This article ran in the Seattle Times online for the Samis Foundation. In addition to writing, I conducted the interviews.

Back to Summer Camp, to Being a Kid

There’s a place where kids can simply be themselves. Where they build community, take on challenges, become independent, and develop leadership skills. And through it all, they think it’s just fun and friendships. That’s the magic of summer camp – a healthy dose of nature and nurture. 

One year after sleepaway camps across the country were shuttered by the pandemic, kids packed their shorts and hiking shoes once again, dug out their sleeping bags, and reunited with camp buddies to rekindle fond traditions. And what a reunion it was!

The directors of three Jewish summer camps in Washington State described the role camp plays in the social and emotional health of children, and how it was especially vital in the summer of 2021, in the midst of the pandemic

Welcome back to camp

“Welcoming the kids back this summer was extra special,” said Zach Duitch, Director at Camp Solomon Schechter in Tumwater, Washington. “We could see it in their faces. After being online for a year and a half, they were ready to be outside, with their friends, and having fun.”

Many parents were understandably concerned about sending their kids back to camp this past summer. Attendance numbers dipped somewhat, but families also recognized the value of getting their kids back to outdoor healthy summer fun. Away from everyday social pressures, each camp’s staff works to create an environment that’s a safe place for kids to be their authentic selves. 

“Parents trust us with their kids’ safety, security, and health – and also with their spiritual and  emotional needs. We take that trust incredibly seriously,” said Rabbi Ilana Mills, Director at URJ Camp Kalsman, in Arlington, Washington. “Camp is life-changing in so many ways. It’s an opportunity to grow as a whole person.”

Fun and games with lasting impact

When kids come home from one, two, or three weeks at summer camp, the changes in them may not be evident. In fact, many campers and counselors only realize as adults how much the experience has shaped them, instilling them early on with courage, compassion, and independence. Kids can head off to camp as early as the summer after first grade. Many progress through the years to become counselors, taking on leadership roles as high school and college students, as what many describe as the “best job ever.” 

Ask a kid and they’ll say camp is about boating, hiking, arts, sports, cookouts, and the thrill of a high ropes course. Along with the fun, each camp has its own unique culture with familiar traditions passed down from summer to summer. Camp culture is what ties the community together with singing and celebrations, skits and games. Jewish summer camps also integrate religious observance into daily life. 

“Camps are these bubbles – their own societies – where kids play a central role,” said Kenny Pollack, Camp Director at Sephardic Adventure Camp in Cle Elum, Washington. “Our kids are immersed in the culture of camp and it helps shape their identity.”

A healthy dose of silliness

When camp directors describe how their programs nurture kids, it can sound pretty serious. But one thing they take extremely seriously is fun.  

“At Camp Solomon Schechter we do a lot of ‘shtick.’ Campers love seeing their counselors act silly,” said Zach Duitch, as he explained a beloved trivia game that ends with participants messy and everybody laughing. 

Ilana Mills described how, “we really try to be as outside the box as possible. We push our counselors to teach their passion, be creative, and try new things.” She even got a chance to join the fun, playing a zombie during the culmination of their outdoor survival unit at URJ Camp Kalsman.

A chance to leave the real world behind

Kids leave their parents and their digital devices at home when they arrive at camp. There may be homesickness at first, but pretty soon their days are consumed by activities and friendships. And since every camper is device-free, they’re grateful for a break from their screens. 

“Camp is a place where kids get to be their authentic selves,” said Kenny Pollack of Sephardic Adventure Camp.

Each summer, as kids are reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, they’re also connecting across borders. Increasingly, camps are bringing counselors from international locations to supplement the programming with games and traditions from their home countries. 

“As much as kids love their parents, camp is a great opportunity for them to learn from other role models,” said Zach Duitch, explaining how the camp experience broadens kids’ viewpoints and connects them to lifelong friends.

It was heartbreaking to cancel camp in 2020. That’s why camps throughout Washington banded together, lobbying the state government to make sure camp happened in 2021 and it would be a safe and extra-memorable summer. In the end, it may be difficult to measure the social and emotional impact of returning to camp after a trying year. But parents could no doubt see it in the hugs, the joy, and the happy exhaustion as they picked their kids up at the end of camp this year.