The Camp Culture

Clocks are turned back in the fall, but only the positions of their hands (or their digits) change. Time’s arrow remains, at least for us mortals, resolutely one-directional.

Still, most of us have occasionally fantasized about somehow recapturing something of pleasant times long gone. Like, for me, the summers of my boyhood.

I never attended summer camp, by choice. Today that might indicate some psychopathology (“camp-avoidance syndrome,” perhaps?—add it to the ever-expanding list). And maybe it did then. But I enjoyed my campless summers all the same. In fact, I cherished them.

I learned each day, both on my own and with an older chavrusa, a young talmid chochom who ended up becoming a stellar mesivta rebbe—an accomplishment I like to imagine was born of the inner resources he had to summon to hold my attention and teach me a few blatt of Gemara.

But each day also afforded me an abundance of other activities, unregimented and not in the group setting a camp would have provided, but no less enjoyable for their spontaneity or solitude.

One summer, on a lark, I taught myself how to type, a skill that ended up coming in handy when I became a high school rebbe myself (and even more handy in my current profession). Another summer, I undertook origami, or Japanese paper-folding. Not so handy, but fun all the same. I collected and observed live bees, and fired off model rockets. I took long bike rides and, in my teens, occasional part-time jobs. I mowed our lawn and hiked local trails. I played ball with other camp-shy or camp-deprived friends, read a lot, and then read some more.

Did I learn as much Torah as I might have in a camp? Probably not. I didn’t visit any amusement parks or waterworks either, or attend any campfire kumsitzes. But somehow I survived the deprivations and emerged from each summer happy, refreshed, and having grown a little as a person.

Although several of our children attended summer camps one or two years here and there, my wife and I never considered the experience de rigeuer, or even necessarily in our kids’ best interest. That we generally couldn’t afford camp made it easier to not feel a need to “keep up with the Katzenellenbogens.” We taught our children that expensive things are seldom important things, and they accepted that truth.

So their summers, like mine, were largely unregimented. And, necessity being the reliable mother of invention, they alleviated their boredom by devising their own ways of keeping busy. As a child care provider, my wife had the good fortune of summers “off” and would treat our children to occasional summer day trips. During my teaching years, I would take them to the park to play. But for the most part, they found creative quarries to mine in their own figurative backyards (and literal backyard).

I realize that today’s world is a very different one from the one I inhabited as a boy, even from the one in which our children, now adults, grew up. Children today confront unprecedented educational expectations, social norms, challenges, and dangers. I certainly understand that the sort of long bike rides I took through unfamiliar neighborhoods in the 1960s would not exactly be a wise suggestion for even a suburban ten-year-old today; and that a public library is hardly the healthy environment it once seemed to be.

Still and all, there is much that an observant Jewish boy or girl can do in a summer. Chaburos or chavrusos can be arranged for them. They can explore a musical instrument or machine, or teach themselves to cook or sew or type or draw. They can undertake a hobby (or two), or sample the broad variety of kosher literature that abounds these days—or add to it.

Considerable economic pressures faced by so many in the observant Jewish community these days are exacerbated by the psychological pressures born of once-luxuries relabeled as necessities. Parents’ emotional stability and sholom bayis can be negatively affected as a result. There will always be children who need a summer camp experience, because no parent is home during the day or for some other reason. But for some families, summer, with no word following it, might still have the makings of a wonderful time for a child.


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