My Swelling Jewish Heart

After a Year in Public School, I Appreciate Jewish Day Camp So Much More

Every afternoon during the past school year, my kindergartener burst into the house brandishing a folder that just barely contained the day’s art projects and activity pages. Every night, I shuffled through the pile to find anything worth keeping. Then I hit the recycle bin. (Bad parent, excellent environmental steward.)
    In late November, one worksheet featured a Christmas tree and two children opening presents, with space for a caption beneath. The prompt at the top said, “Write About It!”
    Rather than color in the picture, Sam crossed it out. With a Sharpie. On the wide-ruled lines below, she scrawled: “I do not celebrate Christmas.”
    This, of course, made the “keep” pile. I laughed my head off, texted a picture to everyone I knew, then launched into a rant about separation of religion and state that I probably would have dropped by spring had Easter not hippity-hopped into the classroom.
    All year, I’ve felt extra nostalgic about Sam being done with private Jewish preschool, where they call their teachers “morahs” and make challah every Friday and work work work every day and every night leading up to Passover. Even Sam sometimes laments the lack of Jewish happenings in her academic life, like on a holiday when she forgets the words to a prayer (but mostly when her younger brothers bring home things like hamantaschen and gelt).
    Still, part of the reason we moved to our area in the first place was for the well-regarded public elementary school, which many of our friends’ kids attend and love, including fellow graduates of our Chabad nursery school. My husband and I also grew up in the public school system, so whether or not it’s right (it isn’t), Christmas and Easter worksheets shouldn’t have been a surprise. We made our public school bed, and now we’re tossing and turning in it (in Hanukkah pajamas on “Polar Express Day”).
     Come time to register for summer camp, though, I didn’t give any of this much thought. I probably would have sent Sam to any local day camp where she’d know a lot of kids. In the end, most of her friends happened to be going to the JCC, so I signed her up for the JCC. Obviously I know what the J stands for, but I think I had some vague, unarticulated notion that it was a fairly secular place where Jews just happen to gather.
     Turns out I really underestimated not only the Jewish culture of the program, but also how much I’d appreciate it.
     The kids chant “Boker Tov” every morning. Their groups have Hebrew names. There’s singing and challah every Shabbat, and even a counselor in town from Israel for the summer serving as the “Shlicha/Sababa Specialist.”
    My little Jewish heart’s been swelling all summer, and it basically exploded attending Shabbat on a recent Friday. I hadn’t yet entered the building during the camp session (just waited in a miles-long car line), but there in the entryway to the J, a hallway covered with paper printed like the bricks of the Kotel was plastered with sticky-note prayers from the campers. (Actual example: “I want an iPhone. I love you G-d!”)
     Come time for services, each camp group exploded into the cafeteria jumping and screaming their bunk chant, all vying for the Spirit Stick. Approximately one million children sang the blessings at the tops of their lungs (“Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, we give thanks to G-d for bread. THANKS, G-D!”). Everyone was engaged and excited and, it seemed to me, just happy to see Jewish people doing Jewish things.
    I think my eyes started tearing somewhere in between the first “Bim” and “Bam,” and I full-on sobbed as a counselor on a ukulele led a call-and-response song about Israel and Jewish unity. I’m pretty sure my husband cried, too. The whole thing was so moving, and there’s just something about the energy in a room full of amped Jewish kids. That something is ruach—spirit—and I may now have permanent hearing damage and/or COVID, but I honestly don’t even care.
    I’ve experienced these warm fuzzies regularly since we joined the preschool community when Sam was turning 2—at Shabbat dinners and in sukkahs and at Purim carnivals and in Rosh Chodesh classes—and it’s just becoming clearer and clearer how much my husband and I value our family being immersed in Jewish life.
    So we’re considering Hebrew school for the fall, and Jewish summer camp is now a non-negotiable, be it local or eventually sleepaway.
    Sam’s heading back to public school in August, and one little brother will join her, but there’s a chance Jewish day school may be in our future. We’ll see how many more “holiday” worksheets we can take.

RISA POLANSKY SHIMAN is a contributing writer to Kveller and Jlife magazine.


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