“I love camp,” exclaimed Lauren Lillenstein. “If I didn’t go to camp, I don’t know if I would be the person I am today. Without camp, I don’t think I would have been engaged in youth group in high school, I would not have been involved in Hillel in college. Camp really helped me embrace Judaism in a spiritual way rather than through Torah study or text.”
Now that Lauren is a mom with kids of her own, making sure they attend a Jewish summer camp is a top priority for her. “It’s so important that I share this experience with my children so they can have an amazing summer that is structured and organized, yet has freedom to allow them to be kids,” she explained. “What I really love is that we have this common bond. It’s just something special that we share, because a lot of the songs and activities they’re learning are the songs and activities I learned when I was at camp. It’s like our own special language.”
“It is special,” agreed oldest son Jonah. “It’s one of the connections that my mom has with me, and camp has so much to do with it.” Lauren said Camp has given Jonah the opportunity to grow and develop in ways he simply can’t at home. “He can explore and embrace his own Jewish identity, and develop relationships that could turn into lifelong friendships. There’s also a sense of adventure and opportunity to do things that you typically can't do at home. You can't zip line at home, you can't waterslide, you can't kayak when you’re in the city. Camp provides an opportunity for Jonah to explore new things and have experiences that we can't regularly provide him.”
“It’s also really easy to connect with people,” Jonah said. “For the most part, everyone is really outgoing, and almost everyone there is Jewish and that already gives you something in common with them.” Lauren added, “Any camping experience gives an opportunity for a shared experience. So whether I'm sharing it with Jonah, or he’s sharing it with other campers, we are creating memories and experiences together.”
Jonah is now twelve years old, and first went to camp at age seven. “The first time I was there, I cried the first night; I had never been away from home. But by the second night, I was really excited to be there, and I have looked forward to going back every year.” Jonah has one younger brother, who was supposed to go last year, but Covid-19 put those plans on hold.
As the family prepared for camp this summer, Lauren voiced her excitement for both of her sons to experience a relative return to normalcy. “I know camp will be different,” she said, “but I’m grateful that they will still get to have the camp experience, even though they’ll have to stick primarily with their cabin group this year.”
For Lauren and her husband, sending two kids to camp is an expensive proposition, but Cincy Journeys was able to provide the family with up to two thousand eight hundred dollars in grants for an overnight Jewish camp. “We first heard of Cincy Journeys after we had signed Jonah up for camp, and that’s when the camp directors told us about it. We were so stoked because camp is very expensive, and we are so fortunate to have this opportunity here in Cincinnati.”
She added, “After this last year when many families have struggled financially, it’s really a blessing to have the Cincy Journeys grant to make sure kids can have this experience. I think it’s more important now than ever — the kids are excited to get outside after being cooped up for a year, and the parents are happy to have them out of the house.”
This program helps every eligible child attend overnight Jewish camp and every eligible teen or young adult travel and learn in Israel, providing them new skills and experiences. “I wouldn’t know that such fun things existed without camp,” said Jonah. “I wouldn't know that there were so many people who want to be friends with you. If I didn’t go to camp, you’re really missing out. There’s so much fun stuff you can do.”
Through the program, parents can find nearly fifty approved camps for kids, and nearly twenty approved high school Israel travel programs for teens.
“If I could encapsulate my experience with Cincy Journeys,” said Lauren, “it would be a sense of relief for that initial financial payment, as well as a sense of love and support. We are so blessed to live in a community that takes care of our children, all with the support of the local Cincinnati community. I would really encourage everyone to take advantage of Cincy Journeys. It makes the camp process a little less taxing and stressful on the parents. And it helps your kids experience life away from technology, away from the hustle and bustle of their everyday lives. They can get in tune with nature, and learn a little bit more about their Jewish identity and their community identity.”