The Stories That Statistics Can’t Tell

by Michelle Shapiro Abraham

When I was 15 years old, my father died suddenly. When I showed up at the gates of URJ Camp Swig a few months later, I was still in deep mourning and denial. It was my third summer as a camper there, and though I couldn’t imagine not returning, I also found that I was unable to jump in to camp life. The leadership at Swig made a decision that profoundly impacted the way I view the world now.

Michelle and David Plachte-Zuieback had taught stained glass at Swig for years, and I knew and felt comfortable with them. It was decided that if there was a service or program that I couldn’t handle, I could simply go to them and they would call the unit heads and let them know where I was. As a result, I spent hours that summer sitting in their studio, listening to their music, watching them cut glass, and creating my own art. Michelle and David gave up hours off, the camp leadership bent their own rules of program attendance, and my counselors explained gently to my friends what was happening so that I didn’t need to. Camp Swig fulfilled the mitzvah of “comforting of the mourner” in a way that I could not have imagined – and forever impacted the way I view Jewish community.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham, center, at URJ Camp Eisner this summer with her family.

I now have the honor of visiting many Jewish summer camps in my work as a camp consultant. I am often touched by the intentional Jewish environments that are created, love brainstorming with the camp leadership new techniques and strategies, and enjoy watching kids have fun while learning and living Jewish life. However, I am most profoundly touched by the stories that aren’t in our reports or included in our studies – stories of how the leaders of these camps go far beyond what is written in their vision statements to create truly caring Jewish communities.

In my visits this summer, one staff person shared with me that around 10 years ago, they had a young camper who showed up without enough clothes. Her counselors noticed and soon came to realize that her parents simply didn’t have the money to provide everything that was on the packing list. When her laundry was returned to her the following week, it was stocked with new socks, sneakers, and sweatshirts with a note letting her know that they were hers to keep. The camp senior staff continued this each subsequent summer that she joined them. They not only gave her parents scholarship money so that she could attend, but also provided her with dignity and comfort. It was a quiet gesture, but it made all of the difference to this little girl, who successfully made her way through the camp system, from camper to counselor and beyond.

I have sat with staff people who were “raised” by their camp – who learned much-needed self-confidence in their bunks and were even given somewhere to live in the “off season” when they had nowhere to go. I have heard stories of camp directors bringing together shiva minyans, creating special jobs, and giving money from their own pockets when needed. They are not always successful, and I have also heard the stories of attempts that failed to help, or rules that simply could not change. However, I am amazed how many times the leadership found a way to do, if not to do everything they wanted to, at least something.

When we talk about the impact that Jewish summer camps have on the Jewish future, we often talk in large numbers and percentages. Indeed, it is wonderful to see the proof that we are reaching our youth outcomes. Anyone who has worked with me will tell you that I am a “junkie” for these numbers – I love to count the returning staff and analyze the data from the camper surveys. But as I head to pick up my own children from Jewish summer camp, I am reminded of the individuals whose lives – not only their Jewish identities – are profoundly impacted by their summer home.

I deeply hope that my children will never need the help that I did back at Camp Swig. I am grateful to know, however, that if they do, they are part of a Jewish summer camp community that can support and comfort them. Jewish values indeed aren’t just what we teach; they are what we live.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham, RJE, MAJE, works part time as the Director of Education at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, N.J., and as a Consultant with URJ Camps, Foundation for Jewish Camp, and other synagogue and worship initiatives.  

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8 Responses to “The Stories That Statistics Can’t Tell”

  1. avatar
    Lee Shapiro-London Reply August 13, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    I’m Michelle’s big brother and never knew this side of her story. It makes me wish I had a camp to go to when I was in my mouring period and denial. I took a rather different path – one self-destructive. If one camp per year can help one camper per year, in the way my sister describes, then they have more than fulfilled their mission, they’ve probably saved somebody the misery I had to go through, and put my family through.

    I couldn’t be prouder of the work my sister is doing and know my niece and nephew are definitely benefiting from their experiences at camp.

  2. avatar

    Beautiful, Michelle. Can’t wait to see you at A’s bat mitzvah.

  3. avatar

    Hi Michelle,

    Here’s a blast from the past. I don’t know if you remember me, but I am David Valdez’ mother. I read your blog and found it touching. David has been married for 14 years, and has been in the Navy for 13 (Iknow, it’s weird). He and Brandi have 3 girls, ages 13, 8, and 5. The oldest had her Bat Mitzvah in San Diego in Jan. at TBI. I had mine in June with 4 other TBE ladies. After living in IL for 16 years, I moved back to CA as a recent widow. I am back here, and feeling right at home. David and fam. are now located at the Naval Air Base in Fallon, NV and worship at the congregation in Reno, NV. Your family is lovely, and I hope all is well with you. Greetings to your mom.

  4. avatar
    Bonnie Abrahams Fogel Reply August 14, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    When Danny was a college student he got a job as a kitchen helper at Kutz. This was very challenging for him given his physical and neurological limitations. He was treated with consideration and patience. It took him twice as long as others to get his work done. In the words of my precious daughter in law, “they know Danny, if lunch is soup and sandwiches, he’ll hand out the sandwiches”.Danny holds that summer as the best of his entire life. I am so proud of you, Joel, Shawn, Abbye and the dozens of friends I’ve known for years who make such a difference in the world, one kid at a time. Bless you.

  5. avatar

    The first summer after our daughter’s diagnosis with Diabetes, only a few short months into learning how to deal with this disease as an 11 year old, Eisner Camp gave her the gift of being able to continue to go “home” to her favorite place in the world. In the hospital after her diagnosis, one staff person after another told us about a great camp for kids with Diabetes. Our daughter steadfastly refused, stating that she had “her” camp already. Louis Bordman and all of the staff at Eisner Camp, especially the nursing/medical staff, went above and beyond in order to enable our daughter to learn to manage her disease while at camp. It has not been easy! But each year, as she matures, it becomes less of an issue. If she had not been able to go back to camp, our daughter would surely have felt so much worse about her condition. The lessons she (and we) have learned over these years have been tremendous, and we are so grateful to Eisner Camp for being all of our daughters’ 2nd home, and for being a place where they know that they are always accepted.

  6. avatar

    Michelle, great story. I remember you and Lee as young kids @ Temple Beth El. What a lovely family you have. My regards to your Mother.

  7. avatar

    Dear Michelle,
    I have to share with you that as soon as I started reading your story, I was overcome with tears of rememberence. I thought back to my childhood when my mother passed away the end of my senior year of high school. My parents were in the middle of “sprucing up” our kitchen, painting and walpapering, when she died. I did not have a camp community to lean on, but my parents were part of a chavurah, and they came to our rescue so the task would be complete by the time of her funeral. I (obviously) never forgot the kindness they showed, but more importantly, I felt a sense of community, that my Jewish Community will be there for me at the worst moments of my life, and that we take care of each other in times of need. I am so glad that you (and hopefully) others will share stories like these, the stories behind the financial ROI numbers we seem to demand as a sign of success or failure. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the critically important work you, and others like you do in raising the next generation of Jews. Todah Rabbah!

  8. avatar

    Michelle, I just read your wonderful article which my mother shared with me likely for two reasons. First, I too went to Camp Swig and have lots of wonderful memories of my time there. But I think more likely, she was thinking about a similar story I recently shared with her from my CIT summer at Camp Coleman. I shared with her my memories of my grandfather passing, about how I had to fly from camp to Florida for the funeral, and about how upon my reutrn, particpating in services with my fellow campers was a huge source of comfort at a difficult time. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story and reminding people why Jewish summer camp is so important.

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