Read stories from our camp community:
Sleepaway camp offers many things that research tells us are critical building blocks of wellbeing: immersion in nature, creativity, movement, music and the arts, community and belonging, friendship, curiosity and growth mindset, new experiences, opportunities to explore spirituality and identity, and more.
Since opportunities for these are scarce in today’s school and work environments, it’s no surprise that sleepaway camp is a beloved and meaningful experience for so many families.
We often hear: “Summer sleepaway camp sounds great for a lot of kids, but what about my kid?” My shy kid who doesn’t make friends easily, my kid with anxiety, my neurodiverse kid?
We believe camp is for your kid. URJ camps have dedicated Mental, Emotional, and Social Health leadership and Camp Care teams with licensed professionals who know camp and know kids. They work seamlessly with parents, counselors, and campers before and during the summer to support kids in having the best possible experience.
We encourage you to read the stories below from members of our camp community, drop in for open office hours with Amy Dolgin, director of integrated learning & wellness for URJ camps and immersives, and schedule time to ask questions you have about your unique children.
Learn more with no obligation so you can feel confident in your decision-making about sleepaway camp.
The Power of Camp
Could she adjust? Would she know how to make friends? How would she handle multi-step tasks that require executive functioning skills?
I am an anxious parent. And for any parent of a child who doesn’t fit within a conventional “box” (whatever that may be), parenting can be even more nerve-inducing. The idea of sending my child to sleep-away camp put my stress levels at Defcon 1.
We have two very different children: We knew our older daughter would adapt just fine at camp; our younger daughter, Sadie, was the question mark. She’s abundantly kind and creative, but terribly shy and disorganized. She’s not the type to ask for help (even when she really needs it), and coming out of Covid, hadn’t had any sleepovers beyond family members. We wanted to give her the Jewish sleep-away camp experience but at what cost — Could she adjust? Would she know how to make friends? How would she handle multi-step tasks that require executive functioning skills?
The camp director, Anna, spent a huge amount of time consulting with me by phone and email during fall – graciously responding to my world of hypotheticals and assuring me about the staff members and processes in place to help every child, including Sadie, experience the best summer. My husband and I are notoriously indecisive, but Anna’s continued reassurances helped us confirm that BOTH children would go to camp this summer.
The camp session was a wonder for Sadie — she truly blossomed. We saw the proof in the photo updates; she accomplished feats like swimming in the lake and making friends. In fact, it was wonderful to see the evolution of her opening up through the photographs. The first few days, she was always on the edge of the group shots or slightly adjacent in the back; as the days progressed, we noticed she moved to the center of group photos, arms around her cabin-mates, genuinely smiling with kids. She even performed in the talent show! For our daughter, who shies away from the spotlight and usually hates attention, this was a miracle. Simply put, we underestimated our daughter.
When she got home at the end of the session, she cried because she missed her camp friends. Though she was sad, it made us so happy — the fact that she was able to create friendships, on her own, and understand what it is to forge connections. Within this loving environment, she harnessed skills regarding independence, responsibility, organization, and collaboration.
I am so grateful to Anna and the whole URJ Jacobs Camp team for not only giving both my children a summer of a lifetime, but also allowing these kids a chance to discover themselves and unleash talents and abilities they never knew they possessed.
- Melanie P., parent
Growth Happens Outside the Comfort Zone
Ethan's ‘comfort zone’ is home. New adventures tend to create anxiety for him. Though he prefers going to school, hanging with friends, and attending day camp, we felt that going to Jewish overnight summer camp would be an experience he would benefit from. I’ve read so many parenting articles about letting your children be who they are, and I had so many friends ask how I could send him to camp when he didn’t want to go. I can now say, with no hesitation, that sending my son to Jewish overnight camp was the best decision I ever made.
My seventh-grade son, Ethan, did not want to go to sleep-away camp, but after years of hearing our rabbi praise the value of URJ Camp Newman, my husband and I were determined to send him anyway. Ethan's "comfort zone" is home. New adventures tend to create anxiety for him. Though he prefers going to school, hanging with friends, and attending day camp, we felt that going to Jewish overnight summer camp would be an experience he would benefit from.
We signed him up, covertly, knowing that many other kids from our area would be attending at the same time. Ethan was not happy about this decision.
As camp season neared, I started collecting necessary items and even sent mail to Ethan the day before he left so that it would arrive quickly. Finally Ethan became resigned to the fact that camp was happening, though he did not participate in packing and was sullen on the drive.
Camp staff greeted the group at pickup with a warm welcome, and everything was very organized. As Ethan was called into a group to load onto a camp-bound bus, it was time for me to say goodbye. I gave him a “thumbs up” and off he went.
After his first week at camp, I received an envelope from him containing two pieces of paper from a small note pad – a few brief scribbles about the rain, a pool party, Shabbat services, and a concert with Jewish rocker Dan Nichols. Ethan said the food was good, and that he’d tried the ropes course. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled wider.
Ethan does not speak effusively about anything – not even his first love, baseball. But when he came home from Camp Newman, he didn’t stop talking. From the time we picked him up at the airport until he went to bed, he told us every detail about camp. He had taken nearly 300 pictures, so we hooked our computer up to the TV and as it scrolled through his photos, Ethan narrated each and every one.
So did camp change my son? Well, he’s still Ethan. Fourteen years old, stubborn, and still a picky eater, he does seem to have developed a quiet confidence. His older sister has noticed the newfound confidence at the day camp they both attend, where Ethan is now trying new activities and is well-liked by his counselors and peers.
I’ve read so many parenting articles about letting your children be who they are, and I had so many friends ask how I could send him to camp when he didn’t want to go. I can now say, with no hesitation, that sending my son to Jewish overnight camp was the best decision I ever made. Attending Camp Newman gave Ethan the opportunity to get out of his “comfort zone,” and he succeeded. He did it!
Ethan has made the decision on his own to return to Camp Newman. He had fun and looks forward to the experience again. What a joy. What a gift. I cannot wait to see how he grows this summer.
- Marcy C., parent
Camp Supports the Wellbeing of My Son with Autism – And His Parents
The benefits are worth it. With Ted at camp, my husband and I get some respite and time to reconnect. If you are a parent – whether your child has a disability or not – you know how important that can be. It strengthens and recharges our marriage, and it makes us better parents in the long run.
Life has been relatively calm the last few days. A major reason for that is that Ted - my son, who has autism - is off at camp for 3 ½ weeks. No, it is not a "special needs camp." In fact, he attends URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS, the same Reform Jewish camp I attended as a child. This is his sixth summer there, and we love it.
I get a lot of questions, like "How can you send him for so long?" "Don't you miss him?" "Doesn't he get homesick?"
Here are a few answers.
I send Ted to camp for so long because that is the session the camp offers, and it is important to me that he attend, develop relationships with others, learn to be independent, and know he will be OK if I am not there. It's important to me that he be forced to make choices for himself, grow both personally and spiritually, and learn to make it in a typical environment.
Yes, I miss him a lot, and yes, he gets homesick. A few years ago, I got a letter that simply said, "Dear Mom: I have stayed at camp too long. That is all I have to say. Love, Ted." Still, I know this is a great opportunity for him, and I know he is safe and that the camp staff will call me if there are any problems. I also know that it is OK – perfectly normal, even – to be a little homesick. Kids, especially kids with autism, sometimes require a little push and tough love in order to make the next step to being able to live in the world independently, and it is my belief that this is a skill he gains in leaps and bounds at camp.
Our family has been beyond fortunate that the director and staff of the camp have worked with us to accommodate Ted's needs. They assign extra staff when needed, often giving him a one-on-one shadow but also allowing him the opportunity to be on his own whenever possible. They treat him just like other campers while allowing him to have the support he needs to be successful. For example, they provide opportunities for him to make his own choices and explore new activities he would otherwise not have access to – but he is allowed to step away from loud or overwhelming activities. The camp has provided great feedback each year to help us make our decision about sending him the next year. It has been a trial-and-error process, but now the camp staff and returning campers know Ted, and he knows them. Each summer when he arrives, it is like a homecoming.
So yes, it is difficult for us because we miss him, and yes, sometimes he does get homesick – but as we see it, the benefits are worth it. With Ted at camp, my husband and I get some respite and time to reconnect. If you are a parent – whether your child has a disability or not – you know how important that can be. It strengthens and recharges our marriage, and it makes us better parents in the long run. Plus, Ted enjoys camps. He loves the activities, has become close with other campers (including cousins who live in another state), and truly has fun. Why wouldn’t we push him? Why should life be made simple for him? As neurotypical people, we face challenges and become stronger by learning to overcome them. That’s how life works – and at camp, Ted is learning the same thing in a safe and nurturing environment.
- Amanda F., parent
A Community that Supports Everyone
Sometimes, we wait for campers to adjust to camp on their own; other times, we step in to provide individualized care. We work closely with parents to anticipate, recognize, and effectively deal with the challenges that may crop up while their kids are in our care. This level of understanding and partnership enables us to support our campers in creative ways, ensuring that everyone can be their best self at camp.
Camp’s open, safe community – a true k’hilah kedosha (holy community) – is a place that, perhaps more than any other, can have a positive effect on children, both those with and without disabilities. URJ camps have dedicated professional teams – including counselors, camper care specialists, and other leaders like a special inclusion coordinator. We work closely with parents to anticipate, recognize, and effectively deal with the challenges that may crop up while their kids are in our care.
This level of understanding and partnership enables us to support our campers in creative ways, ensuring that everyone can be their best self at camp. For example, some campers – whether or not they have disabilities – transition to camp with ease, while others struggle to acclimate to being away from home. Sometimes, we wait for campers to adjust to camp on their own; other times, we step in to provide individualized care, especially for those who face physical disabilities or emotional, social, or behavioral challenges.
At camp, everyone is valued and everyone is part of our k’hilah kedosha.
- Cori Miller, LSW, Assistant Director of Camper Care & Enrollment