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I Sent My Daughter To Summer Camp at the JCC and She Came Back With an Uzi in Her Head

Our daughter was strangely quiet. Her words usually flow like snowmelt slashing through a canyon. Was she getting sick? My wife kept looking in the rear-view mirror to see if she could figure out was wrong, in the way that … Read More

By / October 2, 2008

Our daughter was strangely quiet. Her words usually flow like snowmelt slashing through a canyon. Was she getting sick? My wife kept looking in the rear-view mirror to see if she could figure out was wrong, in the way that parents who drive regularly learn to do. “I don’t want to go to jail,” Skylar suddenly blurted out. I turned around to look at her. Jaw set, teeth seeking into her lower lip, she looked determined. And angry. “What do you mean, sweetie?,” my wife asked. At first, Skylar replied by restating her point over and over, the tension in her voice mounting. Eventually, though, the blockage began to clear. “I don’t want to shoot guns. I don’t want to wear a uniform. I don’t want to take orders. And I don’t want to go to jail.” Now that we had a little more to go on, my wife and I set to work on the delicate task of excavating the source of Skylar’s consternation, like archeologists at a precious dig. Something at summer camp had upset her, we learned. There was a movie. Someone made her march in a group. And they told her that people who don’t obey are sent to prison. It sounded like our six-year-old had stumbled through the looking glass into another reality. Could all this really have happened at the JCC? She’d been a fixture there since before she was two. Four years of pre-school and countless hours in the pool had made her so comfortable in that environment that she had wept bitterly at the prospect of having to go elsewhere for kindergarten. She loved the place so much that we helped her through the rough patches in her transition to public school by promising that she could return for summer camp before starting first grade. But her delight at returning to her home away from home had suddenly been transformed into fear and anxiety. As the details in Skylar’s story started to lock into place, the dismay and alarm that we had initially experienced turned into rage. Our daughter hadn’t been traumatized by a fellow child. She hadn’t accidentally witnessed something disturbing in a television show or movie. She hadn’t been scared by the maintenance staff’s vacuum cleaner, as had sometimes been the case during her toddler years. Even the Holocaust remembrance display case, which my wife and I had often deemed excessively graphic for something located where pre-schoolers were bound to see it, was not to blame. No, it was the summer camp’s curriculum itself that had made her so unhappy. The hard part was figuring out how and why this had happened. A typical day at the JCC’s summer camp consisted of swimming, running around, singing, and a good deal of noise-making without any specific purpose. There were other special activities reserved for different weeks, too. A Western theme. A summer camp Olympics. None of the literature or what we had heard by word of mouth, however, had mentioned guns, uniforms or prison. Indeed, we would surely have sent Skylar elsewhere if it had. Struggling to fathom this radical change in the summer camp’s curriculum, we called the JCC and were put through to the camp’s director. She explained that this was the week in which a team of Israeli scouts, the Tzofim, came in to run a special program of their own devising. In previous years, this program had concentrated on such topics as developing fitness and skills for surviving in the wilderness, the sort of thing that one expects scouts to do. This year, though, the scouts had decided on a different focus. My wife was incredulous. “You call that a ‘different focus’? It sounds more like a completely different worldview to me.” She paused, trying to hold her anger in check. “May I ask what purpose, exactly, this year’s program was intended to serve?” The camp director hemmed and hawed a bit before admitting that she hadn’t screened the program in advance, because, “We usually just let them do whatever they want to do.” But from what she could tell after talking to the scouts – we weren’t the first parents to lodge a complaint, clearly – their plan had been to make the children under their care understand what it’s like to live in Israel. That’s why they had been talking about jail. They wanted those five and six-year-olds to understand the consequences of refusing to do one’s military service. The discussion of guns fell under the same rubric. So did the marching exercises they had made the five and six-year-olds perform. Or so the camp director wanted us to understand. She apologized for failing to inform parents in advance of the scouts’ program and told us that Skylar would not have to do anything that made her feel uncomfortable for the rest of the week. Although my wife and I now had a better sense of what had transpired, we still weren’t satisfied. Once the phone call had ended and we had had time to ponder the camp director’s explanation, the sense that our daughter had been violated mounted steadily. We are not Israelis. Skylar will not have to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. And the same could be said for the vast majority of the families with children at the JCC’s summer camp. Indeed, like the JCC pre-school, the summer camp is open to all comers and boasts a sizeable non-Jewish enrollment. What, then, were the scouts trying to achieve? Was this simply a case of teenagers projecting their anxiety onto their charges, like a babysitter discussing her fickle boyfriend with a first-grade boy? Or was the program an example of a larger trend in Israeli-American relations after 9/11, in which the differences between the two countries was being deliberately collapsed for ideological ends? As we pondered these questions over dinner, Skylar listened intently. Now that she had heard her parents defending her and been assured that she would not be conscripted into the military, she was returning to her normal talkative state. “ The movie was long. I didn’t know that there were so many different kinds of guns. But the airplanes were cool.” My wife and I looked at each other. The camp director hadn’t mentioned a video component to the scouts’ program. We immediately called the JCC back, but the director had left for the day. Pressed for details, Skylar made it clear that she had not only watched a documentary on Israeli weaponry, but had managed to acquire a surprisingly detailed knowledge of its specifications and use. It wasn’t the sort of knowledge she was interested in, so she was unlikely to retain much over the long haul. For one day, though, she knew what an F-16 looked like and what it was used for. When we reluctantly dropped Skylar off the next morning – she was hesitant to return and we were hesitant to make her go — we inquired further about the program as a whole and the video in particular. “Oh, that,” replied one of the summer camp’s American coordinators, a gum-smacking teenager with a way of expressing disdain towards everything she talked about. “It was really boring. I didn’t know why they showed it. The kids weren’t even paying attention, so I don’t think it matters.” “Well, our six-year-old was paying close attention, even though she would rather have been doing almost anything else. After all the talk of being sent to prison, she was afraid not to watch it closely.” The coordinator smacked her gum and shrugged. Clearly, we weren’t going to get far with her. Or anyone else, for that matter. The camp director was too busy to talk to us further. And we were too busy to keep pursuing the matter. So long as Skylar didn’t have to participate in the more egregious aspects of the scout’s program, which only had four more days to go, we realized that it wouldn’t be worth our while to keep complaining. I wonder sometimes whether we made the right decision. It took a long time for Skylar’s trust in the JCC to be restored. The same could be said for my wife and I. In the end, we decided that the sense of community the JCC provides and its cosmopolitan aura are adequate compensation for the random outbreaks of propaganda that we experience there. Besides, I can live with posters provided by the Israeli tourist board that showcase the nation’s historic sites, lovely beaches and multi-cultural urban life. It’s not like we have to walk by the Israel section of Jane’s on the way to the gym. That doesn’t mean that the bad taste of our summer camp experience has disappeared, though. Sometimes, when we walk by the multi-purpose room and hear the teenage American counselors barking at the kids, I ask myself whether the Israeli scouts might not have been doing us a favor, revealing the ideological underpinnings of an institution that might not be as benign as it seems. Like scouting, summer camps for youth date back to the late nineteenth century, an era when technological changes had made it possible for a sizeable portion of the population to avoid hard physical labor in the workplace. Just as pets whose hunting instincts have been displaced into listening predatorily for the sound of the pantry door opening, the middle and upper classes of modern society were in danger of losing their edge. Rationalizing play in the form of team sports and group activities like hiking was a way to stave off the atrophying of reflexes deemed necessary for self-defense. The fixation on sorting and resorting children that the JCC summer camp demonstrated, megaphone-amplified directives to line up with one’s own kind, initially struck my wife and I as an unnecessary addition to the program’s real purpose. But perhaps we had things backwards. Maybe it’s the fun that was ancillary to the camp’s true function. After all, before people went to camp for fun, they were going to camp for war. Maybe somewhere amid our deepest-seated reflexes, the calls to line up for playing games and singing songs are recognized for what they originally were: calls to order.

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