SHORT HILLS, N.J. (JTA) — The announcement that Jewish summer camps will be closed this year has been tough on parents around the country. If we could just have this one little remainder of normalcy, we told ourselves, we’d be fine.
But as with virtually every other aspect of this pandemic, reality hasn’t conformed to our expectations. Despite the sadness and even the despair we may feel, parents, community members and leaders must help kids process this trauma, make the most of this summer and grow through this difficult period.
Jewish sleepaway camp is so much more than a fun way to spend the summer. It’s about connecting to the traditions of our past, to the communities of our present and building relationships for the future. For me, the Reform movement’s Eisner Camp was my childhood home, the place I returned to as a counselor and, later, as a camp therapist.
Camp became the place that ignited my soul with Jewish melodies, a love of Israel, social justice and the power of learning and implementing leadership skills. It helped me raise my daughters, both longtime campers, and connected me with lifelong friends in a shared mission to make the world a better place. For my “girls” (now accomplished women), it was — and will be — many of these same things.
The significance of what camp represents cannot be understated. Our children are experiencing a collective disappointment, no matter their age. The loss is enormous — in an overly connected world, camp is one of the only times our kids get to live without devices, and allows the time and space to explore who they are without the pressure of school or organized team sports.
Parents figuring out how to support their children during this time should remember that every child’s needs are different. Simply being present for your kids can go a long way; you don’t need to immediately rush into “fix-it” mode.
Create space for your child to express their feelings. Ask open-ended questions to celebrate and acknowledge what camp has meant: “Can you share with me what it was like to celebrate Shabbat at camp? Maybe we can have a similar celebration at home.”
Ultimately, what do children need when they are confronted with disappointment? A listening ear, an open heart, warm arms to hug, empathy and patience. Once you’ve helped your kids through the initial shock, you can focus on nurturing in your kids a quality that will serve them for life: resilience.
We all know that life delivers hard knocks. While a tough life lesson for anyone, the idea of disappointment is something we will all experience, multiple times, in our lifetimes. Teaching our children how to meet challenges they’ll face is tough work, but it’s essential.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this process begins with you. You have to break through the fears, anxieties, traumas (past and present) and old emotional patterns that keep you from bringing your whole self — vulnerable, confident, imperfect and intact — to your relationship with your child.
You can do this by acknowledging your own emotions — whether you’re sad or disappointed, despairing or feeling helpless. Recognize that those are all valid and natural. Give yourself the space to be with those emotions, neither denying them nor pushing them away. And then, before you interact with your child, set those emotions aside so that you can be present and whole in that interaction. Your child will feel the difference; just as important, you will, too.
Once you’re on more stable footing, you can tap your resources and creativity to bring the fun, learning and connection your children usually get from camp. This might be trips into nature or playing games or sports together. You can sing camp songs or explore Israeli culture and food. There’s the healing power of arts and crafts. There’s meditation, prayer and other forms of worship.
Making the most of this summer will be about getting your child outside and into a camp-like “spirit.” Most important of all, think about how you can engage your child to participate in doing tikkun olam, the act of repairing the world.
Each step will require vulnerability and confidence. There is no perfect solution and the sadness is real. But for each disappointment, we can look to new opportunities and create new traditions and memories, if only for this summer. The key is to embrace that childlike willingness to try — and to enjoy the journey, even when the path ahead is so unknown.