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Saturday, November 29, 2014

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Back from camp a changed kid

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“Come on Mom, let’s bensch after dinner tonight!”

My 10-year-old daughter is just back from three weeks at a Jewish camp, and for the first time ever, she’s suggesting we say Birkat Hamazon. I try to conceal my shock and pure pleasure and act nonchalant, as if she says this every day.

But inside, my heart is singing.

Amy has come back gushing with the joy of Judaism, her eyes alight as she describes how much fun she had, especially on Shabbat.

There are lots of stories about dances and boys, of course. At 10 there’s nothing more exciting than having a boy ask you to the dance. Or taking a late-night swim in the lake with your cabin mates and heading to bed at midnight.

But it’s the Judaism they celebrated and lived at camp that’s made the strongest impression on my kid. The decade’s worth of seders, Shabbat meals at home, synagogue visits and holiday festivities with her family can’t even come close to leaving her this excited about her Jewish identity.

I’d seen the research about Jewish sleepaway camp and its profound effect on Jewish children. Considered one of the most impactful ways to imbue your child with a strong, proud appreciation of their Yiddishkeit, Jewish camps are prime recipients of funding and scholarships from philanthropic organizations such as the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

But it’s one thing to read the data and quite another to see your child beaming with positive Jewish energy and making her parents promise they’ll send her back to camp next year.

At Jewish camp, Amy received an intensive joy of Judaism course, but one devoid of stress or a sense of deliberate learning. Rather, the instruction she received was experiential, conveyed in the chorus of song as kids bensch together after meals, sing Jewish songs around the campfire, eat kosher food (and love it!) and gather each morning around the Israeli flag.

My son, now 13, convinced his sister that she had to go.

“You will love it,” he assured her as he signed up for his third summer at the same camp.

She knew she wanted to try it, but Amy wasn’t convinced she was ready to leave home.

Truth be told, my daughter was homesick at the prospect of being away from Mom, Dad and the comfort of her own bed for months before she boarded the bus.

As her fears and apprehensions heightened, I imagined a series of worst-case scenarios: camp counsellors calling me about my distraught child, tearful conversations over the telephone and the sense of disappointment and failure she’d feel if she came home early.

I voiced my concerns to the counsellors, raising a warning flag that this was a kid they would need to look out for. I sent letters and emails daily, and I scrolled through the hundreds of photographs posted online each day so that worried parents like me could be comforted by the smiling faces of their kids thriving at Jewish camp.

I knew deep down that she would have an amazing time, of course. But I forgot how completely Jewish camp can change your perceptions of Judaism – from a religion full of restrictive rules to one that’s filled with meaning, celebration, camaraderie and pride.

No question about it: Jewish camp has changed her life.

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