I’ve learned a few odd habits of New York parents. One of them is that, in this fast-paced town, families often wrap up summer plans in February.
For some among us, particularly those who don’t make decisions easily, this annual rite can prove torturous. So many weeks to fill! So long in advance! One imagines the lazy, hazy, crazy days ahead, with an emphasis on crazy, bored and bickering children. And so it is that I’ve wanted to scream out to any and every parent about a sweet little secret of summer that I first learned about this year. It’s called Family Camp.
Family Camp, sometimes known as “intergenerational camp,” because both parents and children attend, provides rustic, often beautiful settings. The fee includes room (think: bunk), board (think: bug juice); and many offer activities for the younger set, while parents can lounge by the waterfront or take up crafts with their own counselors and adult friends. Also: Family camps are often reasonably priced.
My friend Naomi Wilensky, mother of four and a Jewish educator in upstate Ithaca, remarks that she spent $600 at the New Jersey Y’s Family Camp last August for a five-day holiday that featured zip-line adventures, an Untalented Talent Show, campfires, a water trampoline on the lake, and kosher food. She’ll be back.
The New Jersey YMHA-YWHA, a leader in the world of Family Camping, runs a myriad or programs, including sessions for adoptive families, Russian families, and this year for the first time, one for children diagnosed with Celiac Disease. The only drawback? If you’re looking for a Jewish experience, the Y isn’t the best choice.
One needn’t look far though, to find Family Programs that offer religious services in an outdoor amphitheater, for example, like the four-day program at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire that offers singing among the trees and watching the sun set as the Shabbat Queen arrives in all her natural splendor. Or a Family Camp that showcases an erev Israel program, an evening of Israeli food, music and film, like the one organized by Capital Camps in Rockville, Md. Or perhaps one might be drawn to the idea of Saturday morning prayers by the Tuolumne River, adjacent to Yosemite National Park, like those at Camp Tawonga in California?
As for me, when I spotted the website of Ramah Outdoor Adventure, I felt I’d discovered a dream.
I nudged my 8-year-old daughter one afternoon. “How would you like to ride horses in the Rockies next summer?” A slow smile spread over her face. “Really?!” After all, this is a girl who has passed many a recess break galloping through the schoolyard with her friends, though she had never even proffered a sugar cube to a real horse in her life.
I allowed myself to imagine our days in the Colorado camp. Our trip would satisfy my yearning for more spirituality — featuring the magic of Shabbat amid Purple Mountains Majesty, while also gratifying my husband Jeremy’s longing for adventure in the wilderness. Not to mention that Family Camp would allow my children, Talia, and Joel, who is 6, to experience sleepaway camp in the safety of their parents’ bunk.
But when I contact the director Rabbi Eliav Bock, I learn that after two years of Family Camp, the organization has abandoned it. The family program, which required activities for children of diverse ages and their parents, cost too much to run.
I got right back on the horse, so to speak, and called Eden Village Camp, which, like Ramah’s Outdoor Adventure, kicked off its full inaugural season last year. Eden Village promotes itself as “a Jewish farm camp,” and one senses it’s the type of place where the earthy-crunchy staff wouldn’t make Tie-Dye challah covers unless non-toxic dye was derived from local sources.
When I reach Vivian Stadlin, my deepest fantasies are confirmed, but I’m also left with some niggling doubts. Stadlin speaks in a soft voice of “campers” harvesting wheat, which is then used to bake challahs, of squeezing grapes to create grape juice for Shabbat, and of how the whole camp, everyone dressed in white, some banging on drums, some playing flutes, some dancing, make their way to the amphitheater overlooking the lake, where they greet Shabbat.
She also mentions an evening activity called “Share” – a word which frightens me at first, but turns out to be more about “campers” performing comedy skits and guitar songs, than about revealing one’s intimate musings.
But the price? Almost double what Naomi paid the Y for her family of six. And then there’s Jeremy, a kind, earth-loving man, but not one whose been angling for a full Shabbat experience. He looks pained when I bring up the topic. But he’s game. Knowing this town, we’ll need to decide soon.
Elicia Brown’s column runs monthly. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org