Jewish Summer Camp and Helicopter Parents

Originally published on JTA.org

Parents find new benefit to Jewish camp: Freedom from themselves

When she took the stage recently before an audience of 400 Jewish camping enthusiasts, Lenore Skenazy wasted no time in addressing why she is known as “America’s Worst Mom.”

The author of a 2008 column in The New York Times describing how she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone just to see if he could do it, Skenazy has been the subject of sharp criticism for her parenting philosophy. But Skenazy is fighting back, waging war against what she describes as overzealous and anxiety-ridden helicopter parents who hover over their children rather than letting them be “free-range kids,” affording them the freedom to make mistakes.

She even wrote a book on the subject: “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.”

Lenore Skenazy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly

“Sending your kids to camp is a fantastic way to give kids back their freedom,” Skenazy said at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly in this central New Jersey city. “Homesickness is a good thing. It shows they appreciate their home. So, thank God for camp.”

Summer camp has emerged as one of the most promising tools in the struggle to ensure Jewish continuity in an era when Jews face more choice and fewer barriers to assimilation. A recent study by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults.

“The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Since its launch 13 years ago, the foundation has raised approximately $90 million to strengthen Jewish camps and, more recently, to encourage the growth of so-called Jewish specialty camps — those that focus on sports, art or outdoor adventures — in an attempt to siphon off some of the Jewish campers who might be drawn to non-Jewish camps focusing on specialty areas.

But the focus on identity building has obscured what some say is another, less-touted benefit of the camp experience that should also be a draw for Jewish parents: affording their kids a measure of freedom from intensive parenting.

“Kids go to camp and gain independence,” said Nancy Lublin, the founder of the nonprofits Dress for Success and DoSomething.org, and another speaker at the conference. “That’s why we need camp. It’s about the fun, tradition and independence. Go get dirty, get lice, sprain something. Parents will see that they don’t come home with their nose pierced, purple hair or worshiping the devil. It’s okay.”

Nancy Lublin of DoSomething.org addresses Jewish Summer Camp leaders

Helicopter parenting, a term used to refer to parents that hover over their children and pay exceedingly close attention to their every activity — sometimes to a degree that borders on smothering — is hardly a Jewish phenomenon. It has been the subject of numerous books and articles, and of late has sparked its own backlash. But Jewish parents, and particularly the much-maligned stereotypical Jewish mother, may be more susceptible to such impulses than most.

“We Jewish parents are definitely overprotective of our kids, and it’s tough to send them to overnight camp,” Lublin said. “But we all know it’s the right thing to do. It’s just what Jews do.”

For some parents, however, summer camp may not be a cure-all. Parents still call and write their kids and, with the proliferation of new communications technologies, they can remain involved to a degree that parents of a previous generation were not.

“Even when the children are away at camp, the parents will still be hovering,” said Michael Salamon, a psychologist in New York who has fingered overparenting as one of the reasons behind the so-called shidduch crisis, in which a glut of young unmarried adults — mainly in the Orthodox community — struggle to find suitable mates.

“I met with parents in a recent session who were so overprotective of their child that it was hindering the child’s ability to perform well in school,” Salamon said. “They told me they felt it was important to send their child to camp this summer to encourage independence, but really what I noticed is that they were looking for a vacation for themselves. They work so hard at parenting that they need a break.”

For parents like these, summer camp is a way to loosen the reins a little but in a way that still feels relatively safe.

Stephanie Steiner of Springfield, N.J., describes her own parenting style as “somewhat overprotective.” Still, every summer she ships off her kids to Camp Harlam, a Reform movement camp in Pennsylvania. They’ve demonstrated more independence as a result, which makes the experience — and the expense — worth it.

“We feel very comfortable with the camp and who is running it and how it is run, so it makes it easier,” Steiner said. “The camp’s motto is ‘Where friends become family,’ and we know our kids are so happy at their home away from home.”

Whatever the benefits of Jewish camping, there’s little sign that enthusiasm for it is on the wane. The Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation have put up $8.6 million in grant money to bring more Jewish children into the camping world by focusing on their specialized hobbies.

“Camp gives kids the permission to be themselves. Parents trust that camp is a positive place for building self-esteem and self-confidence,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Jewish camp brings that and an even stronger sense of community.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Motherhood and the Rabbinate: A Male Rabbi Responds

When we hear the words of the Torah being read this Shabbat morning, we’ll learn about a group of women who had a mutual goal and succeeded.

A man named Tzelafchad died without having any sons and the laws of inheritance in the Torah only recognized male heirs, making no provision for a deceased father’s land to be claimed by his female descendants. However, Tzelafchad’s daughters, Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah, refused to reconcile themselves to this fact and petitioned Moses to grant them their father’s estate. Moses brought their claim to God, who responded: “The daughters of Tzelafchad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.”

These five women didn’t let the fact that they were women get in the way of changing history. And neither did the women who broke the gender barrier in the rabbinate. Prior to June 3, 1972, no woman had ever been ordained as a rabbi in the United States. On that date, Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in North America. The first Conservative rabbi wouldn’t be ordained for another eleven years when Rabbi Amy Eilberg graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

It is appropriate that we learn about the courageous daughters of Tzelafchad this week following an op-ed in the Forward written by a female rabbinical student from the Jewish Theological Seminary who argues that motherhood and the rabbinate don’t mix well. Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer, the mother of an infant daughter, is on leave from the Seminary while she stays at home to care for her daughter. Somehow she found the time (probably while her baby was napping) to post on the Forward’s Sisterhood blog that mothers who are practicing rabbis are just another example of the “Super Mom-syndrome now cloaked as the Super Ima-Rabbi syndrome.”

Well, I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer is not able to balance motherhood with the life of a rabbinical student, but I have certainly witnessed many women who were able to strike this balance — and impressively so.

I remember my first day of rabbinical school orientation like it was yesterday. We sat around a conference room table introducing ourselves. Many of us were right out of college. Some were single, while others were either engaged or newly married. But there were also several older students in my rabbinical school class. I remember Paula Mack Drill introducing herself in her warm way by telling us that first and foremost she is the mother of four children ages nine to two-years-old. And she wasn’t the only woman in our class who would spend the next six years raising a family and fulfilling the necessary credits to graduate and become a rabbi. During rabbinical school, many of my female classmates became mothers for the first time (or for the second or third time). And many of the men (myself included) became fathers for the first time.

Was it challenging to be both a mommy (or daddy) and still manage to attend classes, study in the beit midrash, take exams and manage a part-time job? Of course it was. Just like it is a challenge to balance motherhood with medical school or law school or any other graduate school. But it can be done and it can be done without forsaking the children.

The experience of coupling motherhood with a career is something women fought for in the last century. The opening of the doors to women in the rabbinate was very much a result of the Women’s Liberation Movement. And Judaism is the better for it. This past Mother’s Day I wrote an article for JTA in praise of women rabbis. I wrote this because my rabbinate and my Jewish experience have only been enhanced by the presence of women rabbis.

From among my rabbinical school class alone, I’ve seen one of my female classmates go on to become an entrepreneur, founding a new congregation and being recognized as one of Newsweek Magazine’s top congregational rabbis. I saw another female classmate go on to become one of the highest ranking chaplains in the Navy. I saw other female classmates build small synagogues into larger, thriving communities. And these are only the women with whom I was ordained. Look around the Jewish world and you’ll see hundreds of women successfully raising their children while also educating, counseling, writing, leading organizations and preaching.

Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer urges, “I want us to question why we allow our lives to be set up in such ways where we feel that they have no choice but to work or attend school and thus leave our babies in the care of others.” You definitely have a choice. But many women in the 21st century are choosing to do the motherhood thing along with being an executive or a graduate student or a rabbi. It can be done and it can be done gracefully without any risk to the children.

I’m actually glad that Steinbauer wrote this because it gives us a chance to praise the women who balance motherhood with their careers. No one says these women have to do it alone. Help comes from devoted spouses, caring parents serving as loving grandparents, and talented nannies. Back in rabbinical school, there were many days when a baby would join us in class. Sometimes it was a mommy who brought the baby and sometimes it was a daddy. Not only did we not mind having a baby or two in class, we actually liked it. It was a testament that we didn’t have to check our parenthood responsibilities at the door of the Seminary. It is really no different than a rabbi who sits on the bimah (pulpit) with her baby. It is a scene that might have been odd a few decades ago, but today it is commonplace.

One rabbi who prides herself on also being a mother is Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs at Ima On (and Off) the Bima. I thought her response to Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer was perfect. Reminding everyone that she is an ima (mother) both on and off the bimah, she wrote:

I am both a mother and a rabbi. Some days I’m more ima. Some days I’m more bima. (See blog title.) Some days, I’m trying to make it all work. But I don’t think I’m doing it wrong. I just know that I’m doing it. I’ve created four wonderful little people and my husband and I delight in their growth of body and spirit. We definitely juggle, we definitely argue over who goes where and when.

I hope Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer returns to rabbinical school soon. I’m sure she’ll become a talented rabbi while being a nurturing and devoted mother too. These are not mutually exclusive roles in life. It might just take her a few years to figure that out.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller