when it comes to matters of the brain, only guessing.

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Make Your Child One Happy Camper!

Jewish overnight camp is about so much more than campfires and color war. At camp, kids get the chance to explore who they are—and who they want to become—in an active, inspiring, fun-filled environment. (Marshmallows included.) But paying for camp can be difficult.  We get it—we are parents too.

We have some easy ways to make the dream of overnight summer camp a reality for your child.  We can even help you find the perfect camp—no matter what your background, you will find a place your child will have fun, be comfortable, learn more about themselves, and explore their Jewish identity.
If your family lives in the northeast, check out BunkConnect, a new program that offers introductory rates at 40-60% off to first time campers. Finding out if you qualify is quick and confidential—answer six questions at Then start browsing for the right summer experience for your child for this summer! The website will connect you right to the camp director to learn more about the experience.

One Happy Camper
BunkConnect doesn’t work for your family? One Happy Camper offers first time campers up to $1000 off. With over 155 Jewish camps on Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Find a Camp tool – search out the perfect one. You can narrow down your search by choosing preferred session length, specialty activities, denomination, and more. Once you choose a camp visit to see if you are eligible for a need-blind grant.

Read the rest on The Canteen.

Visitors Day

This post originally appeared on eJewish Philanthropy

by Jeremy J. Fingerman

I have had the great honor and privilege to have visited 103 different camps across North America over the last 3 1/2 years. For me, many summer days have been “Visitors Day” where the director, board chair, professional staff and many others have welcomed me inside their summer “home.” At each, I observed, I listened, and I learned. I also provided feedback, shared how others are addressing issues, and encouraged pursuit of growth opportunities.

Each “Visitors Day” has inspired me, seeing the incredible progress being made by our field, and in witnessing the positive impact Jewish camp is having on molding the next generation of committed, engaged Jewish leaders. No matter the differences in physical facilities, topography, denomination, or programmatic focus, each camp is creating positive memories and a sense of community which will indeed last a lifetime.

But a few days ago, I experienced a very personal “Visitors Day.” My wife and I, joined by my sister and brother-in-law, visited our two very happy campers at Camp Yavneh, in Northwood, New Hampshire. While this is their fourth summer at camp, it is the first time they are both staying for the full season, (and the first time that we have another three and a half childless weeks!)

And, while the letters have been great and photos have been full of smiles (yes, I admit I too am addicted to seeing the updated photos each week, day, hour!), there is nothing quite like feeling the strong hug and seeing, up close and personal, their wide smiles. As we straighten out their cubbies together, and put the very dirty socks into the laundry bag, we heard about the late night “boxer run” and of saying farewell to those friends leaving after first session.

Just walking around their camp, I paid no attention to the physical features, but rather kept listening to their stories about what takes place in each location – the garden, the amphitheatre, the flagpole, and the lakefront.

And their stories brought out something their letters could never express. Their Jewish identity is becoming their own. Their electives, their experiences, their friendships, their joy, their achievements – all expressed through a context that is as individual as their Jewish identity. With each story they tell, there are the underpinnings of a d’var torah, Hebrew phrases, and a pride derived from the values camp teaches, something that I too can not describe, except to say it is the magic of Jewish camp.

Even more, as we walked around camp, we kept passing counselors and staff members greeting our two kids, introducing themselves to us, and each commenting in a way that made us know they actually knew our kids. I am witnessing the community bond that we talk about at FJC actually happening to my kids. Better than any Parent-Teacher Conference, we received feedback from the camp community members who have watched them grow and develop over the last four years. As a parent, we could wish for nothing more.

As we left, no dramas, hugs and kisses, thanks for the special gifts, the letters, and the visit, but then running and skipping back to their bunks, back to their special community. Smiling and thriving.

Driving home, my wife and I commented on how fortunate we feel that we can see that “Camp Works” for our own kids, just as it “worked” for both of us, many moons ago.

Jewish camp provides an opportunity for kids to create their own independent connection to their Judaism, in a joy-filled, positive way.

Thank you Camp Yavneh for the impact you are having on our two kids. Thank you to all Jewish camps for tremendous impact you are having on all of our kids.

And yes, those dirty socks will never be allowed back into our home!

Preparing Kids for Camp

Sending your child to sleepaway camp for the first time is exciting and a little bit scary (for both parents and kids!) but once you and your camper have decided that she is ready for camp and chosen the perfect fit, it’s time to get her ready and excited for the best experience of her life!

Whether your child is excited or nervous for camp (or both), all kids need some pre-camp prep, especially for his first experience.  If there’s time, we highly recommend visiting the camp and spending time there.  Seeing the camp during the summer so your child can see what it’s like in full swing – including feeling the camp’s vibes and seeing other children having fun – is always recommended.  Family camp is sometimes a good option so kids get the lay of the land with you nearby.  It’s also a good idea to check if your camp has a pen-pal program so your child feels like he knows someone and has someone to look for upon arrival.

Talk to your camper about anything she may be nervous about and reassure her that a little homesickness is perfectly normal.  Explain that you will miss her too but you’re so excited for the experience she is going to have.  Try not to show her that you are overly anxious or upset as these emotions will rub off on her.  Remind your child of how you will be in touch via mail, email, and phone calls and when they will occur as well as how long it will be until you will see him again in person.  If the homesickness starts before your camper leaves, reassure her that camp will be really fun and she will make new friends really quickly.  Resist the urge to give her an escape plan – don’t send your child to camp thinking that if she is a little homesick you will be there right away to pick her up.  Be sure to have your child exchange summer addresses with her friends from home so they can keep in touch during the summer and we suggest sending a letter or email in advance so your camper can hear from you at the first mail call.

Take some time to sit down with your child and discuss what to do if he doesn’t feel well and who to talk to if he has a problem at camp.  Reassure him that anything he would come to you with at home, he can go to his counselor, unit head, or camp director with at camp.  This includes talking about bullying or if something is making him upset or uncomfortable.

Make sure your child knows the camp’s rules: if the dining hall is Kosher, whether or not electronics can be used and when, the policy on junk food, etc.

Packing is a huge part of the camp experience.  It signals that camp is close and that your child will not have all of the comforts of home at her fingertips.  Be sure to pack with your camper so you can show her what is making the trip to camp, explain what can’t go and why, and get input on certain items (such as a pair of shorts she hates or her favorite pajamas).  Show your child things like how her toiletries will live in a caddy and not on the sink, where laundry will go, and how to address a letter.

Camps usually provide packing lists and we suggest you follow it pretty closely.  Many camps have activities or “special nights” that require specific clothing or equipment which will be listed on their packing list.  They will note things like whether or not your camper will need to bring extra money for the canteen or outside trips as well as what items are prohibited -  if you send these things anyway, they will most likely be confiscated.  We also suggest you don’t send anything valuable and be sure to write your child’s name in and on EVERYTHING.  And of course, don’t forget to pack some clothes in the camp’s colors for color war/Maccabiah/Olympics!

Your camper may also feel more comfortable if he is able to personalize his area of the bunk so send along fun decorations and some reusable adhesive.  And don’t forget to pack comforting reminders of home including favorite stuffed animals and pictures of family!

The Best Gift

This past Sunday I went back to camp 50 years after I had spent my first night there.

Along with more than 950 other people, my husband and I and two of our three kids made the trip to Wingdale, New York, for the celebration of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires at 50. I had been a camper at Ramah in Nyack during its brief tenure as an overnight camp, and then was among the first campers to go to Ramah in the Berkshires when it was opened by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1964, somewhat misnamed because it is really more in the foothills of the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains.

I spent three more summers as a camper there, five years on staff, and I can’t figure out how many as a visiting day parent. My husband, Richard, actually spent a few weeks there as waterfront staff member before I knew him after an illustrious career running the agam (lake) at Camp Massad. We were both devoted Jewish summer camp people, but we were not a “Ramah couple.”

Even though it has been a few years since we came to Wingdale for a visiting day, I still had the same jolt of joy and expectation as I got out of our car on what’s always been called the golf course but hasn’t seen a golf club in half a century. I felt as though I hadn’t seen my kids in four weeks (even though we had just spent Shabbat together) and worried that I didn’t have enough food to share with their bunks!

My three kids, Zachary, Rebecca and Ilana, started in the youngest edah (age group) and continued on for many, many summers. All of them returned on staff in some position or other (bunk counselors, sports, and one particularly hot summer, as a water-boy). Zach is married to Jordana Kaye, who falls somewhere in age between him and Rebecca and whom he met at the camp’s Labor Day Alumni Weekend. (For some reason, I still am not sure of all those details.) They certainly would have been in Wingdale on Sunday if they didn’t live in Utah! Rebecca has expanded her Ramah experience to become a senior program manager at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a job that seems custom made to her skills and experiences. (And because I am a Jewish mother, I must add that Ilana is a social worker at NYU Medical Center; I don’t want her to feel left out.)

So what did I think? The camp looked beautiful (although the fact that it was the nicest day out of seven last week certainly helped). The new buildings are impressive. The numbers are reassuring. The connections are very real.

But what is most fascinating to me was not that I reconnected with people I hadn’t seen in 40 or 50 or even 10 or 15 years. What is most intriguing is the many people I saw at camp whom I see regularly but who weren’t necessarily part of my crew as a camper or staff member. They are people who share my love of things Jewish, a commitment to Jewish education, and involvement with the Jewish (and specifically Conservative/Masorti) world. We share all this now, I think, because of our individual experiences at Ramah, because of how Ramah forged our love of yiddishkeit, of Israel, of tikkun olam. We might not have done these together at camp, but we do them now because of how each of us processed the Ramah experience. I have come to appreciate how this was not by chance, that Ramah had an agenda, and that my Jewish life – and that of my family – was part of that agenda.

I’ve spent the last 25 years as a professional in the Conservative movement. Richard and I probably spent 30 years volunteering for the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. Richard is an officer of the Masorti Foundation. We don’t take our Judaism casually and I think our children appreciate that. But even more, they have benefited from how they, too, processed the Ramah experience. We were moved almost to tears on Sunday when they showed us the paving stone they had purchased in our honor. It said, “In honor of Richard and Rhonda Kahn for giving us the gift of camp.” They, too, have been forged by the Ramah experience and have processed their Judaism to include the same things that have been so important to their parents. What better gift could they have given us?

- Rhonda Jacobs Kahn is the Communications Director at Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, and Editor at CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism


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This post originally appeared on The Canteen.

My first summer at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah, when I was going into 4th grade, my mother promised me Capri Sun Juice pouches in my lunch every day the following year if I wrote every other day.  Seemed like a great incentive before I left, but once I got to camp and realized rest hour was for playing jacks and cootie catchers, I didn’t really care about the silver pouch of fruit punch. I had lanyards to make and bunk-mates hair to braid (and let me tell you, both of those skills have made me a really cool mom!). I wrote about four letters that summer.

Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and now I struggle with getting letters from my own kids while they’re at camp.  My nine-year-old is a great letter writer, but my older one – not so much. She sends me the names of her counselors weeks after I met them on visiting day and borrows check-off stationery from her friends. So how do we get our kids to write? Here are my suggestions…

  1. Create your own fill-ins.  I send 2-3 Mad Lib-style letters for my kids to write home with the first few days of camp.  This way, I get the info that I need to picture them having fun at camp. Who is in their bunk?  Are they on a top bunk bed?  Who sleeps on the bunk above, below, next to them?  Where are their counselors from?  What activities are new at camp this year? Did they check on each other? You get the gist. (I save the templates from year to year and just print a new batch for that summer.)
  2. Send pre-addressed envelopes. This year my little one asked me to take a stack of stationery, address the envelopes and put stickies on them so she knows how many letters she should write to each of her grandparents, aunts/uncles/cousins, and a few friends.  Hmm, why didn’t I think of that!?
  3. Print pre-addressed labels. I create address labels for them to use so they not only have an idea of who they need to write to, but it’s easy for them to do so.  I give them the amount of labels for how many letters each person is expecting.
  4. Make sample envelopes.  Since letter writing is becoming a lost art, I put a sample envelope in with their stationery so they remember to include (and where to put) their return address and a stamp.
  5. Choose your stationery wisely. I’ve never met a stationery store I didn’t like, but the cutesy stationery isn’t always best. My nine-year-old has big loopy handwriting so standard fill-ins and postcards aren’t always the best. This year, we made personalized pads on VistaPrint.  We have a few fun fold-overs from years past, but this way she gets something fun and the room she needs to tell her stories.
  6. Keep it together.  I try and send my kids’ stationery organized in a plastic sleeve from Staples.  One goes with a lapdesk, my other with a big storage clipboard. I also include some fun pens – sparkly, smelly, twisty – as incentive to write.  It all comes home as a big mess but at least that shows they’ve been rifling through!

I am going into this summer with low expectations about what and when they’ll write.  But that won’t stop me from hunting down the mailman and sending pictures of their letters to their bunk-mates’ parents to fill them in.

- Allison Cohen, Director of Marketing and Communications, Foundation for Jewish Camp

Packing Tips, Tricks, and Things That Aren’t on the List

This post originally appeared on The Canteen

As you would imagine, the staff at FJC has packed and unpacked a lot of camp trunks – as campers themselves, parents of campers, and of course, as counselors. This is no small task.  Parents, I know that over the next few weeks you’ll be packing up your happy campers so I’ve come to offer some help (unfortunately, only via this blog, not literally).

By now, you have picked out your trunks (they may look big now because they’re empty, but just wait) and ordered your name labels.  I spend weeks thinking about the piles of clothes hoping that if I wish it hard enough CampMinder or Bunk 1 will figure out a way to pack your bags for you, not just schedule a pick-up. But of course, that never happens.

First and foremost, be organized! If you really knew me, this would make you laugh – really, really hard.  I don’t know how to be organized – except when it comes to packing for camp. So, here is the best of my advice and those from my colleagues, wrapped into a nice care package for my fellow parents out there:

  1. Live the list.  I take the camp packing list and create an excel file, then I add all the “must-haves” my kids come home “needing” year after year. If it is your child’s first summer, talk to other camp parents about their kid’s favorite clothing items, games, bunk decorations, etc. that you may not think of or know about.  Each camp has certain traditions and “nice-to-haves” that aren’t on the official packing list and some items that may be prohibited at one camp are all-important at another. (For example, my girls love their Crazy Creek chairs and other camps don’t allow them).  I also mark down what items I send more of than the list asks for – somehow four bathing suits just doesn’t seem to be enough.
  2. Read carefully.  Make sure you really read the list and the parent handbook before your start packing. Many camps only allow one-piece or tankini bathing suits for girls, or ask for special clothing for Shabbat.  Make a note of your camps technology policy and plan accordingly.
  3. Label! Label! Label!  There are a zillion different options out there – sew-in, iron-on, stick-on.  Figure out what works best for you (confession – I just use a Sharpie– a black for most things and a silver metallic for dark items). Make sure everything including all shoes, sports equipment, and towels have a name on them.  It is shocking that one sneaker can find its way into a Lost & Found bin, or that kids don’t recognize their lacrosse sticks when a camp director holds it up from the front of the dining hall.
  4. Talk to other parents.  Seek out parents and ask about what their kids wear at camp.  Many camps are in the mountains or by a lake, making mornings and evenings cool.  We have seen many kids wear rain boots and Uggs to breakfast with their sweats and PJ bottoms. Some camps have post-Shabbat dancing with crazy costumes. That doesn’t mean run out and buy stuff – look around your house for fun wigs and crazy t-shirts, they always come in handy. Each camp is different so find out what clothes the campers at your child’s camp wouldn’t leave home without.
  5. Pack with your child.  Make sure they know exactly what is going in the trunk and what isn’t.  If there is a favorite item going to camp with them, make sure they know where to find it and drill into their heads that certain things need to come home. Also explain to them what isn’t allowed or if there are rules for certain items (such as electronics) that are going with them.
  6. Make it easy for everyone.  At some camps, the trunks arrive early, counselors unpack for the kids and voila – your kid is ready to go the second they step off the bus.  Others, you do the unpacking when you drop your kids off.  Either way, a little pre-thought goes a long way.  USE ZIPLOCK BAGS.  I pack all the socks in one, shorts in others, t-shirts… This way, whoever is doing the unpacking has a little less work to do and nothing is floating around in the trunk. If your child needs a special outfit (Shabbat, banquet, whatever) pack that in a separate, labeled Ziplock bag so they know where to find it.
  7. Get sock laundry bags.  These could be one of the best camp inventions ever.  Teach your child to put their socks in a smaller laundry bag and put that right in the camp laundry. Then on laundry day, they are not sorting and pairing up socks with 15 other kids. (Perhaps they will use this extra time to actually write you a letter…)
  8. Under bed storage.  Some camps suggest you bring under-the-bed boxes or plastic drawers.  If you send them, pre-pack the boxes how you envision your child using them. I also pre-pack the shower caddy, toiletries, whatever I can.  I show my kids what is where and how I packed the extras like soap, shampoo, shoelaces, and sunscreen (again make sure you are protecting the things in the trunk from leaks by using Ziplock bags).
  9. Batteries.  Don’t forget to pack lots of these essential little items – and show your kids how to change the batteries in their flashlights and fans.
  10. WE WANT COLOR WAR! Pack a shirt in each color of the color war/Maccabiah/Olymics team that the camp has.  This way your child doesn’t have to search around when color war breaks (I never had anything green and always ended up on the green team). I send some face paint, bandanas, and mustaches in different colors as well. Party City has a great section with all sorts of fun stuff by color if you want to send some extras.
  11. Costumes.  You may be told to send your child to camp with a costume for a special event but I always also pack a white t-shirt and a Sharpie – instant costume for any occasion.
  12. Be organized! Organization really starts the day the kids come home from camp.  Make a note of what got used and what didn’t.  If half the sweatshirts are still folded just how you sent them or the socks are still paired up and white, don’t send as many the following summer. I make note of what I need more or less of and leave it in the trunks so I find it each spring (consider it a love note to yourself).

Well now that I’ve shared some packing wisdom with you, I think it is time to get off my tush and take this advice.  Anyone want to come help?

- Allison Cohen, Director of Marketing and Communications, Foundation for Jewish Camp

Another Happy Camper

One thing that makes Jewish camp, well, Jewish is the happy campers that take home a stronger Jewish identity.  Everyone at the FJC offices smiled with pride today when we received this note:

My son, Noah, returned from camp at JCA Shalom. He is a One Happy Camper recipient. He LOVED it! He was nervous about going since he’d never been there and didn’t  know anyone but the staff quickly put him at ease and he bonded with his cabin mates. We enjoyed seeing the daily pictures of him on the camp website where we could see for ourselves that he was having a wonderful time. He is now connected to friends all over the west coast and he enjoyed meeting counselors from Israel. He said that he learned more Hebrew, the Birkat HaMazon and enjoyed celebrating Shabbat with everyone. He also said that he looks forward to returning.

The experience did many things for him- improved his confidence in being able to be on his own away from home with all new people;  built his self-esteem as he tried and succeeded at so many new things; connecting him with Jewish peers; and strengthening his  Jewish identity. All of this in just 12 days!

We cannot thank the Foundation enough for making it possible for Noah to attend a  Jewish sleepaway camp.  With three older siblings in college we could not have afforded to send him without this support. We look forward to someday being able to return the favor. Please extend our gratitude to all who are involved with this wonderful program.


The Fischer Family

Reach Beyond the Bunk: Leaders Assembly 2012

The following originally appeared on the AVI CHAI Foundation blog

With a theme of “Reach Beyond the Bunk,” this year’s Foundation for Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly took place from March 11-13th in New Brunswick, NJ. In true manifestation of the strength of the growing field of Jewish camping, over 650 were in attendance; in representation of beyond-the-bunk reach, only around 40% were camping professionals – the rest were comprised of lay leaders, Jewish Federation and foundation representatives, and others who care deeply about Jewish camp and its future.

The innovative conference structure took the traditional conference phenomenon of so many productive conversations taking place in the hallways outside sessions and made those hallway conversations the substance of the program. Participants crowd-sourced over 600 session ideas, culled down to 43 open-source sessions on the topics that the participants themselves wanted to talk about, from “Making the Case: Selling Jewish Camp to Parents” to “To Plug In or Not to Plug In: Thinking about Technology at Camp” and “Keeping Up With the Changing Face of the Jewish World.”

During those breaks and hallway time, I took the opportunity to ask camp directors and other stakeholders for their personal reflections on the overall conference theme of “Reach Beyond the Bunk.” Whether reaching constituencies besides campers, such as parents and alumni; extending camp programming beyond the summer months; or increasing and enhancing opportunities for Jewish education and identity-building, a multitude of ways to reach beyond the bunk were shared. Here are a few:

Employ Technology to Further Customer Service: Make an app that helps parents register, pack, and access information and updates – Stefan Teodosic, Camp Beber

Break Down Community Silos: Through “horizontal programming” during the course of the year – events tied to synagogues and other community institutions such as father/son and mother/daughter weekends – Jerry Kaye, URJ Camp OSRUI

Online classes: Connecting young adults around the country – Talia Spear and Kali Silverman, Habonim Dror

Provide Social Action Opportunities: Partner with Jewish organizations to do social action work during the summer – Alan Friedman, Camp Mountain Chai

Year-round Israel Education: Take successful Israeli leaders who have been at camp to live in the community as full-time shlichim at synagogues, youth groups, college campuses, leveraging relationships they already have through camp – Bobby Harris, URJ Camp Coleman

View more views from Leaders Assembly on AVI CHAI’s YouTube channel,

Night 7 of A Camp-y Hanukkah

For the seventh night of Hanukkah, give your child a personalized jersey!  Get iron-on letters and designs online or from your local craft store.  They are available in a variety of colors, patterns, and textures.  Iron on letters spelling his/her name to the back of a camp shirt or jersey.  Or use blank clothing and write his/her camp or bunk name and year on the front.  Get creative and have fun!