I was sitting on an old bench made of long-dead tree limbs and feeling miserable because I wanted to go home. I was 12 years old, and it was my first and last day ever at sleepaway camp — or so I thought at the time.
A girl sat down next to me. She was a counselor, but I didn’t realize that then. She asked me what my favorite thing was to do when I was at home. Not, why was I sitting there or why was I crying — which I was by that time — but something totally random. What followed was a discussion about my favorite books, my love of making things and how much I missed my best friend who had just moved to Israel with her whole family and who I was sure I would never see again. An hour or so later, I was back in my bunk, meeting my new bunkmates, and consequently, I spent the next seven weeks and 30-plus years at camp. That counselor’s kindness to me at what I thought was one of the lowest points of my life is something I never forgot.
Gemillut Hassidim, literally meaning “the giving of loving kindness,” is a fundamental value in the everyday lives of Jews and is, easily, the most important value children bring home from camp. The opportunities for children to see and demonstrate kindness while making new friends and learning new skills become ingrained lessons that come home along with the worn-out duffle bags and the proudly made popsicle stick houses.
No one is born kind; it’s a value that is learned from repeated examples, and nowhere are there more opportunities to teach kindness than at camp. Beginning with staff orientation training all the way through final banquet night, camps infuse their programs with these ways of teaching kindness:
1. Model: The best way to teach kindness is to model being kind to others. Children are sponges and they absorb whatever they see and hear. At camp, counselors are trained to overtly demonstrate kindness. Campers, wanting to copy the “cool counselor” then learn to be kind as well.
2. Celebrate: Nothing brings home a lesson quicker than being rewarded for doing something nice. Some camps award a pin or bracelet whenever a camper or staff member is “caught in the act” of being kind. Other camps offer a special treat or trip for the bunk that demonstrates the most kindness each week.
3. Be a friend: It may seem obvious, but friendship is the rudder that steers kindness. And nowhere are friendships formed more quickly than at camp. The qualities of a friend — respect, trust, admiration, caring and honesty — embody the rules of kindness.
4. Challenge: Camp easily lends itself to a kindness project. A bunk can decide to volunteer its services to a needy group, or each child can each decide on their own specific kindness goal for each day. Whatever the act, delivering kindness incites a pay it forward action. Soon, everyone is being kind.
5. Empathize: One very important habit that helps kids learn to be kind is to first try to understand another’s point of view. When we teach kindness, we are teaching children to look outside of themselves to understand how their actions affect others.
6. Explain: Kids see kindness every day, but they don’t realize it. At camp we encourage our staff to point out something that a child did that was kind. Odds are they will do it again.
When we send our children to camp, we hope they will return with great memories, new friends, new skills and a new or increased feeling of independence and self-worth. To many parents’ surprise they also get back a kid who is kinder and happier … because that’s what camp is for. PJC
Barbara Lichter is the registrar and human resources specialist at Camp Zeke, an overnight summer camp in Lakewood, Pennsylvania, where kids celebrate healthy, active living through fitness, cooking, sports, gourmet food and joyful Judaism.