Parenting Podcast: Camp Counselor as “Parent in Training”
by Rabbi Ron Klotz
Hoo boy, do I have a lot of kids! Spending thirty-seven years directing a URJ camp brings a lot of children into the family. Do you think I know a lot about parenting? Well, I know a lot about camp directing, and Jewish programming, and conflict resolution, and homesickness and more; but I never thought of myself as an expert in parenting.
About eight years ago, our son Jeremy and our daughter-in-law Melissa brought Zoe into the world. Of course grand parenthood presented only wonderful opportunities to my wife and to me. But an unexpected opportunity was watching our children become parents to our granddaughter. They are terrific parents; perhaps even better than their own. I’d been so impressed with the way they reacted to situations with Zoe that I once commented on it and asked, “Where did you learn to be such wonderful parents?” Their response was a surprise. Both Jeremy and Melissa said, “We learned it at camp. Being counselors at camp was our training ground.”
It made perfect sense once I actually heard it from my kids. For years at camp I taught what we called our “Machon Program.” “Machon,” Hebrew for “Institute,” was a summer-long guided experience, slowly and with much support, easing first-year counselors into that role. Even though I had referred to the program as “Parenting 101,” I never really thought of it as a true training ground for future parents. Jeremy and Melissa said that learning how to cope with a cabin full of campers gave them confidence in their abilities to solve problems. They indicated that working with other staff members taught them how to communicate and create strategies together to help campers adjust. So it is with fathers and mothers, co-counselors in the cabin of real life, creating strategies for campers that share their last name.
Over the years I’ve heard so many parents comment on how much their children had matured after just one session at camp. Parents often saw a real jump in their child’s self-confidence. Children learn how to share and be social at camp. Of course strengthening Jewish identity is also high on the menu here. Campers feel free at camp but the reality is that we live in a closely supervised, scheduled, and even monitored world, out in the woods. Counselors make sure campers get along, arrive on time, process all that is happening, and they make sure their kids (our counselors view their campers as their kids…it’s a good thing) are integrated into the spirit and community of camp. Campers make the “best friends ever,” because counselors see to it that relationships are built in the cabin. Campers’ self-confidence builds as they grow as individuals responsible to the group; successfully building those relationships, successfully learning new talents, successfully living away from home. Success is all around at camp. We used to smilingly say, “Everyone’s a winner at Goldman Union Camp.” It seems free and floating. It is really all planned and anticipated. It is a safe place for our children emotionally as well as physically. It is a safe place for our children to develop feelings of confidence, responsibility and independence.
All this and I’m just talking about the camper experience. Can you imagine how intensified the experience becomes when a camper moves on to become a staff member taking on the responsibility of making it all happen? Our URJ camps are the best in the country because of the care and energy we put into teaching young Jews, eighteen and nineteen year olds, how to care for children. Learning to listen, to be aware and understand what is happening around them, to articulate what it means to be a role model, to make a positive difference in a child’s life, as well as how to plan a program, lead a discussion, creatively fill down time in the cabin, how to think on one’s feet, and how to communicate with others, all translate into useful parenting talents.
URJ camp staff members come to camp for nine or so weeks each summer. Lessons learned for the first time during first session are put to the test during the second session. By the end of the summer our staff usually return home proud of their work, deeply affected by the new relationships they have created with campers and other staff members, and inspired by their successfully completing a summer of creative Jewish education and Jewish role modeling (our staff members are all Jewish educators, no matter what position they might hold). Completing a summer as a URJ staff member is exhausting and exhilarating.
As you listen to Dr. Ken Ginsburg talk about how kids manage peer pressure in this week’s Jewish Parenting Podcast, think about how summers at camp give our children the gift of responsibility, community, and self-confidence.