When my mother dropped me off for the first time at Herzl Camp in Webster, Wis., I was 9 years old and 1,200 miles from home. What concerned me at that moment was if my cabin would be good and whether the food would be edible.
Within three days, not only did I have answers to those questions (yes and mostly yes), but I had already been asked dozens of times how I, a not-yet fourth grader from Washington, D.C., had managed to make my way all the way up to Webster. Did I have family in the area? (No.) Did my parents go to camp? (No.) Was I lost? (I didn’t think so.)
I explained that it had started the fall before, when my parents decided that we would move to Minneapolis for a semester, so my mother could teach at the University of Minnesota Law School. There, I attended the Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School, where a substantial percentage of the student body went to Herzl.
Even though I was only there for one semester, something stuck, and six months later my parents begrudgingly agreed to “ship” me off to Herzl. By the end of the fortnight at camp, not only had I perfected my explanation of how I got there, but I knew that I had found a second home.
I will be the first to admit that those first two weeks in a cabin far away from home were not the easiest. I was not infrequently homesick and, more importantly, missed my multi-temperature shower. But I stuck it out, and to the dismay of my parents, I arrived home happy for a home-cooked meal but wanting to go back for two more weeks.
Camp and the overall experience of going to camp have changed me for the better. While everybody changes a good deal from the ages of 9 to 17, I really believe that Herzl has shaped the direction in which I’ve grown. For example, as a 9 year old, being in charge of making my bed and keeping track of my clothes was impactful, as it gave me a greater sense of responsibility.
As I grew up, it still tended to be the little things that made the difference. I started noticing that I was much more open to trying new things, whether participating in the “pop dance” during color war or trying the mystery hamburger hot dish.
I gradually started spending less time on my bed alone reading books or writing to my parents and more time meeting new people and learning new games. I came to accept and love the social media and screen detox and always wished it could continue on into the year.
I also learned larger lessons, such as the importance of community service, as we progressed from picking up trash around camp to doing service around the local county.
These changes were visible outside of camp as well. I was much less shy in new situations and increasingly confident in being myself.
While I found my home out in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin, sleepaway camps in general provide the same basic benefit: the opportunity to live independently from your family and away from home while pursuing interests and making new friends.
For younger kids, being away from home forces them to start doing things for themselves and taking care of their own affairs. For older kids just getting away, especially from a crazy city like Washington, it allows for a well-needed mental break and time to relax while picking up important life and leadership skills needed for college and beyond.
Isabella Lefkowitz-Rao, 17, plans to return for her eighth summer at Herzl Camp in 2021.