June 21, 2024
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June 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I love summer camp, as do my children and grandchildren, both as campers and staff. That being said, camp has changed a lot since my first summer in 1956.

Most of the camps of yesteryear are long gone. Winsocki, Sherwin-Moween, HILI, HILI International, Tagola, Maple Lake, Raleigh, Hillel, Masad, Cejwin, Ken Nesharim and others. There was a wholesomeness then that has been replaced with an attitude of entitlement. Counselors were at least 18 and had graduated high school. Division heads were often adults who were teachers. Specialty staff were very talented individuals, trained in a wide array of disciplines. Campers went to camp to learn skills like swimming, lifesaving, wood shop, arts and crafts, sports and dramatics.

Counselors actually supervised campers,who followed a schedule and went to activities. Bunk inspections were held daily and if the bunk was not clean and orderly the campers didn’t go to their activity until it was cleaned.

How things have changed! Bunks are now air conditioned, inspections rarely happen, counselors are still in high school, activities seem optional, there is little or no instructional swim, no more Red Cross cards and team sports are played, not taught or coached. Today, if a parent wants to have their child learn to swim or play tennis, they pay for private lessons for a staff member to teach their child!

Some camps have done away with waiters and food is served buffet style so it is possible for a camper to spend the entire summer without touching a fruit or vegetable. Bentching is a disaster. Letter writing or postcards home are a relic of the past. Catering to the campers, and by extension to their parents, is the first priority.

Despite the plentiful meals that are served, the canteen does a brisk business in hot and cold foods, snacks and desserts. Aside from that, campers have refrigerators and freezers to store the meat and other perishables sent up by parents for them to grill!

It all seems very laissez-faire: As long as the kids are happy, let them do what they want. I am not opposed to having happy campers but I am concerned about the lessons being learned. “I can do whatever I want;” “You can’t make me go to an activity;” “I don’t have to pick up that garbage.” Teen-age counselors with no real training are reluctant to rock the boat because happy campers mean bigger tips.

My major concern is and has always been safety. Today, supervision in camp is very loose. Counselors do not always know where their campers are at any given time because supervision is so lax and campers have so much freedom to go and do whatever they want. B”H that accidents are rare, and I am confident that Hashem is watching over these Jewish summer camps. The rural setting of camp, the wide open spaces, the forest beyond, the proximity to a highway, the lake, etc. are all potential hazards, and campers are free to wander as they please with no supervision.

A survey by the American Camp Association (ACA) revealed the following:

  • Fewer than one-third of the campers’ parents wanted enforcement on electronics and social media.
  • About one in six wanted to make sure their child was outdoors.
  • Seventy-five percent of the parents sought out details about the ratio of staff to campers.
  • More than three in five wanted to know about first-aid training and camp inspections.
  • More than 50% were interested in emergency preparedness plans.
  • The camp staff doesn’t have access to parents’ emergency contact information (when asked about it).
  • There are no first-aid kits on site throughout camp.
  • Counselors receive minimal training.

I have visited a number of camps over the past few years. There are one or two that are run properly. Kids generally have a great time in camp. Why not? They get to do pretty much whatever they want to do with no parental oversight. Talk to parents in their 40s and 50s who still have powerfully happy memories of camp at a time when standards existed. It can be done, but cultural training and standards implementation will not be easy. All it takes, God forbid, is one accident or major incident, but I fear that even then things won’t change permanently.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has worked in summer camps for over 40 years. His children and grandchildren are both campers and staff in many camps and he visits them during the summer.

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