As I walked into my office, I noticed something striking: a small bird sat perched on the branch hanging from the ceiling.
No, this was not my office on the 2nd floor, with cushioned chairs and AC. This was two summers ago, in my camp office at Pearl River. This office was smack in the middle of a grove of trees, sports fields, a garden, and 80 cubbies for five and six year olds, slightly uphill from 80 more for seven through twelve year olds.. This office was a former horse stable, and its oscillating floor fan and folding chairs were no match for the nursery office I now inhabit. But there is something eternally special about it – it is a camp office.
Hanging in the office that summer was a branch that a JCC preK class had transformed through colorful wire and other decorations into a true work of art. Similar branches made that year now hang above Linda’s desk and in Rabbi Joy’s office. We brought it to take a slice of nursery up to camp with us. Coming back to my office after waving goodbye to our campers in the parking lot at the end of the day, I noticed that a small bird had flown in to the office and perched right on the branch.
“Wow,” I thought. “Only in camp could something so special happen. Only in camp could a bird find such a special branch to perch on.”
That moment has come to signify for me much of the magic that camp offers. Growing up at different day camps and eventually a Jewish overnight camp before landing professionally at the JCC Day Camp @ Pearl River, camp came to define who I am. It was at camp that I learned to speak up for myself, to respect the needs and wants of others, what it feels like to be Jewish…and how to set a table, make a bed, and fold laundry. Out of all the friends I have ever known, only two non-family members were at both my bar-mitzvah and my wedding – are you shocked to find out they are both camp friends? As a camper, we had a small group of young adults who spent three successive summers as our counselors. I thought it only right that I pass on the experience, and when I transitioned from camper to counselor I spent three summers working with the same group of boys as they grew up. The first of those summers, my wife and I met and began a relationship that now has us in the last several weeks of “parents to be.” The boys in my bunk those summers, when their time came, spent their college summers passing the experience along for the next “generation” of Jewish campers. And so it goes at camp – experiences are passed down, lessons are learned, and relationships are formed.
Summer camp, as I have experienced at both personal and professional levels, is a unique educational environment. At the Day Camp here in the JCC as well as up at Pearl River, the underlying ethos of camps everywhere is strongly felt: “Try something new. Challenge yourself.” Only in camp do you find yourself, at age 3 or 16, surrounded by dozens of peers who know you in the most intimate ways; peers who are ready to cheer you on as you stretch and grow and lend a shoulder to cry on as you stumble and make mistakes. At camp, today’s fears are tomorrow’s adventures.
Learning and development happens at camp that, simply put, cannot happen anywhere else. Michael Thompson, renowned school psychologist, writes in Homesick and Happy that the moments of growth that take place at summer camp “don’t occur in school.” He explains in this fantastic book that the camper-staff relationships, rituals and traditions, natural environment, and joyful play of camp combine to create a singularly spectacular opportunity for young children to grow.
The concept of grit and perseverance has been making waves among school administrators the past few years, having been brought to the masses in Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed. Many K-12 schools have gotten the message, and are slowly broadening their focus from “pure academics” into the “soft skills” of character development. I can tell you with certainty that camps are way ahead of the game on this one, and have been for decades. As the research base expands and empirical evidence piles up that “who we are” is more important than “what we know,” summer camps are able to look out proudly and say with a smile, “Of course. We’ve known that all along.”
Camp has always been, and always will be, a chance to be your best self. Summer camp offers every child that “special branch” that the bird perched on in my office. Campers feel respect and autonomy in ways they have never experienced before, and this leads them to develop a beautiful self-image. This is reflected towards their peers as well, and their relationships become truly holy as a result. The branch supporting each child and their friendships becomes ornately decorated, as the world itself gains a sparkly quality.
Summer camp is a place where magic happens.
I am proud to be part of an educational community that supports that magic. The JCC offers two distinct summer day camps: the Day Camp @ the JCC, right here on the 2nd floor for three to six year olds, and the Day Camp @ Pearl River, a 35 minute bus ride upstate for five to twelve year olds. Genna Singer, our very own summer camp superhero, oversees the JCC camps and is someone I truly cherish as a mentor, colleague, and friend. If you are interested in summer camp magic for your child, please reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit jccmanhattan.org/daycamps. Applications for the Day Camp are due by December 10th and can be dropped off with Genna on the mezzanine level or with Linda in the nursery school.