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Dropping my kids off at Jewish summer camp taught me how to let go

For many, our slow-motion exodus from the pandemic has yielded a harvest of mundane yet miraculous firsts — handshakes, hugs, houseguests, days back in the office, unmasked cappuccinos at our favorite cafes and many more.

I have savored these reunions with life as I once knew it, yet none of them prepared me for dropping off our 8 and 10-year-old sons at Jewish sleep-away camp for the first time since the pandemic began.

For the last year, I’ve done everything in my power to keep our family as safe as possible. But in the drop-off lane, I learned an important lesson about letting go.

For starters, our car was nearly empty at drop-off rather than laden with overstuffed suitcases and plastic chests of drawers taped shut. Like other parents fortunate enough to live within easy driving distance of camp, we had to drop off all their stuff the week before, since we would be unable to drive them to their bunks and load them in as we always have. Families who live farther away had to ship everything. For social distancing purposes, the camp didn’t want parents in the bunks interacting with other families unpacking their kids this year.

Gone was the seemingly endless caravan of cars snaking through the local roads, which always gave a relatively brief but bitter taste of what our ancestors must have experienced in the desert for 40 years.

Instead, after the boys’ rapid COVID-19 tests in a parking lot across the highway from camp, we showed up for our staggered arrival time, handing over our campers to their waiting counselors. I feel bad that the counselors won’t be able to leave camp during their time off, but am grateful, too, since it will keep everyone safer.

Camp drop-offs have always been fraught for parents and children. But for those of us with children and grandkids too young to get vaccinated and with the Delta variant and others running rampant, this year continues to be both different and scary.

The boys don’t seem concerned. In his characteristically blunt way, our 10-year-old said, “I don’t give a crap about COVID.”

His normally anxious younger brother made the international so-so hand flutter and summed up his level of Covid concern as “kacha-kacha,” so-so in Hebrew, a phrase I’m pretty sure he learned from his Israeli counselor two years ago.

I, however, am a mess.

For the last year and a half, my wife and I have done everything in our power to keep our sons as safe as possible for as long as possible.

When other parents sent their kids back to school, we kept ours virtual. When others went back to swim lessons, sports and after school activities, we kept ours out. When others got on planes to see grandma and grandpa or go on vacation, we stayed home.

I’m not judging anyone for their decisions, nor do I feel judged. One thing the pandemic has made abundantly clear is that we all have a different tolerance for risk and I respect that. But for our family, respect has made us circumspect.

Since last March, my wife and I have made our decisions based on the simple principle that we’re not OK with our sons and our family only being as safe as the least careful person or family in the building. So why is it different when that building is a bunk?

I have no way of controlling or knowing the decisions of the other parents who sent their kids to our sons’ summer camp. I turn to my wife in the car and ask her to remind me why we just did this.

My wife is a nonprofit consultant who spends all day every day working with Jewish overnight camps, so she has a perspective that most parents sending their kids to camp don’t. She knows what’s been going on behind the scenes and every line of the reassuring emails we’ve been getting since spring, when camps started informing families they’d be open this summer but with a gaga pit-full of precautions and special procedures.

“Because everyone at camp over the age of 12 has to be vaccinated,” she begins patiently for the umpteenth time. “Because, except for bedtime and meals, they will be masked or outside nearly all day. Because camp will be a bubble with no one coming in or out all summer.”

I remind myself to come back to that bedtime/mealtime thing, but I have to agree with the rest. Nothing about this year’s drop-off was the same and that is emblematic of what the whole camp experience will be like for our kids and countless others.

We gave the boys rushed hugs and kisses and said goodbye — another mixed blessing, I suppose. This is not the first time we will have to let our little people go — or our fears and concerns go — on their way to becoming big people. And, God willing, it won’t be the last.

Avi Dresner is a Jewish camp dad, writer and executive producer of the forthcoming documentary, “The Rabbi & The Reverend.”


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