The Camp Culture


camp-By Rabbi Avi Shafran

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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  1. Forget it , there is so much money involved in tge whole camp culture tgat there is no way to fight it.

    It’s a real sad situation that half of the Jews pack out for upwards of two months a year and just leaves a great void in Brooklyn , which is affected the most .

  2. Back in elementary and high school our rabbeim would make a list of where every talmid was spending their summer and chas v’sholom someone would spend it at home “in the city”. The parents would get a phone call and would be encouraged to send their children somewhere. Even the local frum day camp wasn’t really acceptabl.

  3. Times have changes and I think that camps are a ver important part of a child’s life. It enables them to develop as people away from the family nucleus make new friends and broaden tgheir horizon. We can debate as to the structure of camps

  4. Playing?! It’s all about learning. What will the Mechutun say? Learning camp only! Only swimming is aloud but better if not.

  5. You forgot to mention all of the yummy wildlife that our kinderlach like to bring home such as snakes, frogs, salamanders, woodland spiders, and toads to just name a few that have made into my humble abode over the years.

  6. Interesting article and specifically for children who are academic, passive, loners and goal oriented. Many of today’s children are active, socially oriented, sports competitive, and in need of a structured schedule.

    Always remember “Different Strokes for different folks”

  7. Great article. Yeyasher kochacha R. Shafran!

    As someone who was forced to go to camp and resented it, I sort of envy R. Shafran for having been allowed to be a ‘conscientious objector’.

  8. Rabbi Shafran is a person about whom who can say, like we just read about in the Torah about Koleiv ben Yefuneh and Yehoshua bin Nun, ??? ???? ??. He has a special way of looking at things, which makes him such an interesting writer.

    If he would have been forced to conform, as many are, whether, as Rav Hutner used to say, in a Sedom bed institution, or otherwise, his creativity likely would have been set back and stifled, and he wouldn’t be what he is today. Boruch Hashem that some people realize/d that not every person is the same, and that it is counterproductive and dangerous to try to fit everyone into a certain mold.