Here’s how summer camps welcome their youngest charges

Feb 16, 2017

Two young campers at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires enjoy the waterfront. At the camp, those entering third grade can try out a seven-day session. (Courtesy of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires)

(JTA) — Wondering if your child is ready for overnight camp?

A sure sign, according to Karen Alford, a sleepaway camp consultant, is that he or she has grown tired of day camp.

“At 9 [or going into fourth grade], you’ve probably been doing day camp for several years, and there’s just a natural progression to sleepaway camp,” she told JTA.

Of course, Alford added, some kids aren’t ready until they’re older.

“You have to know your child and what they can handle,” she said, adding that “some parents with kids who have trouble separating find camp even more helpful at a younger age because it builds independence.”

Luckily, most Jewish summer camps pay close attention to easing their youngest kids into the sleepaway experience. From pre-camp meet-and-greets to special presents for first-time campers to the common availability of ultra-short sessions — anywhere from five to 11 days — camps are acutely aware of the need to gently transition their littlest and newest campers into the culture of overnight camp.

In addition to providing additional resources for the young newbies — and, of course, their anxious parents — many camps also hire additional staff and train them in some hand-holding.

Take Camp Judaea, a pluralist Jewish camp in North Carolina. It offers a Taste of Camp Judaea, an 11-day program for kids as young as 7. Unlike older campers who can “specialize” in certain activities, the youngest campers, called Rishonim, get to sample all of the camp activities, including zip-lining and horseback riding.

The Taste program is available for kids until the fourth grade.

“To be honest, in some ways it’s more for the parents than the campers,” said David Berlin, assistant director of Camp Judaea. “The parents tend to be more nervous. This is our way of hooking them into camp.”

Additionally, the ratio of campers to counselors is lower for the Camp Judaea’s Rishnonim campers, hovering around 3 to 1, as opposed to about 4.5 to 1 for the older kids.

To prepare the first-timers, Camp Judaea holds parlor meetings for new families, most of whom come from the southeastern U.S., Berlin said. New campers get to watch a video, hear about a typical day at camp and have their questions answered.

“It allows the families an opportunity to meet the staff before the summer begins,” Berlin said.

They also used to send first-timers a book about sleepaway camp — “Sami’s Sleepaway Summer,” by Jenny Meyerhoff — but it’s out of print. Berlin said the book was a great way to get young campers excited and have them learn what to expect — he’s looking for a replacement.

At Camp Gilboa, located outside Los Angeles and part of the progressive Zionist Habonim Dror movement, younger campers can experience sessions as short as four nights.

Kayaking at Camp Gilboa (Courtesy of Camp Gilboa)

“We focus on easing them into camp,” said Executive Director Dalit Shlapobersky.

But because Habonim Dror offers year-round programming, kids can get involved prior to starting camp, and therefore become acquainted with  other Gilboa campers and counselors well ahead of time, she said. The camp also invites families to visit during the year for weekends and retreats.

Shlapobersky said campers typically start Gilboa at age 8.

“At that point they’ve already gone through quite a few separations — they’ve had to get used to a new community at preschool, and then a new one at kindergarten/elementary school,” she said. “These things are all about practice. The more time we practice doing something different, the more ready we are to take something new on.”

But Shlapobersky gives campers and families added support through the preparation process, which includes weekly emails beginning in May that focus on different aspects of camp — like what to expect on the first day of camp, what sort of communications there will be to and from camp, a glossary of camp lingo. New campers also receive introductory phone calls from counselors a couple of days before the session begins.

Additionally, Gilboa calls new parents to find out more about individual campers, making the camp more prepared for them when they arrive.

“For example, if we know they’re really into magic, we can have one of the counselors who loves magic tricks ready,” Shlapobersky said.

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, offers a seven-day Ta’am Ramah (Hebrew for Taste of Ramah), to children entering third grade.

Rabbi Ethan Linden, the camp’s director, said there’s a higher ratio of staff for the youngest kids.

“We’ll have 20 to 25 kids and 10 staff counselors, plus a group leader,” he said, adding that for older kids, there are typically 14 kids to four counselors per bunk.

“We usually have more experienced counselors for the little ones,” he said. “We know we have to hold their hands more.”

Linden said he’s found that most kids are ready to start camp between the ages of 8 and 10 — and agrees with other directors that parents are sometimes the last to be ready. But Ramah in the Berkshires pays extra attention to first-time campers regardless of age.

“We’re particularly sensitive to issues of homesickness and integration,” he said.

Linden said the camp employs staffers called “yoetzim” — people who are a little older, usually parents — who can get involved in tough situations. The camp also does “a lot of training on bunk dynamics, trying to make sure that no campers slip through the cracks,” he said.

“We work to find that one thing the kid loves to do and then use that to ease the transition,” he said.

Staff and campers at Camp Modin in Maine. (Courtesy of Camp Modin)

At Camp Modin, a pluralistic sleepaway camp in Maine, and the oldest Jewish camp in New England, the youngest campers are 8, or going into third grade. Director Howard Salzberg said Modin used to have even younger campers, but found they weren’t quite ready for the experience.

While Modin doesn’t have extra-short sessions for first-timers — the shortest “regular”session is 3 1/2 weeks — counselors for younger kids are trained to give more personalized attention, Salzberg said.

“We don’t expect these kids to unpack their trunks or do their own laundry,” he said. “We recognize that these kids need extra help changing out of their wet bathing suits, that we need to make sure they’re showering, that they know how to open their soap in the shower, that they’re combing their hair.

“With older kids it’s more about mentoring. For younger years it’s more parenting.”

And in some ways, the younger kids are easier, Salzberg added.

“They present different challenges, but honestly, younger kids can be a lot easier than hormonally challenged teenagers,” he said, laughing.

At Modin, newbies are matched with returning campers in a “big brother, big sister” program — the older campers call the younger campers before the session starts, and at camp they meet up on opening day. The older group gives the younger charges a small gift, like a goody bag or a Modin bracelet.

Regardless of what age a child starts camp, the camp directors noticed that first-born kids tend to start camp older, and slightly more nervous, than their younger siblings.

“Younger siblings have parents more prepared for the sleepaway camp experience, are often familiar with the campgrounds from visiting day,” Alford said. “Plus, they’ve seen how much fun their older siblings have at camp.”

(This article was made possible with funding by the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The story was produced independently and at the sole discretion of JTA’s editorial team.)