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All I Really Needed to Know I Learned at Summer Camp…

When I tell people that I spend my summers working with Jewish summer camps their reactions are fairly predictable. If they’ve never been to camp, they don’t get it. Why would anyone send their kids away for the summer? For them, it’s a childcare option and not much more.


But for those who have been to camp themselves there’s lots of excitement. They are immediately envious that I get to go ‘play’ at camp. They regale me with stories of their own camping days and then end off as they started – with a sense of envy about my summers spent canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing, hanging out at Arts and Crafts, going on the zip line and chilling out in my cabin during rest hour.


Spoiler alert… I’m about to bust some of those myths about how I spend my time at camp and encourage you to look at camps a little bit differently, whether you’ve been to one or not.


Camp is definitely a place where fun happens. But as one great camp director always says ‘fun is not the goal of summer camp. Fun is what happens on our way to achieving our goals.’  And this goal is nothing short of growing children and young adults in the most important sense of what it means to grow people. Every good camp director will say the same thing: camp is a place where everyone gets to learn about who they are and is challenged to become the best version of themselves.


And parents agree. After a few weeks at camp, they find themselves the recipients of children who are much more confident, independent and thoughtful. They see more growth and maturity in their children after time spent at a summer camp than they’ve seen the entire year leading up to it.


Parents also see their children come home with a newly minted, or strongly reinforced, sense what it means to be Jewish. Two years ago I listened to a parent talk about how her son had to choose between being on a premier soccer team or going back to camp. The timing of each was such that he couldn’t do both. To his mother’s surprise and pride he chose – on his own – to go back to camp. As much as he loved soccer and wanted to compete at the level he worked towards achieving, he couldn’t imagine not spending Shabbat with his friends in the summer. Camp was his Jewish community and for him community was his Judaism. He wasn’t choosing between soccer and camp. He was making a statement about his identity – an identity that had been nurtured and celebrated through his summer camp experience.


So for many parents camp is not simply a childcare option, it is one of the best things they can do to nurture their children and help them develop their Jewish identity. Even during the lean years of the past decade parents have given up family vacations, used savings or money typically allocated for savings contributions, or have relied on other family members to ensure that their own financial challenges did not disrupt the incredible learning and growing experiences from which their children benefit at camp.


And now back to me. Why do I go to camp and what do I do there? The learning and growing through the supportive and challenging environment present at camp is not restricted to a ‘camper-zone’. Rather the desire to focus on and draw out the best in everyone is equally felt by anyone passing through the camp gates. I too get to learn and grow from each experience.


I spend my time at camp meeting with staff, discussing complicated issues involving other staff and/or campers. I also get to be involved in some of the big picture discussions about the camp’s culture, Jewish identity and what kind of place it wants to be for those who come. It’s often non-stop work from morning to night so although I hate to disappoint those who believe I spend my summers playing at camp I have to tell you that in the last two years I have only been in a canoe three times for about a half-hour each and swam once. There simply wasn’t any time for that. This fact demonstrates that although fun is happening all around the staff at summer camp and that they often do partake in it, they are very dedicated to improvement and take advantage of my outsider’s perspectives to help make their camp the best it can be.


From the staffs’ passion, dedication and commitment I have learned much the past four years. In many ways I feel like what I’ve learned – or have been reminded of – at summer camp is pretty close to everything you need to know to live an incredibly rich life.


On those occasions when the stars align and I am fortunate enough to visit a camp for Shabbat, I am also reminded that community really is at the core of Judaism. There is nothing more reassuring than seeing 300+ children, teenagers and young adults, arm-in-arm, reciting the same prayers that have sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years. If there is any doubt that Am Yisrael Chai or will continue to do so, all you need to do is spend a Shabbos at a Jewish camp.

Summer camp is a powerful place where lots of learning, growing and community building happens. It’s sometimes hard to replicate this type of environment elsewhere in our lives but it’s relatively simple to look back on what we’ve learned at camp and to use that knowledge or skills elsewhere. To that end, I’d love to hear your own stories from camp – especially those that demonstrate how camp has helped you in other areas of your life, so please post those stories here.


Looking forward to hearing from you.

Scott McGrath

Scott, this summer at Camp Kadimah with director, Jared Goldlust (L-R)

Scott McGrath is an FJC Launch Pad and Cornerstone Faculty member.  He is a therapist and life coach working with individuals, couples, families, and groups. In addition to direct practice with clients, Scott works as a coach, trainer and consultant with parents, educators, camping professionals and other organizations focused on engaging and developing young adult employees or volunteers.

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