Perspective | Friendships forged, community cemented: The importance of Jewish sleepaway camps

When 10-year-old Nili Suissa first arrived at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah in July 2021, she was nervous to be away from home for the first time. “It was raining at camp, and I was crying because me and my dad were running late, and I was worried I wouldn’t have enough time to unpack,” Nili remembers. Her spirits quickly turned around, however, when she met her bunk’s head counselor, Eli Gross, for the first time. “Eli came over when she saw me crying and she gave me a big hug and was like ‘don’t worry,’ and she helped me unpack,” Nili continues.

Gross, who had been a camper at Nah-Jee-Wah herself, was no stranger to the first-day jitters. After spending four summers of her childhood at the Milford, Pa., complex, Gross wanted to come back for one last season before her freshman year of college. “It’s always hard the first day, but I knew she’d get through it,” Gross remembers. “They always have like, the most perfect summer ever.”

Jewish sleep-away camps first arose in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s — born out of fears that recent European immigrants would assimilate too deeply into American culture and leave their Jewish roots behind. It’s a concern that still exists: The challenge of passing along Judaism to a new generation remains the top concern of most of the American Jewish community. That fear isn’t unfounded.

Within the next decade, the last Holocaust survivors will pass away, and Jews make up less than 3 percent of the U.S. population. With low birthrates (the lowest of all religious groups in the United States) and high rates of marrying outside of the faith (58 percent of American Jews marry non-Jews), there has never been more pressure to preserve and sustain Judaism in America. This effort also coincides with antisemitism increasing nationally — 2022 saw the highest level of antisemitic attacks since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking in 1979.

For families like Nili’s, Camp Nah-Jee-Wah holds immeasurable importance. Named for the New Jersey Federation of Young Women’s Hebrew Associations, the camp, which opened in 1920, marked its 100th summer in 2001. (It was closed in 2020 due to the covid-19 pandemic.) Originally founded as a camp for girls, Nah-Jee-Wah is now a coed camp that serves about 425 kids annually from grades one through six. Renamed NJY Camps, the organization that runs Camp Nah-Jee-Wah boasts the largest Jewish camp complex in the world, serving about 5,500 youths annually.

Much like any other sleepaway camp, Jewish camps help children to make friends, learn social skills, gain independence and, of course, have hours of outdoor fun. Color wars, capture the flag, swimming and more, sleepaway camps help Jewish youths establish strong friendships, ethics and pride, all of which contribute to a lasting sense of community.

Community is found in every corner of camp — by the lake, in the dining hall, during elective activities and in the bunks. “It’s like having a sleepover with all your friends for like … a long time,” says Sari Lampert, 11, one of Nili Suissa’s 10 bunkmates at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah. Like Nili, she found overnight camp overwhelming at first. “I was really excited, but I was also really nervous that I was going to accidentally act weird and nobody would like me,” Sari admits. Now, Sari says, “I’m really close to my friends at home, but most of my camp friends I’m closer with. If you go to sleep-away camp, you’re guaranteed to make at least one good friend. I have like, so many best friends … basically everyone in our bunk.”

“You live together, so you can form an easier connection,” camper Daniella Goldberg, 12, agrees.

Friendship is the biggest reason the campers come back each year. “I’m closer with my friends at camp because of the amount of time we spend together,” says Amelia Goldin, 12, who has been going to Camp Nah-Jee-Wah since she was 5 years old. Camp friendships run deep in Amelia’s family. “[My sister-in-law] was a lifelong camper and met her husband there,” says Amelia’s mother, Rachel Goldin, “and my youngest sister’s best friends, to this day, are her camp friends. They are part of our extended family to the point where we have been at their weddings, and they have been to our kids’ [bar and bat] mitzvahs.”

Amelia’s experience is also echoed by camp counselor Gross. “They’re going to be my forever friends. … I talk to my camp friends every day,” Gross says. “They’ve also shaped who I am and they’ve grown with me. … I wouldn’t be who I am without camp.”

Camp is brimming with children who are trying to figure out who they are, what they like and whom they want to associate with as they transition from adolescence to emerging adulthood. “I feel like I became more myself at camp,” Amelia Goldin says. It helps that camp is relatively free from the societal pressures normally placed on preteens. Campers don’t wear makeup, they don’t do their hair, and they don’t often have access to mirrors. Most important, they don’t have cellphones or tablets — meaning that they cannot text or make TikToks. “If you had your phone at camp, it wouldn’t be as fun,” Amelia points out. “Camp is all about going away from home, and seeing your friends, and touching grass. … I’m always doing something. I don’t even have time to be on my phone.”

The benefits of zero screen time have been noticed by Steve Levin, whose daughter Josie is a camper at Nah-Jee-Wah. “Josie has grown tremendously throughout her time at camp,” Levin says. “She always comes home seemingly standing a little bit taller, more comfortable with her true self and detoxed from the pressures of school and distractions of modern life and technology.”

Unlike some other Jewish sleep-away camps, the inclusion of Judaism is rather informal at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah. “It just feels like regular camp; it doesn’t feel like a Jewish camp,” says camper Julie Rappaport, 12. While the camp only serves kosher food and requires that campers attend singing-based Shabbat services, the days are mostly made of activities such as swimming, playing sports and singing campfire songs. “I think the informal education piece is what is most effective,” says Carrie Youngs, Camp Nah-Jee-Wah’s director. “[Camp] is fun and innovative and creative and therefore it creates these impactful memories — whether it be about Jewish holidays, Jewish traditions or what it means to be Jewish in the United States.”

When asked if going to camp has made her feel more connected with Judaism, camper Carly Kreisler, 12, quickly answers, “100 percent. The Shabbat services, singing along with everything, saying the prayers at dinner and stuff. It’s more than what I do at home, so it just gives me more understanding of being Jewish.”

Sarah Kreisler, Carly’s mom, has noticed her daughter embracing Judaism more because of her camp community. “As far as being Jewish, it’s harder and harder to find classmates who have the same views and beliefs as you do. Being at camp allows a space to explore Jewish values with friends and makes it cool,” Sarah Kreisler says.

The biggest change that parents of Nah-Jee-Wah campers have noticed from their daughters’ experience of sleep-away camp has been their kids’ newfound independence. Alison Bloomfield was a camper at Nah-Jee-Wah from 1987 through 1994, and now her daughter Morgan, 12, is an NJY camper. “I wanted her to be independent, discover friendships and be in a new environment with new people,” Bloomfield says. “I wanted her to miss us, but in a positive way. The whole ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ is really true, because we do value our time together now.”

Camper Eliza Goodman, 12, has also noticed herself become more independent with each summer. “It feels good [being at camp] because I can make my own choices,” she says. “And some of the choices my parents would make differently, but I can make them for myself. You get more independence at camp, so it can prepare you for the future and college.”

Nah-Jee-Wah director Carrie Youngs concurs. “I worked as a high school social worker for over 14 years, and I cannot tell you how many of these high school students did not make it through one semester of college because they had never been away from home,” Youngs recounts. Youngs is the mother of three children who all attend camp. “I think that overnight camp is the most priceless experience that any parent can give their child. … It will set them up for life.”

As campers enter seventh grade, they graduate to Cedar Lake Camp — another NJY camp that is just up the road from Camp Nah-Jee-Wah. At Cedar Lake, campers experience more privileges such as a later bedtime, less counselor supervision and new electives to choose from. “We got our Jet Ski licenses today!” Amelia Goldin and Julie Rappaport, who are now in their first summer at Cedar Lake, gushed.

While the camp experience is largely the same, this is also probably their biggest year of personal growth. “That’s when you start becoming like, who you are,” says Goldin. It is also the year that most campers will have a bar or bat mitzvah: a coming-of-age ritual in Judaism that marks the attaining of Jewish adulthood. (Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah ceremony in the United States.)

This past June, Nili Suissa, now 12, celebrated her bat mitzvah in her family’s backyard in Marlboro, N.J. She was the first of her Camp Nah-Jee-Wah bunkmates to do it, and most of them were there to celebrate. The girls took photos on their phones as Nili was lifted over their heads for the hora, a traditional dance in which the honored person is hoisted in a chair, and took turns lighting Shabbat candles, while nibbling on challah bread and sipping Shirley Temples.

The day held extra special meaning for her family. “It was very important for us to see our daughter honor this milestone and truly have a personal connection to her religion and heritage,” Nili’s mom, Susie Suissa, says. “During and leading up to her bat mitzvah we recognized the struggle of her grandparents, who lived their lives in hiding and persecution.”

Set against that history, the importance of Nili’s bunkmates being there from far-flung homes to celebrate her was not lost on the parents. “For Jewish people, summer camps have become a safe haven where they can be together to celebrate their religion and culture openly and freely with no hesitation or self-consciousness,” says Josie’s dad, Steve Levin. He is the director of another Jewish camp and attended one himself growing up. “I would give anything to be back there at that time for another summer.”

The urgency of sending children to Jewish summer camp is felt even by those who aren’t yet parents themselves. Gross, the 21-year-old counselor, said camp “really shaped how I was as a person.” And if she does one day have children, would she want them to go to Jewish sleepaway camp? “Two hundred percent, yes.”

Rachel Wisniewski is a photojournalist and writer based in Philadelphia. She will be publishing a book of this work in 2024. This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Lauren Brown Fellowship. Photo editing by Moira Haney. Design by José L. Soto. Story editing by Amy Joyce.

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