When Summer Camp Liberates American Jewish Parents

This was my first year experiencing how summer camp allows American Jews to take a vacation from parenting. It would never happen in Israel.

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Today, they will finally give me my daughter back, nearly a month after she was abducted by that North American Jewish Zionist initiative called summer camp.

Even from the list of the essential items that I was supposed to pack for her, I felt twinges of suspicion and unfamiliarity. Rain coats, rubber boots and flannel pajamas are not exactly the kinds of things that the average Israeli would think to send with their kids to summer camp.

By the same token, it would also not occur to Israeli parents to take leave of their 10-year children for a whole month and entrust them to camp counselors with raging hormones who are convinced that rolling around in paint would be an engaging activity, and that the best protein boost can be provided by a healthy serving of pancakes.

One tenet of the transatlantic mythology, or accepted wisdom, regarding the differences between Israel and America is that while Israeli parents become conditioned to leave their kids one day in the hands of IDF commanders who are not clearly up to the task, American Jewish parenting remains a protective institution in the Diaspora. It’s a straight line from endless parental drop-offs and pick-ups, from Little League to law school, preferably an Ivy League one.

And while the Israeli parents need to bite their lip as their children jump off the Yehudiya waterfall in the Golan Heights, their American counterparts are shocked if they discovered that one of their son's friends had brought a snack to school that contained traces of allergy red-flagged peanuts, the anti-Christ of our children's generation.

But all those distinctions come crashing down in July and August, when it turns out that American Jewish parenting is a lot more permissive than it first appears to be. And I use the term permissive, because it's not nice to call it negligent.

After having received dozens of e-mails a day during the school year about every detail of the school lunch menu, my kid's science experiment and the song repertoire being taught for Hanukkah, during the summer - after being conditioned to all this information - parents are forced to make do with one brief letter a week at most. In other words, if during the school year, they fit the stereotype of Jewish parents, over the summer, they morph into the type of American parents who announce when their child turns 18: "Son, you're on your own."

It turns out that the summer experience of American parents (who can afford it) is totally the opposite of the Israeli summer experience. For Israeli mothers and fathers, July and August are a 1,000-piece puzzle composed of three weeks of day camp that ends at 1 P.M. followed by an elaborate choreographic arrangement in which the kids go the neighbors' daughter's house, two days with Grandma and Grandpa on their mother's side, and another two days with the other set of grandparents. And then there are hours in front of the television and the iPad, along with dripping ice cream bars, an impatient boss, vacation days taken but not yet accrued and a sweaty weekend in Nahariya.

During that same period, American parents whose youngest child reaches the age for summer camp get a strange taste of the future, a time in which the last of the kids has left the nest. Maybe that's why you mention the word 'summer' to them and what comes to mind are long guilt-free workdays, evening cocktails and catching up on the last season of Mad Men. And only interrupted once, popping over to camp for visiting day, and after a picnic there, they retrace their steps home.

My daughter on the other hand, had other ideas. She had to pick Camp Moshava in Canada, which meant that we even didn't get to go to visiting day. To make up for this forced separation (at least to some extent), I allow myself the daily ritual of browsing through the hundreds of photos that the camp staff put on their website every day. I hunt among all those professional smiles (the result of extreme photography methods and first-rate orthodontists) for my daughter's own smile. I found her in one picture near a lake and in another at archery practice. There she is hugging girls whose names I didn’t even know. Are these girls like her? Is the fact that she is Israeli factor at all in how they communicate? Have her 11 years of childhood in Tel Aviv become ingrained in her personality, and if so, how?

I send choice pictures to her grandmothers in Jerusalem. One of them, my husband’s mother, is also the product of American Jewish summer camps. In her case, Camp Massad. She says the summers she spent there are what made her and her husband leave their lives behind and move to Israel, exactly 40 years ago, just days before the Yom Kippur War broke out.

And now her granddaughter is back in the same place – absorbing the same Zionism wrapped in the same shiny, rustling cellophane. That’s okay, because by the time next summer rolls around we’ll be providing her with our kind of reality check: Telling her about Netanyahu, the elections for the Chief Rabbinate, the status of the humanities department at Hebrew University, and what they call an Arab or Druze who wants to open an account at Bank Mizrahi.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She recently moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York. Follow her on Twitter at @veredkl

Illustrative image of kids at summer camp. Credit: Rotem Golan

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