Community Connections Beyond the Kids’ Activities Trap

Why I sent my kid to a Socialist-Jewish sleepaway camp.

Community Connections Beyond the Kids’ Activities Trap
Photo by Kimson Doan / Unsplash

Did someone forward you this newsletter? Subscribe for free here. However, paying membership is what makes this newsletter possible. Plus, you get audio newsletters, hangouts and more. It starts at $7/mo. Join us!

In a world driven by individual interests and when it can feel like family life is faced with a tsunami of over-scheduling, how often do people stop and think, “are my community ties as strong as I’d like?” When talking about these ties, it's valuable to reiterate that community is different from friendship. I’m a big believer in the importance of making friends as an adult, but communities can fill a social void and create a sense of belonging beyond strong individual friendships. I often see families whose time and very loose sense of community is dominated by their kids’ personal interests and extracurriculars. One reason this happens is that there are a lot of strong messages in our society that spending lots of time and money on "concerted cultivation" activities is how you can be a “good” parent. As I wrote in my newsletter about “cruise director parenting,” last year, I’m deeply skeptical of this philosophy that basically ignores parental happiness and doesn’t show any empirical long-term benefits to kids.

Another reason I’m down on extracurriculars as the dominating force in family life is not only the toll it takes individually, but because I think it hinders meaningful community building. A big reason is that kids' activities can often be very time consuming and you don’t inherently share values with the other families involved. And what happens if your kid loses interest in the activity, gets cut from the team or gets injured and has to sit out a season? While I'm sure it’s possible to find great friends and create meaningful communities around kids’ activities, I don’t think it’s the norm.

Earlier this year, I explored if organized religion might be the answer to our community care crisis. I wrote back in February, “From a resource perspective, religious institutions have all of the frameworks for gathering and community building. They have built-in systems for celebrations and rites of passage. They are usually well-equipped at providing support during difficult life experiences, like bereavement. They often have building spaces for meeting, a shared purpose, and funding for programming that makes them free to attend.”

I would really like my kids to have strong friendships AND strong community connections. Beyond the community around my oldest son’s elementary school, which is a big part of our lives, I’m exploring how I might do that for myself and the kids through Judaism. I’m drawn to this not out of spiritual beliefs, but because a religious identity is basically portable throughout your entire life. It can give you a sense of belonging and a common language with others. Even though Judaism is a tiny religious demographic, if you sought it out you’d be likely to find a Passover Seder in many parts of the world. I also feel like there are strong progressive values in many Jewish congregations, the religion provides excellent moral frameworks around social justice. As we are seeing a frightening rise in antisemitism in the US and across the world, I think it’s important for young Jews to know their history and be proud of who they are. Since my family lives in an area that doesn’t have many Jews, any education and exposure has to be fairly intentional. There won’t be any osmosis going on through being invited to dozens of Bar Mitzvahs.

So, I’ve shared why I want to do this, but I'm still very much muddling through how to do this. I don’t feel like I have a blueprint from my own upbringing, which involved a lot of screaming fights about me not wanting to go to Sunday School and vowing I would never inflict such misery on my own children. This has led me to experiment with some left field choices different from how I was raised. [Also, I just want to explain why I’m talking about this a lot in the singular. My husband and I generally make very collaborative parenting decisions, but he’s not Jewish and not interested in organized religion and so I basically have carte blanche on this area of parenting.]

Basically my guiding principle is “how do I make this fun?” For my older son, I decided to let others do some of the heavy lifting in the “fun” department and I sent him to a week of Zionist-socialist overnight camp in Maryland. [For those of you who follow Israeli politics, this is 1920s-style Zionism, which focuses on communal living, NOT the far-right Zionism claimed by the current fascists in power in Israel] I’ve learned from recently reading the book The Jews of Summer: Summer Camp and Jewish Culture in Postwar America that when I signed him up for camp, I'm participating in a long line of parents who thought Jewish camp was the best way to create community and give kids a strong sense of Jewish identity, especially in the face of post-WW11 assimilation, increased affluence and suburbanization.

Camp Mosh was a wild success. We didn’t know any other families sending their kids to this specific camp this summer, and we live too far away to pop up for a pre-camp tour. This made it feel like a big leap of faith and a bit of an oddball choice, since there are Jewish camps much closer by in North Carolina. But I picked Mosh because the cabins are simple, and the campers do all of the maintenance and chores for the camp, inspired by the Israeli socialist kibbutz movement. The camp is not wildly religious, but they sing Hebrew songs and have fun bonfires on Shabbat. They also have a teaching day where they do activities about a social justice issue: this year they learned about the Hollywood writers strike, pretended to be movie characters, and staged a picket line while singing “Solidarity Forever.” When I picked Asher up after a week, he was tanned, relaxed, and said he didn’t get homesick once. He says he wants to go back for two weeks next year. I never went to Jewish camp myself, so it feels like an identity and community choice seed that I’m planting for him, and he can nurture it if he wants to over time.

Asher giving his counselor the most heartfelt goodbye hug

As for other ways to make Judaism fun, it’s becoming clear to me as I look into Jewish holidays as an adult, it turns out they don’t have to be stuffy, formal affairs! Almost all involve specific extremely delicious foods and some element of fun and games aimed at kids. Hanukkah = Presents, games, doughnuts and potato pancakes. Passover = A treasure hunt and prizes. Purim = Costumes, parties, plays, and giving tasty baked goods to your neighbors. Sukkot = Harvest-themed dinner parties in your own outdoor fort. Not bad at all in the “fun” department.

I’m still muddling through what this will all look like in our daily lives, so I want to hear from you, Double Shifters. In this week’s members-only thread, I’ll be asking, what community seeds are you planting for your kids? If you want in on this discussion, become a member of The Double Shift. You get members-only weekly threads filled with thoughtful comments, audio newsletters and hangouts. Membership starts at $7/mo and is what keeps this newsletter afloat!

A Couple Article Shout Outs: ICYMI, This is a fascinating NYT article about Women with ADHD and how money management problems can be a sign of the untreated condition.

I loved Jennifer Senior's exploration of "disappeared" disabled relatives and how our views of disability have changed over the generations in The Atlantic. I was especially moved by the followup obituary she wrote about her aunt's caregiver, Carmen Ayala. Every paid and unpaid caregiver deserves to be celebrated like this.

Due to an intense sprint to the finish on my care report for The Better Life Lab, I’ll be taking the next two weeks off from the main newsletter. Great stuff will be coming your way later this fall!


Sign in to leave a comment. Enter your email for a login link.