Two Words That Horrify an Israeli Mom: Sleepaway Camp

Sending kids to sleepaway camp ranks high on the list of cultural parenting differences between Israelis and American Jews.

It all starts out so innocently. I’m chatting with Ilana, the mother of one of my daughter’s friends, and she asks me casually what my children are doing for the summer.

My reply wouldn’t make any mom in the United States blink.

“Well, actually, right now they are all at sleepaway summer camp for two weeks.”

“REAAAALLY!” she says.

Her shocked reaction intensifies when I clarify that all three kids, “even the little one,” my rambunctious eight-year-old girl, have left the nest for 12 whole nights.

Then, very quickly, I am slammed with a classic parenting “drive-by criticism,” as always, beautifully veiled in a backhanded compliment.

“Well,” she gasps, “Good for you. You are amazing, so much braver and stronger than I am. I could never imagine sending my child away for so long. I’m sure she would be fine. I just wouldn’t survive. I couldn’t handle it.”

The subtext is obvious. I am clearly the most neglectful mother in the world. My kids are likely sobbing themselves to sleep in some Dickensian environment policed by heartless staff, so that selfish mothers like me can go get pedicures and eat bon-bons in their absence.

The tradition of sending kids to sleepaway camp for the summer ranks high on the long list of cultural parenting differences between Israelis and American Jews.

If I was to give one of my friends in the United States the same information, the response would likely be, “Why only two weeks? That’s a really short period for camp. They are just getting adjusted. I don’t see the point of going unless it’s for at least three.”

I find the contrast fascinating. For American Jews, including those like myself who have lived in Israel for years, sleepaway summer camp is in our cultural DNA, passed on from generation to generation. If you can afford it, and if your kids want to go - they go.

I presume it originates in our grandparents and great-grandparents crammed into tenements in the Lower East Side in New York. Any way that they could get the kids out of the city and into the fresh air and sunshine of the country was a blessing, and so they embraced any opportunity to send them to the camps that began popping up like mushrooms across upstate New York and New England and on the advertising pages of the New York Times Magazine.

Like so many other areas, they were also trying to integrate their kids into mainstream American culture, in which summer camp also holds a central place (as those who have seen movies like The Parent Trap, Meatballs, or Little Darlings) can attest.

And finally, Jewish or Zionist summer camp is often seen as a key form of informal Jewish education helping to instill identity where synagogues and Hebrew school have failed.

But for Israelis, there is still a strong feeling entrenched in the culture that sending children out of their parents’ home, under any circumstances is intrinsically a bad thing. The reason, I think, is that a far larger percentage of the population is close to traumatic Holocaust experiences of children being ripped apart and separated from their families than American Jewry. Let’s face it, the very word “camp” - machane -still has some nasty connotations for many Israelis. Or, for other families, there are still scars of well-meaning social workers sending Yemenite or Moroccan children to live on kibbutzim away from their families, where they became indoctrinated with foreign ideas and distanced from their culture. As a result, even the families lucky enough to be able to afford to send children away to camp don’t see the point in doing so.

The sleepaway camps that exist in Israel, as a result, are generally populated by the offspring of immigrants from abroad, like yours truly, or the children of Jews abroad who want to send their kids to camp in Israel.

I totally respect the cultural differences that prevent my Israeli friends from shipping their kids to camp. I just don’t know exactly how working parents survive the long school vacation during those difficult years between ages 11-15, when kids consider themselves too old for day camp, and yet are too young to find a real summer job.

From what I see around me, many become utterly nocturnal, young vampires, sleeping throughout their parents’ work day and then hanging around the house staying up till all hours, watching television, on the computer, and wandering the streets - which is fine for a limited time, but for two solid months? And yes, camp is expensive, but entertaining bored kids at home - movies, amusement parks, pool entrance fees - don’t come cheap, either, and most of these require parental transportation and supervision. This goes double for the younger children, who may attend day camp, but still need to do something after they come home at 1 P.M., not to mention a babysitter, if both parents are still at work.

So yes, I still haven’t acculturated to Israel to the extent that I’m confident that all is well as long as my kids sleep in their own bed. I will happily shell out some big bucks so they can enjoy the joys of semi-liberation from parental scrutiny that sleepaway summer camp allows, with the added bonus that it gives them of experiencing life - at least for a couple of weeks each year - away from the TV and computer.

Dare I also confess that it’s also a rare treat for their parents to have a quiet, neat, and peaceful house and be in complete control of their own schedule? Better not. If I did that, it would truly horrify the Ilanas of the world, and solidify my status in their eyes as an uncaring American mother.

Pass the bon-bons.