By Linda Levin
Ah, summer break! Now students have to decide what they should do with their free time. In general, there are two approaches to the school break. Some students just want to “chill,” do nothing structured and just take it easy. Then there are those who see summer as a time to explore, taking an opportunity to enjoy new experiences before the start of the old grind again in September.
Some high school girls opt to work as mothers’ helpers or in day camps as counselors. Some go as campers to sleepaway camps that cater specifically to high schoolers. Then there are those who are drawn to the camp experience, but also enjoy sightseeing. Teen travel camps are the perfect answer for those teens. In these camps, girls can bond with other girls, while at the same time travel to new and exciting places. Instead of most of the day being filled with sports activities, as in traditional camps, their days are filled with traveling on busses or in cars to destinations such as the Grand Canyon in Arizona or Masada in Israel.
Miss Tzipora Grodko, Monsey resident and a graduate of both Ateres Bais Yaakov high school and Darchei Bina seminary, was a counselor and director of teen girls travel camps on three separate occasions: once in Israel for six weeks, once in New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii for a month and once for 17 days in a camp that travelled to the West Coast.
Grodko explains what attracted her to work in these different venues. She always wanted to travel and see the world. At the same time, she relates well to teenage girls and loved being a camp counselor, so she saw this as an opportunity to combine her two passions. Typically, the girls in all three camps were going into the 11th grade.
Travel camps present unique challenges that are not major issues in regular sleepaway camps.
In a traditional camp, there is a camp cook and a kitchen. Food there is generally is not an issue. If a bunk runs short, the counselor will just go to the kitchen and request refills. But in a travel camp, especially to places with no kosher food readily available, food supplies are a challenging concern. Grodko remembers that on her trip to the West Coast which included Nevada, Arizona, Utah and California, the staff traveled with ice chests wherever they went. Teenagers have huge appetites and the possibility of running out of food was foremost on the staff’s mind.
Health is another major concern. In a traditional camp, there is a nurse on the premises. Anything can happen on a long-distance trip, from allergic reactions to broken bones. Keeping the campers safe was always uppermost on the staff’s mind. Grodko relates that having lots of staff is of critical importance; the more staff you have, the better the supervision. Staff are trained in basic first aid and travel with supplies. Nowadays, with a cell phone in every backpack, health concerns are a bit less scary. Nevertheless, it is a tremendous responsibility and one not taken lightly.
Just like in traditional overnight camps, the girls have a set davening time and attend shiurim. But unlike traditional camps, where there are night activities and things going on all day long, travel camps have the additional challenge of entertaining rambunctious teenagers as they travel from place to place, whether by car or bus. Grodko relates that there was never really any “downtime” in any of the camps she worked in. She was always on the go.
Another area of concern when traveling is campers losing or misplacing documents such as birth certificates or passports. Staff needed to be on top of the girls, making sure they had their papers in order and that they knew where they were at all times. It once happened that a girl lost her passport on Grodko’s watch; luckily, she had kept copies of each girl’s passport and in this case the copy, together with Grodko’s power of persuasion, allowed the camper to board a scheduled flight.
Missed flights are another headache to worry about. This happened to Grodko when she had to catch a transfer flight from Los Angeles to New York. The 15 girls, plus staff, had flown from Hawaii to California. They needed to switch airports to catch the flight to New York, and were given some incorrect information. The group became separated and a few tense moments ensued with everyone running around on their own. The group was clearly too late for the intended flight. However, the flight from Los Angeles to New York was delayed for a full hour after the doors were already shut. The passengers were told to disembark. When the flight was ready to re-board, Grodko breathed a sigh of relief, as her girls had made it after all.
Grodko’s best and most cherished memories are not necessarily of the beautiful places she visited, but rather, of sitting with the girls under a starry sky, just contemplating Hashem’s beautiful world. She witnessed tremendous growth in the girls as they bonded with her and each other. As travel camps are a costly endeavor, they often attract girls who are from well-off families. But there are some girls who work hard all year long and earn the money themselves in order to attend camp. This discrepancy in lifestyles can potentially become a sore point within the group, with varying sensitivities. Grodko addressed this by working hard to ensure that the girls’ relationships with one another were healthy and free of any negativity. She enjoyed seeing the girls get along despite their different backgrounds.
Of the three travel camp experiences, Grodko felt that Israel was the most uplifting and her best one professionally as well. No doubt being in Israel beats volcanos in Hawaii or Yellowstone National Park. But for Grodko, it was more than that. She herself had been a camper in the girls’ division of camp S’dei Chemed (which is unfortunately no longer in operation), where she later worked as a madricha. Since she already had a relationship with the staff, it provided her with a wholesome working environment; it was a comfortable “fit.”