Cultivating mindfulness at camp
Aim of new practices is to reduce stress for campers, counselors
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Lakewood, Pa. — The boys placed their towels on the grass under the tree and lay down, as Jodie Luce, wellness director at Camp Poyntelle, began the guided meditation. They imagined a gentle breeze on their skin and the sound of water lapping against the shore of a calm sea; they pictured the leaves on the trees and smelled the summer air. Slowly Luce told them to imagine the sun rising and the birds beginning their dawn chirping.
When the exercise was finished the boys sat up and Luce announced, to their delight, that they would be making mindfulness jars. Several of the 15 boys, ages 11 and 12, talked about the jars they had made there last year, and how the projects helped calm themselves in stressful situations throughout the year. At the arts and crafts tables on the porch of the low wood building each boy received a small jar, to which he added clear liquid glue, food coloring, warm water, glitter, and more warm water before screwing on the top. Then they shook their jars, watching the glitter float through the colored viscosity.
The meditation session and the craft project NJJN witnessed on a recent Wednesday morning in July are part of a mindfulness program instituted about two years ago at Poyntelle, a Jewish camp in Lakewood, Pa. It was a direct response to the increasing anxiety among campers and staffers that camp director Ryan Peters had been noticing.
He’s not alone.
“American kids are experiencing more anxiety today,” said Tom Rosenberg, CEO of the American Camp Association (ACA). “And they’re bringing it to camp. That means camp counselors and camp directors and their professional staff have to be prepared to help kids manage those emotions at camps.”
Over the last five years, Rosenberg estimates, summer camps around the country have begun adding all kinds of tools to help kids and counselors manage mental health issues. Mindfulness is one prominent feature of that toolkit.
“Kids are learning and reinforcing the skill of being in the moment,” said Rosenberg, who is a former director of Jewish camps, including Blue Star Camps and Camp Judaea, both in Hendersonville, N.C. What it looks like, he said, “is taking a deep breath, taking a minute, or taking three minutes, and not necessarily intentionally meditating, but having a moment, looking around you, and being aware.”
Jewish mindfulness practice involves putting a Jewish spin on mindfulness techniques or taking an inherently Jewish approach to it.
Jewish summer camps, with their intense communal experience and observance of a weekly day of rest for Shabbat, have always had something of a built-in focus on spiritual mindfulness. But it was more of a byproduct of the camp experience. As Rabbi Avi Orlow, vice president of innovation and education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, put it, there’s now “a level of intention and being explicit to something that’s been there since the beginning of Jewish camp.”
That “something” has many components: moments of reflection during Shabbat mornings; all-camp gatherings around the flagpole to begin the day; the awareness of being in a natural environment with friends, immersed in the what-you-want-to-be-doingness that camp offers. Such an environment is crucial for a generation consumed by screens and who so often communicate electronically instead of face to face, and the constant pressures that result from these interactions. (According to Rosenberg, 95 percent of ACA-accredited camps are also screen-free, a principle many are wrapping into their wellness programs.)
“The moment is ripe for Jewish mindfulness at summer camp,” said Jordan Bendat-Appell, director of Camp Ramah in Ontario, Canada. Bendat-Appell was formerly a program director and teacher of Jewish mindfulness at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, based in New York, where he helped develop a pilot project for bringing Jewish mindfulness to summer camps. While he was developing programs for Eisner Camp, the Reform camp in Great Barrington, Mass.; Camp Ramah in California; and Camp Ramah in the Rockies, other camps — like Poyntelle and Sababa Beachaway, a Jewish surfing camp in Virginia Beach — were also pioneering the integration of mindfulness into their programs.
“Campers and staff need this today,” said Eisner director James Gelsey. “One of our goals at camp is to give both campers and staff the tools to help them thrive in the world. And Jewish mindfulness is a way to fulfill that goal.”
Kids are embracing the opportunity. At Poyntelle, the boys in Luce’s group during NJJN’s visit said the benefits last the whole year.
“It’s fun because it’s a way you can release all the stress from your body,” said Ollie Rosenthal, 12, of Morristown. He made a mindfulness jar last summer, and when he has a stressful day, he said, “I can shake it up and just watch as the glitter falls slowly. I can track it and feel like it slows me down, and I just can calm down.” At one point during the year after getting into a fight with some friends, Ollie went home and used the jar. “I felt a lot more relaxed,” he said. “I wasn’t so worked up. I was able to go and talk to them and apologize and work everything out.”
The integration of mindfulness is different for every camp. At Poyntelle, in addition to Luce’s mandatory meditation and wellness crafts, she also provides “mindfulness moments” at breakfast and dinner. There are also elective programs, like playing with dogs or going on hikes in small groups, activities that incorporate mindfulness but aren’t labeled as such. “The electives are just designed to slow everything down and give kids an opportunity to enjoy the sunshine, enjoy being outdoors, without being overly scheduled,” said Poyntelle director Peters.
At Sababa, all the activities — from scuba diving and surfing to sailing and ocean arts — require being fully “present,” according to founding director Danny Mishkin. Each day includes three meditation activities. Over the course of the summer, campers are required to consider their own “perfect imperfections,” to help them embrace their whole selves. And there’s no organized competition at all during camp, which Mishkin views as “disruptive” to mindfulness, because he views camp as a refuge from the constant judgment in their lives.
At Camp Ramah in Canada, where Bendat-Appell took over in December, he’s added a mindfulness component to a popular twice-weekly early-morning canoe paddle session. In addition to the swimming, boating, and splashing, time is now allotted for quiet reflection on the lake. As a result, said Bendat-Appell, “kids start their day in a more focused way.”
Shabbat and prayer are the obvious places to begin incorporation of mindfulness activities for Jewish camps, according to the ACA’s Rosenberg, whether through alternative prayers, reflection before Havdalah, or spending days hiking or doing yoga. All are available as “Shabboptions” at Camp Zeke, a Jewish overnight camp in Lakewood, Pa., the focus of which is on healthy living.
At Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, N.Y., mornings begin with “Modeh Ani,” named for the prayer of gratitude Jews customarily recite upon rising. Campers can choose to go to a traditional worship service, but they can also choose from about 20 other options — like staring at the lake, hugging a non-human thing, finding space between the letters of Hebrew calligraphy, or going into the forest and sharing their thoughts and feelings out loud. The last of these recalls the chasidic practice of “hitbodedut,” which is, well, going into the forest and sharing out loud.
All these exercises “are getting at the same thing,” said Eden Village Camp associate director Simona Ziv, “which is having a daily practice where you can set intentions for the day for yourself.”
But mindfulness can be inserted anytime during the day. At Eisner, yoga is offered daily as a regular elective, before breakfast for campers and in the evening for staff members. Before any arts period at the camp, there’s a brief moment to enhance focus that often involves breathing exercises. “It’s been a beautiful way to create a space between what has just happened and what kind of creativity is about to begin,” wrote fine arts director Nina Berkowitz in a 2018 Eisner Camp blog post. It’s also integrated into their Jewish education component, with a gratitude curriculum, culminating in students’ writing their own Birkat HaMazon (Blessing of Gratitude after a meal).
Some camps have infused mindful breathing with Jewish ideas. At Eisner it’s “shalom” breathing; at Sababa, it’s “Kol HaNeshama,” breathing “with all one’s soul,” each based in Jewish concepts.
Mindfulness can also be an antidote to increasing disaffection with conventional forms of worship.
“Prayer has gotten stale,” said Bendat-Appell. “Inserting intentional silences during the service can make a big difference.”
Back at Camp Poyntelle, director Peters, like Gelsey at Eisner and many of their colleagues, includes counselors and other staff members in mindfulness training and activities, and offers mindfulness activities geared toward their needs. “We’re seeing these 19-, 20-, 21-year-old counselors who do not know how to manage their emotions” benefit from such practices, said Peters.
The boys’ counselor Jake Lewis, 17, is soaking in these approaches. Watching the kids in his bunk make their mindfulness jars, Lewis, of Long Island, said he wanted to make one as well. He appreciates the techniques Luce is offering and said he was using breathing techniques that Luce has taught when he’s “stressed out by the kids really, and if there’s a tough day when I need to just kind of calm down,” he said. He sees himself using these techniques during the year. “As schoolwork picks up and my job back at home picks up, time management can be stressful. There’s a lot of things going on at once and a lot of responsibilities. So calming down and relieving stress is very important.”
Peters, a believer in competition at camp, has not taken away color war, which was about to break out on the day NJJN visited. “The reality is competition exists, and it’s not going away,” he said, adding that kids need to be prepared for a world that will not coddle them. Learning to manage losing, he said, “are life skills.”
Meanwhile, the campers were watching the sparkles and glitter fall slowly through the pink or blue or orange liquid of their mindfulness jars. As Benji Kohol of Maplewood screwed on the top of his, he said he was enjoying learning how to notice something new all the time. “If I kept looking at this jar over and over again,” he said, “I would notice something new, like how bubbles dissolve, or that it’s more liquidy.”
As the boys watched their jars, Jake Lewis called them together to get ready for soccer, and their day moved closer to color war. Even if the competition is fierce, it will just give them another opportunity to practice their mindfulness skills.