Life & Culture

When did sending kids to camp become so complicated?


Bargain city: in previous years, the writer's trip to the cut-price store was her biggest pre-camp headache Getty

In previous years, booking my kids into camp has taken less than five minutes. Thirty seconds confirming they’re keen to go and four-and-a-half filling in the online form and guessing the dates of their last tetanus jab. Then the hard work’s over until we hit Primark in July.

But this year, as with everything else in our lives, things are different and more complicated. Camp is no longer a simple discussion of “yes or no” and “who do you want to share with”? There are other questions on our minds: how good will the security be at the site? Will they be going on outings?

Will they be singing Am Yisrael Chai at the top of their voices through the streets of wherever it is they visit? Will the boys be wearing kippot? Or, in the case of my soon-to-be 16-year-old daughter, who is due to go “on tour”, will there be rocket attacks? And will they be from Hamas or Hezbollah?

This year, that post-GCSE stint in Israel, the unwritten rite of passage for our Jewish teens, has become a minefield. WhatsApp groups have been created. Break-out WhatsApp groups have formed. And even when out on a Saturday night, “Are you sending ‘on tour’?” seems to be a recurrent conversation whether over Miznon pita or Everyman trailers. But despite the fact that it’s a question I’ve been asked, or have asked, several hundred times over the past few months, I’m still no clearer on whether it’s actually a good idea – putting aside the fact that I’ve paid a chunky deposit.

I feel awful to admit it, but when UJIA gave it the thumbs-up to go ahead and the forms came out, my heart did sink just a little. I would have been quite happy if the question of whether to send or not to send had been answered for me. Not because I don’t want to visit Israel. In fact, I’m hoping we’ll go on a family volunteering mission together in July and I’m desperately sad not to see my wider family there this year for Pesach. The uncoordinated dates of my son’s Easter school holidays means we’ve had to skip our annual trip. No, it’s because sending your kid off to camp, even when they’re 16, comes with a little pang. At least it does for me. Sending them off when there are extra worries to consider, all the more so.

Perhaps tour is indeed “more important now than ever”, as the marketing material points out, but after a lifetime at a Jewish school, yearly trips to Israel and three-week visits with her school, I’m pretty sure my daughter already gets it. “It” being why Israel is so important within the context of our history. That its existence has been a lifeline to so many expelled and persecuted from the Middle East and Europe, her great grandparents included. That when Israel came to be it was the first democracy of Jews, Arabs and Christians on that tiny strip of land. That it was under attack on day one and has been fighting for survival ever since. She understands that political discussion and criticism of Israel need to exist within that framework of understanding, not within a framework of social media misinformation.

So, I don’t feel she needs to climb Masada at 3am or float in the Dead Sea to get it. But, of course, this year there will be more experiences. No doubt they will meet survivors. As with all survivors, their experiences will be intertwined with those who did not make it and no doubt their testimonies will be hard to hear. But perhaps that is why tour is more important now than ever.

Our kids will almost certainly face doubt and denial of these events in their lifetime and being a witness in the aftermath of history is irreplaceable. But if tour does go ahead (and that depends on how the situation progresses), and my daughter does go, that pang will certainly weigh heavy while she’s gone. Sadly though, nothing comes without a pang at the moment. Some youth movements have opted to divert to Europe instead. But there is certainly an argument against traipsing around the continent’s top Jewish attractions right now. And 100 kids showing up in matching T-shirts singing weird words to this summer’s pop anthem (camp song, for the novices among you) aren’t exactly inconspicuous either. But what are we going to do? Send them to play in the back garden for eight weeks? Life goes on. And this is life now: unrest in Israel, rising antisemitism, a minor undertone of fear and uncertainty. Some days, I almost forget it’s there, that little knot that’s formed at the bottom of my stomach, and other days, when I’m trying to do something simple like decide whether to send my kids to camp, it’s all I can feel. And I find myself wondering: will it ever go away again?

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