I know an 18-year-old in Bellevue, WA, who never used to eat his vegetables. His parents would complain about him being a picky eater, and were worried about his diet; but kids are kids, so what could they do? In the summer before he started third grade, however, he went to camp for the first time and made a surprising choice to participate in a week-long Israeli cooking class. That week, he fell in love with falafel, hummus, and even Israeli salad. According to his mom and dad, when his camp session ended, one of the first things he did was demand to make Israeli salad with hummus and pita for his family.
In the grand scheme of things, a taste for Mediterranean food may not be the most important thing a child can develop, but that is not nothing, and that is also not all this was. A nine-year-old had the opportunity to choose something for himself, the kind of choice that we take for granted as adults, but which is novel to such a young child. He was offered the freedom to step out of his comfort zone and expand his horizons, and he made the choice to do it. In so doing, he learned a valuable lesson about trying new things. His world became bigger and richer because of camp.
I am thirty-one years old, and I have been going to camp practically since I could walk, and certainly since moving from New York to Seattle when I was six. Like many of the alumni of Camp Gan Shalom, of which I have the tremendous privilege to be the new director, I have also been working at camps since high school. I have seen kids learn how to play the guitar, cook, swim and climb a rock wall for the first time. I have watched my former campers become rabbis, accountants, lawyers, social workers and even MMA fighters. I have seen things that were joyful and things that were sad: the beginnings and endings of first loves, communities coming together in celebration of simchas or in mourning for a loss. Once, when I was adventure staff in a camp for underprivileged youths infected with or affected by HIV and AIDS, I saw a cabin of near strangers come together to cheer on a bunkmate who had extremely limited use of his legs as he climbed a 50-foot tower. With a little patience and a lot of elbow grease, he made it to the top. His counselors, two burly social workers from Queens, NY, were in tears as they announced to the cabin that in honor of that camper’s achievement and everyone’s support of him, they would be ordering in pizza delivery from town for a midnight snack. These are the kinds of extraordinary moments of growth and connection that happen every day at camp.
Perhaps the most popular method for lesson planning and curriculum development these days is a system called Understanding by Design. I first learned about it during a youth group programming elective at a teen leadership camp. The guiding concept is that rather than starting your lesson plan by thinking about the activities you want students to experience, or even the information you want them to absorb, you start by thinking about the essential questions and enduring understandings you want them to contemplate. What message do you want them to come away with, or what question do you want them to wrestle with? It’s a bit like the movie “Inception,” but less ethically worrisome.
It would be easy for me to list the wide variety of activities that kids can engage in at camp, or even the skills and information they can gain. What really keeps me going back to camp, though, and what drives me to keep improving and moving camp forward, are the enduring understandings. I understand that my life is in my hands, and that I can live it well and meaningfully. I understand that there are healthy and safe ways for me to broaden my horizons and try new things, and that I can put in the work to make that happen. I understand that hard work and resilience lead me to accomplish things other people thought I could not. I understand that helping and supporting my friends leads to moments of joy and catharsis, and that pizza is an excellent celebration in most circumstances. I understand that my community is more than just me, my family and my friends from school. It is my fellow campers, my city, my nation, even my species and my membership in the family of living beings.
I cannot promise that every child who goes to a summer camp will learn all of those things, any more than I can promise that every child will come home hankering for falafel. What I can say is this: Jewish summer camps are a unique stew of experimentation, intentional experiences, formative relationships and more; all framed within the warm embrace of Jewish tradition and values. While I may not know for certain what each individual child will get out of camp, I have consistently seen children come home from camp understanding things about themselves that they simply would not have learned anywhere else, and that is an outcome worth its weight in Israeli salad.
Benjamin Phelps is the new Director of Camp Gan Shalom and a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.