Fear of Camp

by Marnie Macauley November 6, 2018


hooded little boy shines flashlight on face in the dark

Shalom, San Diegans: For this issue, my fabulous editor said the theme is   “camps.” I hoped I had misread it and she meant “lamps” or maybe even “vamps.” I stand before you humbly and admit: “I was a campaphobe.”  At age 11, my nickname was “chubbist,” and my mother wrote notes that started with “Dear Gym Teacher, Marnie can’t participate in your class until her chronic infection clears up … ” Then it happened. Our next-door neighbor told my parents about a Jewish camp her children “loved.” The camp people visited us with film accompaniment. “Oh! Look at the lake!” my mother geschreid. And the bunks that smelled like moldy pine. (I could tell). And crafts? There were ashtrays and lanyards and macramé thingies. “We’re Jewishy so we light Shabbos candles. And … we get them up at 6:30 a.m.” said the peppy hefty camp owner, “to get them ready for Color War!”

I was doomed!

Back then, in post-war America, when Jews who weren’t orthodox were assimilating some of these “Jewishy” camps put on a Jewishy face, but it was the same old, same old.

I became a problem camper before 12-step programs. When teams were chosen, I was the weapon each team wanted to foist upon the other. So how, then, could I possibly write a piece on “camps?”

I get emails constantly from young campaphobes who dread the thought.

“Dear Marnie: My parents say Jewish camp will be good for me. But I can’t swim, don’t care, and want to be the next Sarah Silverman.”

“Marnie: I go to Day School, Shul and we keep a kosher home. Now I’m signed up for Jewish camp. Is there such a thing as being too Jewish?” (“P.S. Don’t tell my parents I wrote that.”)

“Marnie. I’m a nerd. I just want to stay home and work on my idea for hi-fi wi-fi. But everyone says I need to be well-rounded! I like being a square peg! I’m now going to a Jewish camp for nerd-“re-assignment.”


Well, I thought, my experience was generations ago, maybe things have changed? I learned, thank G-d, they have. Back then, as many Jews were assimilating, unless the camp was religious, many “Jewishy” camps had more to do with who went than what was offered. A Shabbat prayer was often the extent of “Jewish.” That, and 200 mamalas jumping into a freezing lake, playing softball, and singing” “With a gu-un, with a gun! Ya’ cain’t get a man with a gun” for parents’ visiting day.

No more!

JEWISHNESSES: Today camps have managed a creative intermingling of Jewish values, the Jewish experience, and Jewish culture in activities. No simple candle lighting lip service. Many of the finest camps have set both in a new context: one of adventure, fun, passion and options.

TIP: Watch the film! (OK, the YouTube). Look for the ways the camp imbues Judaism with a sense of fun, community, comradery and new traditions.  At one Jewish camp, plays may be performed in Hebrew or Yiddish. At others, Havdalah services are held on the waterfront. Coming up with new “camp songs,” uniforms, humor, raids, can be both meaningful and hysterical. Toasting bagels and blintzes over an open fire? Sign me up. See how the Camp makes Judaism come alive in a new way in a new environment.

“I HATE HIKING:” OPTIONS: As with secular camps, there are Jewish camps that specialize, whether it’s science, sports, acting, surfing, sailing, cooking, you’ll find a camp that, instead of making your child cringe, will throw him or her new curves on the journey.

TIP: For those who say, “Wait … David needs more science? What about walking? Exercising? Hiking!?” Don’t worry. When your David meets a freckled-face Rachael or a new bff, Jeremy who’s into geology, they’ll talk … as they race by the lake. They’ll climb to test rocks … in the mountains. They’ll be surrounded by the majesty of science, nature and wonder, ask and debate the big questions in the context of a belief system. Far better to allow your David to discover new ops than by forcing him into track shoes.


there was “bageling,” then Jewish geography, now we’ve got “Japetizing” (no relation to the odious term). It ain’t just lox. For some it’s hummus or kosher chili wings (ya’ll). Picture it. Your Benjy has grown up in a “lite” Jewish home in San Diego. At shul, at school, on the block he’s met Benjys and Beccas. They look, talk, act like affluent San Diegans. At camp he’s meeting Jews from Jerusalem to Genoa, Jewish kids with widely different backgrounds, cultures and passions that give him an authentic experience of the larger community that shares – a singular community. One you can’t get on Facebook or Instagram.

TIP: Let’s be honest here. Without lecturing from you, your Benjy now knows there’s a world of difference from his new campy bffs, many he’s kept up with. Trust me. When he’s 22 you won’t hear: “I’m just not attracted to Jewish girls.”

And while we’re on the subject …

COMMUNITY & UNITY: In today’s political and social climate, yet again the world and we Jews are in a perilous place. In this world values and morals are being re-written, “convos” consist of staring at our palms or reducing words and feelings to under three code words. In this world, a million “hits” or anonymous “friends” mask isolation and distance, and unity is too often over destroying rather than building. Today’s Jewish camps foster the Jewish values of community and positive unity face to face and without gimmickry.

FINAL TIP: Jewish parents for thousands of years, regardless of how we practice, want to raise children with empathy, the confidence to embrace this journey full-out, with independence grounded in real values. In a word … a good Jewish camp can create “mensches” – for a lifetime.


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