Could It Be Magic? The Transformative Power of Sleepaway Camp

Camp Puh’tok (Provided)

Camp Puh’tok (Provided)

Renowned child psychologist Michael Thompson, author of “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow,” has written that there are three reasons that the residential camp experience remains so magical: being away from one’s parents; the relationship between campers and counselors; and inhabiting a camp’s “private world with its own rules and rituals and magic.”

That has certainly been the case for the children of Reistertown’s Marci Phillips and Joseph Kontoff, whose two children attend Capital Camps in Waynesboro, Pa.

“I never went to sleepaway camp or ever had any interest in it,” said Phillips. “I am not a camp person.”

But when daughter Sophie was 8, she heard her friends talking about going to Capital Camps and told Phillips and Kontoff she wanted to go there too. Now, going into her fifth year there, she absolutely loves it, which was evident from an unconventional letter home.

“Her camp self wrote a letter to her home self,” said Phillips. “It was basically like, ‘Dear Sophie, I’m so sorry that you are not me because I am at camp having fun and you are at home waiting for school to start. Sucks to be you. Love, Sophie.’

“We were dying when we opened it,” said Phillips. “She really has this perception that Camp Sophie is this person who’s in this camp bubble doing all this fun stuff while Home Sophie is at home. It was super weird and metaphysical, but we got a kick out of it.”

Capital Camps (Provided)

Capital Camps (Provided)

“We noticed the first summer back [from Capital Camps] we saw an increase in maturity in her,” Phillips recalled of Sophie at 8. “She was more willing to do chores around the house with less complaint; she had more self-confidence.”

Her brother too came to love the camp experience.

Marty Rochlin, the director of Camp Airy in Thurmont, said, “We work with other camps during the off-season and what we all agree on is that the chance to have a safe place to grow up and figure things out on your own is one of the greatest things camp has to offer. Take those risks, try those things, meet those people — you can’t do that at home, it’s a unique experience.”

Studies have consistently shown that camp sessions of one week or more have a beneficial impact on autonomy, social skills and physical activity, among other attributes. And depending on the camp’s orientation, children also gain a lot of knowledge from specialized programs.

“That’s the other important aspect for me as a parent,” said Ruti Kadish, whose 13-year-old son, Segev, attends Habonim Dror Camp Moshava in Street, Md. “My kid comes home and tells me about the social justice issues they talked about: food insecurity or immigration or social justice in Israel or climate. Their activities during the day are about those issues in the most fun, creative, crazy ways. He’ll come home and something will come up on the radio, and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, we talked about that at camp and here’s what I think …’”

Of the more than 14,000 summer camps in the U.S., 8,400 are resident camps, many of which target specific activities. Maryland, which is host to both lush natural settings and dynamic urban environments, has dozens of camps that offer a stunning variety of approaches. There are camps for budding chefs, for the wannabe astronaut, for kids with cancer, for aspiring marine biologists. There are camps geared toward computer game software and camps that teach etiquette. There are baseball camps and debate camps; there are city camps and rural camps and camps in the suburbs.

“One of the greatest gifts you can give a child is a sense of success and achievement,” said Alexi K. Grote, director of Camp Puh’tok, which was founded in 1942 in Northern Baltimore County. “An empowering camp experience provides children with an opportunity to learn powerful lessons in community, critical thinking, character building, skill development and healthy living.”

Jennifer Braveman Silber, executive director of Camp Moshava, said, “Being away from home for an extended period of time at an overnight camp promotes the development of self-confidence, problem solving and social skills in children. … Campers advocate for themselves and for each other, they learn to take action if they see a problem, and they have room to make mistakes and grow from those mistakes. Overnight camp provides a safe and supportive environment for kids to learn about who they are as a person, separate from parents and guardians.”

More than the pragmatic effects, it’s the holistic transformation of sleepaway camp that has such power.

“Camp transcends ZIP codes and schools and neighborhoods,” said Rochlin. “It comes across as cheesy to outsiders, but your camp friends become your best friends — your roommates and bridesmaids and best men. You go away from home to learn about yourself, and camp becomes your home as well.”

When Don Webb founded Nature Camps 43 years ago, conjuring magic within the context of exposing children to the natural world was definitely on the agenda. And it worked — not only for campers, but for the broader NC community as well.

“Imagine 200-plus (children, parents, guests and counselors) gathered together in a circle, sharing a vegetarian dinner at the campsite, followed by a similar eager circle of everyone playing all family games, followed by a meaningful sharing/ talking circle — followed by a marvelous Concert-in-the-Woods,” said Webb, trying to summon up a vision of some of the most transcendent NC moments. “This is followed by night hikes, singing around the campfire, magic wish boats in the pool, tie-dying, pottery and carving soapstone necklaces and figurines. It’s an enchanted, peaceful family time for everyone to soak up the joy of one another.”

Daniel Nozick contributed to this report.

Planning Ahead for an Affordable Summer



For many parents, sending their kids to a summer camp, either day or overnight, is a luxury at first glance. However, with a little extra planning, that crucial summer experience can be within reach. A variety of resources are at the disposal of parents to ensure that their child has an incredible summer experience.

Where to Start Looking?

The first place to begin looking for financial aid is at the very summer camp where you wish to send your child. More often than not, scholarships are provided through the camps themselves.

“We are fortunate to live in a community that has resources both for scholarship and incentive grants. We always suggest reaching out directly to the camp. Things like that are often off of people’s radars,” said Janna Zuckerman, senior planning associate and program manager with the Center for Jewish Camping, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “Local camps give out thousands of dollars in scholarships a year. Often, families are uncertain and will hesitate or won’t even ask, thinking it is out of reach.”

Additionally, financial aid is frequently offered through local institutions, which will often set aside funds for a specific cause with which they associate. For example, churches or synagogues may offer need-based scholarships to the camps they sponsor.

A school counselor is also a great resource to help parents. Working one-on-one with a counselor who is familiar with your child’s needs is a good way to find an accommodating camp.

Regardless of where you decide to seek out financial assistance, time is important. Most camps have limited funding as far as scholarships; the earlier you apply, the more likely you will qualify for help.

Need-Based vs. Flat Rate

Financial aid can come in two forms. Most commonly, camps provide financial aid based on need. The application process for need-based scholarships involves submitting information such as tax and income records.

Summer camp programs offered through the local YMCA are a prime example. Lana Smith, director of the Y in downtown Baltimore, explained, “Our guidelines for parents help us find out who is really in need. Once we weigh information about income and circumstances, we can evaluate how much they can receive.”

Recipients of scholarships from the Y can benefit from between 10 percent and 90 percent of the total cost of the camp. In addition to traditional camp programs, the Y offers specialty summer programming such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) educational programs and teen adventure camps. And, the camp works with a third-party pay group called the Child Care Subsidy program through the Department of Social Services to provide further financial aid.

Financial aid can also come at a flat rate, depending on factors such as how long the child will attend a camp. PJ Goes to Camp is an example of a local initiative that offers such scholarships.

“One of the biggest issues facing camping today is affordability,” said Mark Gold, director of the PJ Goes to Camp, a funder of the Federation for Jewish Camping’s One Happy Camper program.

The One Happy Camper program is a collaboration between PJ Goes to Camp and 43 other funders nationally. Typically, groups each cover their own region, but PJ Goes to Camp is a unique entity in that it includes gaps not covered by other regions.

Unlike other organizations that might offer need-based scholarships, PJ Goes to Camp has a simple, straightforward system that awards flat rates to all applicants. Gold explained: “A grant requires a minimum stay at camp for 12 days. For camp sessions between 12 and 18 days, we provide $700. For campers attending for 19 days or longer, we provide $1,000.

“[Affordability] impacts camps as much as it impacts parents,” he added. “In our experience, first-time campers are the ones who look to us for grants. Second- or third- year campers though, if they have had an incredible camping experience, a parent might really want to send them back for another amazing summer at the same camp. A lot of camps have separate scholarship funds. Our program is designed as an incentive to get first-time campers who will continue to go back.”

With such a large reach, the program receives a lot of inquiries from individuals who might not be aware that they are eligible for a grant in a different region. In addition to providing financial aid in its own territory, PJ Goes to Camp helps to point such individuals toward a different, more suitable source of aid from within the larger organization.

Stephen Goldstein, senior vice president of Scheinker Investment Partners, reminds parents of yet another route for getting kids to summer camp, which may take more time and planning, but can be effective nonetheless. According to Goldstein: “Other nonprofit organizations and community institutions are a good place for aid, but the best way to send a kid to camp is to save. Once the child is born, you should be putting away money in a savings account.”

Summer Camp In Odessa


By Marina Moldavanskaya

The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) youth summer camp “City of Roads and Masters” took place in Odessa from July 5-12. An amazing world of Jewish life was created by the JAFI madrichim (counselors). Children of different ages gathered to make their first steps into the Jewish world. On the first day of the camp the children were asked such questions as: “What is the Torah?”, “What do you call the cap that Jewish men wear?” and “What is Shabbat?” Before this camp, these children, ages 7-12, knew close to nothing about Judaism and Israel. By the end of the camp all of them could explain what a Mezuzah, Torah and Shabbat are. At this age it’s sometimes difficult to perceive information in the form of conversation or lecture. For this reason the organizers chose to educate through creative forums. Each group of children were making a special collage and working with different materials. By the end of the camp the participants presented their collages, made of plasticine, paper, cloth, etc. The collages were the reflections of children’s perception of Tanach stories and characters. The topics of each day varied, so the participants had a chance to get to know a lot, not only about Jewish history and traditions, but also about Israel. “Israel Day” gave the full picture of the contemporaneity: history, different layers of the population, traditions, holidays, food, etc. At the end of the “Israel Day” children, many for the first time, ate Israeli falafel. All the participants left with memories, impressions and Jewish knowledge.

Super Kids

Teens assist seniors at Weinberg Woods, part of the Summer in the City project. From left: Jessica Katz, Leah Szmidt, Danny Gross, Sylvia Shapiro, Andrew Lebovitz and Doris Caplan. (David Stuck)

Teens assist seniors at Weinberg Woods, part of the Summer in the City project. From left: Jessica Katz, Leah Szmidt, Danny Gross, Sylvia Shapiro, Andrew Lebovitz and Doris Caplan. (David Stuck)

Like all good counselors, Danny Gross, 17, is willing to go that extra mile to make his campers smile.

So the Owings Mills resident gamely donned a frilly apron, as he helped out with the afternoon’s activity, which was making pudding parfaits.

Only his campers weren’t raucous kids. They were residents of Weinberg Woods Independent Living on Clarks Lane in Baltimore.

Weinberg resident Lottie Latin gave Gross and the other teen counselors a big thumbs-up for their work.

“They are great. They know how to make a good parfait,” she said.

The teens and the Weinberg Woods residents were taking part in a new week-long summer camp for seniors — a joint project of Weinberg Woods, the Edward A. Myerberg Center and the Jewish Volunteer Connection’s Summer in the City program for teens.

Gross helped senior campers Leah Szmidt, Sylvia Shapiro and Doris Caplan layer fruit, chocolate bits and smushed Oreos into their puddings to make their colorful parfait creations. Counselor Andrew Lebozitz, 17, of Lutherville circled the room topping the parfaits with whipped cream.

“I don’t often indulge in something like this,” Shapiro said with a laugh.

“I had the best time today,” added Szmidt.

Caplan noted that she never went to camp as a child but was certainly enjoying the experience.

The Summer in the City program provides teens with a new service project every week. In addition to the senior camp, the teens also volunteered at the Super Kids reading
enrichment camp for Baltimore City school kids, and they worked as CITs at the Volunteer Connection’s Camp Tzedek, a one-week summer-service camp for elementary students.

Gross said he was really enjoying working with the seniors.

“It’s kind of like having many grandparents,” he said, noting that seniors have a lot of stories to share. “Everything they’ve been through, just hearing about the experiences they had growing up [was interesting], and a lot of them are Holocaust survivors. With that aspect you really get a lot out of it.”

Mount Washington resident Toby Spokes, 16, was a little nervous about interacting with the seniors, but he said they were all so friendly.

This was Jennifer Goldberg’s second year as a Summer in the City volunteer.

“They’re a really friendly group,” said the 16-year-old Pikesville resident.

“As soon as you sit down and introduce yourself they’ll start talking with you,” noted Bethany Miller, 15, of Reisterstown.

About a dozen teen counselors were on hand for the residents, who enjoyed such activities as Zumba Gold, a yoga class, getting-to-know-each-other ice-breakers and a joint crafts project. “Today we did Zumba, I’m still tired. I really enjoyed everything,” said senior Clara Block.

And camp isn’t camp without a few outdoorsy creatures, which, in this case, were provided by the Irvine Nature Center, which brought in a snake and a turtle among other animals for a hands-on learning program.

While the seniors and teens had a lot of intergenerational fun chatting and taking part in the activities, the teens had an extra learning component each day. They learned about the Weinberg Foundation and its programs and used hands-on techniques to explore issues of aging. For example, at times they wore glasses smeared with Vaseline to mimic age-related vision changes.

The seniors could attend as many or as few sessions as they wanted. As an incentive they earned a ticket for a prize each time they came for an activity. Prizes included such practical treats as a book of stamps, gift cards and a challah.

Amy Landsman is a local freelance writer.

Three Campers Injured In Lightning Strike At Reform Camp

Three children at the Goldman Union Camp Institute near Indianapolis were injured when lightning struck the field in which they were holding a camp activity.

One of the children reportedly is in critical but stable condition from the Saturday afternoon lightning strike on the Reform movement camp located in Zionville, Ind.

The three injured children have not been named, but have been identified as a 9-year-old girl from Missouri, a 9-year-old boy from Kentucky and a 12-year-old boy from Ohio.

Following the accident, Rabbi Mark Covitz, director of the camp known as GUCI, sent out a message, also posted on Facebook, which read, “This Shabbat afternoon, lightning struck URJ Goldman Union Camp. Three campers were injured. Camp personnel and emergency professionals responded quickly. The children were taken to local hospitals and we have spoken with each child’s parents.

“We are resuming our normal camp schedule, which will include dinner and evening program.

“Please know, the safety of your children is our highest priority.”

Emergency officials reportedly were called to the camp at 1:40 p.m., where they found camp counselors performing “lifesaving efforts,” an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department report said, according to the Indianapolis Star newspaper.

It was not raining, nor was there a storm in the area at the time of the lighting strike, Indianapolis Police spokesman Kendale Adams told reporters.

Several hundred children in grades 3 through 12 are in residence at the camp.