Yay for Jewish Summer Camp!
by Dr. Sharon Silverman Pollack
As a pediatrician and
specialist in adolescent behavior
and emotional development,
I want to encourage
parents to send their kids to
Jewish summer camps. I can’t
rave enough about the invaluable meaning,
depth of connection, and enduring worth
that immersion in a Jewish summer camp
Not only is camp a great place to form lifelong
friendships, I believe that it is an inoculation
against teenage angst and deleterious
risk taking and a remedy for teen disillusion.
Twenty-first century teens need a place where
they can learn to tolerate inactivity and distress
safely, and to experience social life as real
human interactions, not screen facsimiles.
Camp is that place.
My office is in the San Fernando Valley.
Beyond earthquake fault lines, there is much
more trouble rumbling through my community.
In the past few months there have
been three teen suicides, one heroin death,
three alcohol poisoning deaths, and many
lucky survivors of extreme party nights. Why?
Some were related to grades and perfectionism,
others to intolerance of breakups
and emotional despair, and some were just
experimentation gone wrong. Many of the
victims were Jewish. While parents who read
about Wendy Mogel’s blessings of wounded
knees and bad grades and Amy Chua’s battle
hymn of tiger moms who are worried
about how their kids will get into the right
colleges, too many teenagers are looking
to check out in some way.
According to Monitoring the Future, a
yearly survey of teens across the country, 6.6
percent of high school seniors – that’s 1
in 15 – use marijuana daily. How can we
prevent that? Jewish summer camp. According
to adolescent specialist Ken Ginsberg,
M.D., social growth and connections provide
the attributes that will help kids develop
the resilience they need as they become
teenagers. Those resilience attributes are
competence through experience, confidence
rooted in competence, fostering close connections,
building character, feeling a significant
contribution to a community, and
learning both coping and control. If we can
help kids find social success and forestall the
more distressing benchmarks of teen risk
taking, they will gain more experience at
establishing their personalities in the larger
Kids do risky things for many reasons.
One is that somehow it makes them feel
good despite all the harm it creates. Kids
can quote you line and verse about the negative
consequences of substance abuse. But
they still use alcohol and drugs and cut themselves.
They are depressed, and they commit
suicide. We need to create places and
opportunities where kids can benefit from
If we empower young people and still
allow them to take risks, they will grow
strong in their concept of themselves. The
risk taking built into summer camp includes
leaving the safety and comfort of home and
interacting socially with more kids. Summer
camp experiences are designed to create
resilient adolescents. Camp helps develop
self-confidence and social competence by
growing interpersonal and core mindfulness
skills, as well as some mastery in regulating
emotion and tolerating distress.
I won’t say that it’s something only Jewish
summer camp does. The Jewish community
offers it in kehilla and community
affiliations, USY and Kadima, and schools
that instill values of tzedakah and community
service. Parents should be invested
in connecting their kids to these communities.
Kids are taught morality and the difference
between right and wrong in
environments that are centered in Jewish
values. Camp does this through educational
programs, music, sports, drama, daily routines,
arts, and food. Parents also should
model these behaviors.
At camp, everyone is understood to be
created betzelem elohim, in God’s image.
Still, the same painful parts of puberty are
packed into campers’ duffle bags – girl stuff,
boy struggles, fitting in, and body image
struggles. At camp, though, campers learn
to meet distress and to cope.
Yay Jewish summer camp! That is why
I am a camp doctor and my kids have been
raised in camps and have become great mensches.
That is why I train the counselors
in adolescent behavior and how to include
different kids, recognizing behavior as issues
of self-expression. I love and support the
Jewish camping movement.
Sharon Silverman Pollock, M.D., is a pediatrician
with a practice in psychopharmacology.
She is a doctor at Camp Ramah in Ojai,