With absolute awkwardness, I got in the canoe, rented from Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville, at the front. I don’t remember canoes being so wobbly, probably because I hadn’t been in one in at least 20 years.
“Are you sure that this canoe isn’t extra narrow?” I called back to my teen son.
My son climbed into the canoe with ease. The one who earned his golden oar after canoeing for five summers straight at camp. I let him take the back.
It was the last morning together with the boys. It had been a blessing in disguise that we couldn’t drop them off for Session II of the summer at Camp Ramah in Canada as early as we planned. That way, we had this one more adventure before we dropped them off for a whole month at camp.
On the first half of our trip, we divided the boys per canoe: My husband and younger son, 8 in one, and myself and my 13-year-old in another. That worked well. My husband and my teen took control, telling the less experienced rowers (my youngest and I) which side to paddle, and actually how to paddle.
Before that morning’s canoe ride with my 13-year-old son, I did not know there was such a thing as a C stroke or a J stroke. To me, it was all one thing, put your oar on the left side or the right, put it deep in the water, and pull back. I also did not know that, several times a week at camp, my son would wake up extra early to go canoeing with a small group of campers. Imagine that, a teen getting up extra early, when at home on vacation, I can barely get him out of bed by 10.
He said at camp he also played his guitar in a canoe.
He also told me one of his most spiritual moments at camp was when he and his other campers brought their prayer books and conducted morning services on the canoe.
Prayer books. On a canoe?
Clearly, the campers knew there were times for tipping the canoe, and other times, carrying precious cargo, times to keep the canoe perfectly balanced.
We rowed along a calm lake that had many inlets and narrow passages, so much that it seemed to have a current like a river. We passed quaint houses with well cared for and decorated docks.
We passed under a freight train bridge where a man working on the rails shouted greetings (and advice) to us from above. (You’ll just have to use your imagination here. I didn’t photograph him. Taking pictures, managing an oar,and trying not to tip over proved to be very challenging!)
“Great day for a canoe ride, Ay? You should steer a little away from the side, Ay? I say, Ay, I think you’re headed for a rock, steer clear, Ay?”
Was my ineptitude that apparent? All those “ays.” I definitely knew I was in Canada.
Things were going well until, exploring the second half of the lake, my older son insisted we switch. My son wanted to take his little brother under his wing and show him the ropes of rowing. He offered the argument that his edah (Hebrew for group) of campers never socialized with my son’s age group on waterfront activities and this would be his only chance to have some brother bonding on a boat.
Begrudgingly, (but I knew it was a bad idea) we agreed.
First, they got stuck going around a curve in a bramble of branches.
My older son overestimated my younger’s experience with the oar. In his mind, he had to be an expert by now. After all, little brother had been canoeing for an entire hour with dad. It was a lesson in brother bonding, and resisting the urge to throw little brother overboard.
Now that I was in the canoe with my husband, I wasn’t doing much better. Apparently, sitting in the front of the canoe, I pull my oar out of the water way too fast and was splashing my husband at every stroke. He was clearly the one in charge in this canoe, the backseat rower.
“Stop splashing me, please! “
“Three more strokes on your left, please!”
When I was in the canoe with my son, his main suggestion to me:
“Mom, just sit there and let me do the rowing. We’ll be better off that way.”
I did do some rowing, at my insistence. I needed the workout. Was it my fault I didnt’ spend five summers learning how to canoe as a child? Also, my son didn’t complain that I was getting him was wet when I oared in his canoe! Getting wet was half the fun, just as long as we didn’t tip. Actually, in the heat, I wouldn’t have minded getting tipped, except I had a new camera on board.
Finally, at a private cottage dock with a little white dog barking at us the whole time, we regrouped and switched back to our original rowing arrangements.
Rowing taught us several things. For one, when you are in a boat with someone, squabbling just makes you go around in circles. To get anywhere, you both have to paddle in perfect harmony.
When people ask me where I send my kids to camp, I tell them I send them to Camp Ramah.
Now, when you live in a town where traveling even 30 minutes to get somewhere seems like traveling to another planet (and I’m guilty of this as well), they then reply, Oh, the Camp Ramah in Toronto.
And then I say, “Nooo, it’s actually two and a half hours further. North of Toronto. In a region called Muskoka.”
The response I hear is: Isn’t that far?
And truthfully, Yes.
Yes. It’s very far.
Yes, I send my kids for a month, and now for my oldest two months, six hours away. Many see this as a sign of bad parenting. Many cannot fathom why we’d want to get rid of our kids for a month or even two. But, I have a friend who has five boys. Once, when we ran into each other grocery shopping, she spoke to me about the beauty of summer camp.
“Everyone for one time a year gets to live in their own space. It’s really very healthy.”
I’ll remember this produce aisle advice forever.
To get to camp, they travel across an international border and this requires they all need passports. But that means they are truly away from home, broadening their horizons and meeting kids from many countries and cities who are all bound together by a common heritage and a way of observing this heritage.
This is what I keep reminding myself in the hours my husband and I find ourselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic on our way to visitors day.
The first time I drove up to Muskoka, what surprised me most of all was the traffic. I mean, I can accept traffic in the New York Metro area, but traffic in Canada?
Yes, this is my American arrogance shining right through, because I never imagined such a huge population can exist North of the United States.
In reality, the Toronto-Muskoka corridor is packed. If you want to put it in terms of an SAT verbal analogy question, then Muskoka is to Toronto as the Jersey Shore is to the New York Tri State area.
So, picture yourself on the Garden State Parkway on a Friday or a Saturday and you now completely have an understanding of the traffic scene of “cottage country.”
Except, instead of terms like the GSP, you have roads that start with “the”.
And at last, The 11.
On the 11, suddenly the traffic opens up, and you find yourself on a road that ambles along sparkling lakes and pine forests. A road that’s dotted with honky tonk motels and camper parks, kayak rental places, and fruit stands. And you know you’re almost there.
So, getting back to the “why.” Why do we schlep all the way to Muskoka to send our kids to camp? Why do we send our kids so far away when there are closer camps from which to choose?
For many reasons.
Friendship and Kehilah Kedosha (holy community) It’s the smile on the kids faces that I see on nearly every photo that is posted on the camp website. The photos where nearly 600 children, freshly showered and dressed and arms linked, make their way down to the waterfront for another Shabbat service, that gets me every time. I know that we are doing right by our children for parting with them for a summer of this:
My children are developing deep friendships and in turn, we are also making friendships with the families of these children, all within the framework of an immersive Jewish education program that is nearly impossible to duplicate outside of camp (but I keep trying).
Inclusion: When we arrived at camp for visitor’s day, the very first child my 15-year-old daughter talked about and wanted us to meet was her new friend Julie:
Julie, who has Down’s Syndrome, is participating in Camp Ramah’s Tikvah program. Each day, Jolie meets with Julie to tutor her in Hebrew and through these lessons a friendship has blossomed. I am sure the girls will keep in touch long after camp is over.
Family – In truth, campers, and in turn their families, become one extended family. But I have actually reconnected with extended family members on my grandmother’s side that before our Camp Ramah years, I have not seen in decades. Now, the great-grandchildren of my grandmother and her eldest sister attend the same camp. We stay in touch during the year over Facebook and we’ve got plans to visit them in Pittsburgh at the end of the summer.
New Hobbies: Because of his summers canoeing and kayaking in Skeleton Lake, I got into a canoe with my son with confidence. I sat in the front of the wobbly canoe, knowing he would be the one to give me direction on how to stroke and where to steer the boat:
My daughter also took up a hobby, making her own boat in woodshop:
She also painted the sets for and was one of the angels in “Beauty School Dropout” in the Camp Ramah production of Grease.
And all plays at camp Ramah – the lines and the songs – are performed in Hebrew.
I don’t know how to sing “Beauty School Dropout” in Hebrew just now, but I bet my daughter will teach me when she gets home.
Finally, off camp, there is the town of Huntsville with the world’s most amazing candy store and ice creamery, great restaurants, art galleries inside and out,
and nearby Arrowhead Provincial Park where you can swim in a pristine lake, hike to a waterfall and climb in and see fish swimming around you in the current:
And, at night there is darkness. A rarity in our increasingly lit up world, the skies are dark enough to see THOUSANDS of stars, and even spot a fast-moving satellite:
Really, there are stars in this photo. If you don’t believe me, you’ll just have to go up there for yourself. I’ll even tell you which field to stargaze.
So, we’re back. I try not to think about how far away my kids are, kind of how an extreme rock climber just keeps looking up and doesn’t think how high off the ground they are. But we are happy in our space, and they are happy in theirs.
And the schlep is completely worth it.
It’s been a rough week for parents who send their kids to Camp Ramah. We are reeling from the news that a blind camper was not given the accommodations needed to finish out the summer. We are also reeling from the Internet Fallout of a blog post that went viral from his understandably hurt father.
If you did read that post, I hope in turn you will read this post, written by Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, National Director for the Camp Ramah Commission. And please don’t let this one mistake undo decades of Ramah’s reputation for serving Jewish campers with special needs.
To anyone reading this who lives in a BIG metro area like Los Angeles, New York City, Toronto…. let me ask you this:
If you are invited to a wedding/Bar Mitzvah/christening/fill-in-the-blank life occasion across town with a religious service in the morning and party at night,do you get a hotel room for the weekend?
I didn’t think so.
If you are the planner of a big life event occasion and invite many out-of-town guests, do you pull out all the stops in providing them with extra special treatment: (reserve a block of hotel rooms, extra dinners and brunches, goodie bags in their hotel rooms)?
Of course you do, they are the out-of-towners!
This past weekend, my whole family was invited to the Bat Mitzvah of a friend my son made in Camp Ramah. My daughter is friends with the girl’s sister, and our two families have developed this great Camp Ramah connection over the years. We were very honored to be invited to this happy occasion as a family. There are too many sad occasions in life that we juggle our lives to attend,so why not do a little schlepping for the happy ones?
As a kid growing up in Staten Island, I remember going to weddings and bar mitzvahs, and later on youth group dances “out on the Island” – in this case Long Island. My dad had a special name for this stretch of suburbia that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. It didn’t matter where your destination was on the Island. Any trip from SI to LI was to a place called “all the way out” on the Island.
I remember the traffic as we traveled and my dads angry muttering at the wheel. There was traffic on the Belt. The BQE. The LIE. And the GCP. (If you don’t know what these stand for, you are not from NYC.) It would take what seemed hours to get anywhere. And still does.
In reality, the distance in miles was only 40 miles or so, but it was the traffic that made the journey take hours. But never did my parents think about getting a hotel room or consider staying overnight. Because LI was still considered “in town.” I remember drowsy drives back to the other island, Staten Island, when my brother and I would fall asleep in the back in our party clothes, my parents singing doo-wop oldies tunes to their heart’s content in the front seat.
Drive over an hour in the New York Metro Area, you are still in the New York Metro area.
Drive over an hour in Rochester, you are in Buffalo
So, at the beginning of the weekend, when we parted with friends at a Friday night dinner and announced to our Rochester friends we were headed to Buffalo for a Bat Mitzvah, they actually said to us “Have a nice trip!”
When you are transplantednorth, traveling an hour to go for a visit is nothing. Staying at a hotel overnight was out of the question.But the question remained, how were we going to pull this day off?
The day came with logistical challenges. We left our house very early Saturday morning to get to the synagogue in Buffalo**. We had to pack two extra sets of clothes for each family member, one casual outfit for hanging around the hotel, and then more formal attire for the evening party. Plus bathing suits because the kids were invited to swim in the hotel pool, so that meant toiletries too, but where to shower?
When we got to Buffalo, we sat through a very nice warm service and at the luncheon reception, known as the kiddush, we made fast friends with several couples who all were from out-of-town to bring their children, also campers, to celebrate their friends’ Bat Mitzvah. I told them we were “from” Rochester, but as conversations went on, our native accents revealed themselves.
As we relaxed that afternoon in the hotel lobby, one of the dads spoke up and asked my husband and I: “You didn’t grow up in Rochester, did you? Where are you really from?”
That night, after eating and dancing to the sounds provided by a DJ company called the Bar Mitzvah Boys – who are from Rochester – we didn’t get home until 1 a.m. For my husband and I, it was now our turn to stay awake and sing while the kids slept in the back all the way home.
**Yes, we drive on Shabbat. Conservative Judaism has a decree that allows one to drive if it is to worship at a synagogue. There was some irony to all this, because once we arrived in Buffalo, we had nowhere to go and nothing to do but read and chat with some real “out-of-town” guests who invited us to spend the afternoon at their hotel. So, we did drive, but in the end had a very relaxing Shabbat.
New Jersey is its own independent country-state, and it borders with another state – say, Pennsylvania – that has cold yet peaceful relations. On another adjacent border, let’s pretend that Delaware, is a hotbed territory for terrorist activity bent on destroying the Garden State.
You are on a chartered bus headed down from New York City to Atlantic City via the New Jersey Turnpike. You are with the guys or some girlfriends to have a little getaway to kick back for a weekend of gambling and enjoying the nightlife of and beaches of this resort town. Then, out of nowhere, your bus is ambushed by some armed terrorists who snuck in from Delaware through Pennsylvania.
They shower the bus with bullets and kill several of the passengers on board.
In defense of this bus, New Jersey military forces swoop down on the attackers and kill some of them on the spot, no question asked. But some flee across a state border, a border that is supposed to be monitored by the military of this other country to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into New Jersey. The New Jersey military pursue the fleeing terrorists and as an indirect result, some border patrol soldiers die.
Then, it is New Jersey, not the bordering state, asked to make apologies by the international community.
Does this scenario sound ridiculous? From the perspective of most Americans, of course it is. For the most part, our borders are secure and generally peaceful. And American civilians are so rarely attacked by terrorist organizations.
But Israel once again is being criticized for defending herself after tour buses headed for the resort city of Eilat were attacked by terrorists (excuse me NPR, they are not militants) from Gaza.
I first got word of these attacks through social networking: friends in Israel posted links to the news on Facebook. I listened to NPR the whole morning and not a single mention of these unprovoked attacks on civilians by a terrorist cell from Gaza that infiltrated the Israel-Sinai border Israel shares with Egypt.
Only when an Israeli airstrike into Gaza killed several members of a terrorist cell and, unfortunately, a 13-year-old boy, did NPR report the news. And, why did NPR have to use language like “Israel wasted no time retaliating” and record the sounds of people mourning for the gunmen and those killed in an Israeli airstrike at a Gaza morgue? Did NPR list the names and find relatives of Israeli victims and record their crying?
As much as I love NPR’s coverage on any other topic, such as their summer reading lists from All Books Considered, and their cooking segments with Nigella Lawson, they have boiled my blood on Israel coverage for the last time. Don’t count on my support any more.
On the other side of the word, my daughter wrote me from Camp Ramah in Canada. She said that she saw her Israeli counselors crying and comforting one another after hearing the news from Southern Israel. These Israelis were not shouting for revenge, they just hugged and consoled one another. Because no one in Israel wants violence, because any reprisal attack could involve a brother, sister, uncle, or friend who is serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. Because many of these counselors themselves just got out of the army.
Though the news from Israel is horrible, I was glad that my daughter was moved by her Israeli counselors comforting one another. It will make her connection to the Jewish state that more tangible and real. She will hopefully reunite with these Israelis on our visit to Israel in December.
Because, yes, we are still going.
This Christmas vacation, my family took a mini getaway to Toronto. As an alternative to our New York City visits, we love exploring this cosmopolitan city to the North for its great restaurants, theatres, shopping, and museums. Going round and round on an outdoor skating rink in sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures we regret to say was the farthest thing from our minds.
Because our children go to sleep away camp north of Toronto, not only are we having fun getting to know Torontos’ sites but its people. My daughter spent much of our visit not with us but with the family of a friend she made from summer camp. All arrangements were made over Skype through the girls and without one conversation between the adults. All directions were found via GPS. Welcome to long distance friendships in the 21st Century, I guess.
We dropped Jolie off at her friend’s house and were greeted by the girl’s mother. In the small entryway of the house, we made some awkward chit-chat as the girls settled in for a weekend of catching up and shopping. When we mentioned that we were staying at the Westin Harbour Castle, the mom’s first reaction was:
“They have a lovely ice skating rink just a block from your hotel. Did you bring your skates?”
About a half hour later, the father came home after participating in the traditional Canadian Boxing Day, which is the equivalent to our Black Friday for shopping deals and sales. We were introduced and then his wife went down to the basement to get something from their pantry.
In another awkward introductory chit-chat, the father of my daughter’s friend independently asked us the same question:
“There is this great outdoor ice skating rink near your hotel. Did you bring your skates?”
Now, both my husband and I looked at each other with great amusement. We were struck that Canadians make the assumption that we actually – all of us – owned our own pair of skates. And there was this second assumption that – upon our arrival to this vast cosmopolitan city, the first thing we would want to do was skate.
Another inquiry of our skating habits was made as we were checking out of our hotel. As we waited with our luggage, the bellhop looked at me and my boys and asked me in his French Canadian accent: “Do your boys skate? Do they play ‘ockey?” I had to say no and I asked him why he asked.
He then pointed to a well dressed young man standing in the lobby. “Because, ma’am, that young man plays hockey for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is only 20 and makes over 2 milion a yaear. So, your boys should liarn to play ‘ockey!”
Now, I am sorry to say that I did not recognize this young man, so this brush with fame was completely wasted on me. And I also appreciated this bellhop’s hope that my young sons held the athletic prowess to be hockey stars, but again he was sorely mistaken. I’m afraid, Canada, that we Americans are just not that into skating.
Or are we? Do you skate? And if so, do you own your own pair?
It’s the middle of the afternoon and it hasn’t quite hit me yet, that my two oldest children left this morning for a month of sleep-a-way camp at Camp Ramah in Canada. Even though we packed them up, four duffel bags worth, handed their passports over to a young capable looking bus counselor, and hugged and kissed them goodbye.
After all, I say goodbye to my kids every morning for the entire school year – sometimes with a kiss, sometimes not.
It’s tonight that will be hard. When they don’t come home. When there will be two less at the dinner table and when my daughter’s bedroom will be empty. When my oldest son won’t be in the top bunk and my youngest son will have no one to fight with or talk to all hours of the night as he usually does. Then it will hit me.
Tonight will also be hard because tonight begins one of the saddest days on the Jewish calendar — the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, or Tisha B’Av.
This is the first blog entry I have mentioned I am Jewish. I don’t intend to make this a blog about Judaism, or write this blog only for Jews. But because I am Jewish, and a Jewish educator, Judaism may come up from time to time. And if it helps to lift some of the mystique of what Judaism is beyond Hava Nagila and Hanukkah, all the better!
What makes this day a sad one? On this date in the Hebrew Calendar many tragedies fell on the Jewish people -including the destruction of the two Temples – one in 586 BCE, or BC and the other in 70 CE or AD by the Romans, followed by a 2,000 year exile of the Jewish people. Heavy, sad stuff.
Jews observing this solemn day hold a fast from sundown to sundown, starting tonight, and read from the Book of Lamentations. To demonstrate the sadness, many sit on the floor.
I can just imagine the scene at their arrival at camp: my kids will have to get off the bus, have a screaming, squealing joyful reunion with friends, and then get ready to fast. Because this holiday falls in the summer, when school and Hebrew school is not in session, many Jews don’t know much about it.
Unless, you go to a Jewish summer camp. Tish B’Av has claimed its right in the Jewish religion as a very campy holiday.
A camping experience that begins with a fast to commemorate the saddest moments in Jewish history probably does not sound like a good time to the outside world. But my kids live for their time at Camp Ramah. They talk about all the fun they have there, the friends they make and the songs they sing, the whole year long. They count down the days until they return, to live Jewishly every day with friends they only see this one month a year.
Unlike most who will be fasting alone or at work tomorrow, in the supportive community of camp, I know that my son and daughter will find encouragement to either fast the whole day, or the wisdom from counselors and staff who will determine it’s time to get something to eat or drink.
Next, I will write about the good points and adjustments of having two out of three children away at sleep-a-way camp. And to all of you who are observing, an easy and meaningful fast.