Jewish Camping Brings a Summer of Fun—and a Lifetime of Impact

Camp Laurelwood is celebrating its 85th summer serving Connecticut’s Jewish community as an independent summer camp. Located in Madison, Camp Laurelwood offers overnight and day programs, as well as Jewish Family Camp weekends. Below, Executive Director Rabbi James Greene recounts the enduring transformation campers experience—bringing the Jewish values they learn at camp back to their homes, schools, and communities. Camp Laurelwood is supported in part by contributions to Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford’s Annual Campaign.

Last winter, I opened a small letter delivered to my office. Inside the envelope was a note from a camper that read:

Dear Rabbi James,
Camp is great! I love how it helps me grow all year long.

As the executive director at Camp Laurelwood, Connecticut’s only Jewish overnight camp, it is my privilege to spend the summer with over 400 campers and 100 staff members, creating the world we aspire to live in and helping campers explore what it means to build a kinder world supported by Jewish values. More than just a summer experience, camp is a covenantal laboratory where we build Jewish identity and send campers home as better versions of themselves.

At Laurelwood, the expression of Jewish life is present in all of our program areas. Instead of having a specific Jewish-learning block, our campers explore how our core Jewish values emerge in sports, at the pool, in the mess hall, canoeing in our lake, on our ropes course, and in so many other activities across camp. We talk about community, Jewish peoplehood, healthy body and spirit, kindness, and generations as our “inputs.” Using these values, we cultivate middot (character traits) within our campers and staff—traits built upon kindness, confidence, and community-mindedness.

The best learning often doesn’t manifest until long after the summer is over. Although campers and staff grow during their time at Laurelwood, that growth often remains hidden until it pops up in a dinner-table discussion or in the middle of a family activity. Then, quite suddenly, a story emerges about the moment their friend did the funniest thing at camp, or their counselor sang them a special song, or their cabin had the most amazing late-night talk. Likewise, a camper may recount the lessons they learned while working on the ropes course, the values they explored while playing sports with a friend, or the skill they challenged themselves to master over the summer. These moments may be happening right now, but the payoff is often yet to come!

Although our campers do learn to set the table and say blessings in the Laurelwood dining hall, the real value-add of camp is when they come home and clean up after themselves, or sing a blessing after their Friday night meal with their parents. When campers learn to do chores as a bunk, or comfort a cabin-mate who is homesick, they continue to grow when they return home, practicing words of kindness with family members or comforting a friend in school who is sad or not feeling well. At camp, we may all wear white on Shabbat, but campers and staff also return home and share Shabbat traditions with their families or write Shabbat-o-grams (letters to one another that are traditionally given out on Fridays) to friends. It is in those quiet and unexpected moments that the value of camp truly comes to life, and we see the growth that comes from a summer spent at Laurelwood. All of us at Camp Laurelwood are grateful for Federation's support in growing Jewish lives.

To learn more about Camp Laurelwood’s offerings, including overnight or day-camp programs, visit the website.

Photo: Campers find friends and Jewish values at Camp Laurelwood