The pandemic has presented significant challenges to everyone – seniors, children, adults and for us, young families. Being transplants into a city with no family members or relatives, surrounded by a community of friends, we embraced our first child amid everything being shut down, Eli Levy, born October 2020.
While there were exceptional benefits for two career, first-time parents in the pandemic to not have to travel and be at home 24/7, there was always the underlying challenge of creating an environment of social interaction for the yeled and making sure that he is acclimated to both society and children his age. The biggest eye-opening experience we had was this past April when visiting Israel over Pesach and seeing the boy interact with his cousins, for the first time. The very first interaction he had was when my oldest brother’s fourth and youngest child, a 2-year-old, with his little puppy eyes and ponytail holding a soccer ball in his right hand, identified his cousin from America for the first time, got out of the car and ran across my parents’ yard, to greet his cousin with a ringing slap to the face. Albeit hilarious, seeing Eli not sure if the gesture meant this is a friend or foe, was the ah-ha moment we needed.
Eli needed to go to school ASAP. Upon our return to the states in early May 2022, we stepped up our game in intentionally socializing the boy with kids his own age. As we attempted to reach out to the various learning institutions (still uncertain if you call it school, Pre-K, camp, day care, nursery school, etc.), we realized that we were seven months behind the ball in signing him up for school and our options were critically limited. We were however timely and fortunate in signing him up for summer camp. Contrary to myself, I’m sure many are familiar with toddler summer camp, but it isn’t the most convenient setup. It’s divided into sessions that you can sign up for, 1-4 at a time, from late June to early August, where some weeks are not in session, and the schedule is from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. This is where the challenge (and adventure) began. Each class is given an animal as its name. Week one of Tiger Camp – here we come!
Through the many forms of communication that we received (full disclosure: many may have not been fully read and prepared for), we began our experience as first-time parents of a pandemic toddler going to camp. To start with, at the end of a workday, we were supposed to attend open house. The only problem was, we didn’t know we were supposed to bring the boy. Yes, we were the parents in orientation without a child, trying to dismiss the awkwardness, and assumed creepiness by the other parents with their darling munchkins wholly unsuccessfully.
Insistent on outperforming ourselves on the first day of camp, Eli walked in happy as could be, not understanding that we are about to part ways. Shortly thereafter, as the children congregated in a large auditorium that extends alongside a long hall, the amazing teachers came to us, with little warning, slapped a sticker on his back with his name and carried him away to his classroom. The entire duration of the drop-off process was less than 3 minutes, and I didn’t even see it coming. Backing up a little, on the way to school, I was on the phone with my Israeli mother, hoping for some first day advice. Rather than comfort me, she increased the stress level by informing me that I was expected to stay with my son for the first week as he got acclimated to the new environment, and that I should have taken it into account in my work schedule for the week, which I hadn’t. I quickly made calls to start and improvise a solution for the week, cautiously (and reluctantly) preparing to be in camp alongside him all week. My American partner thought I was a total meshuganah when I called her with said pain and reassured me that we’re no longer in Israel of the 1980s. Little did I know, my time as a parent dropping off at camp on the first day would end as quickly as it began.
The drop-off surprise was not the only hiccup in day one. At around 11:15 a.m., still on day one, we received a text from his teacher. Keep in mind the half day, which we signed up for 3 times a week, ends at 12:30 p.m. She was asking where his lunch was; little did she know I had not packed him a lunch. Wasn’t this included? My son spent his first camp lunch eating snacks and leftovers (hand over face emoji).
On the second day of camp, we were feeling great. We had packed him a lunch. Little did we know, we had broken the eleventh commandment of every school ever. Thou shalt not bring nut products to school. NUT FREE SCHOOL. His peanut butter and jelly sandwich, of which one of the parents was extremely proud of (Hmhmhm…), was definitely not allowed. This was a change for an Israeli baby growing up surrounded by Bamba 24/7. This warranted a call, text, voicemail and email directly from the director informing us of the faux pas. Gladly, everyone was ok, and the fumble was discovered by the teachers early on. Profusely apologizing is an understatement.
On the third day of camp, we thought things would go smoothly. Apparently in the barrage of materials provided, we missed the “Friday Pizza Day” memo. Fortunately, by this point, his teacher understood that she needed to reach out to us to ensure that we were aware of this event and make sure that we “opted in” so the boy won’t be the one eating a cucumber when all of his friends are eating pizza (too young to establish individualism!?).
One of the things we found in the first week is that you can keep up with the happenings during the day through an app. While this allowed us to witness first-hand our lunch fails, we also enjoyed seeing our son throughout the day. But then I noticed all these fancy lunch boxes it seemed all the kids had. What do I do? I consulted with several experts (i.e. parents) to determine what this thing was, colloquially known as a Bento Box. At this point we had three options: 1) encourage his individualism and let him take the brown bag lunch, but he doesn’t really eat sandwiches yet; 2) let him channel his inner Israeli and get him the $8 knock off from Target; or 3) succumb, similar to pizza Friday, to the self-inflected societal pressure of Jewish camp and get him the $32 Bento box with the monster trucks (his favorite). As the great Frank Sinatra said, if I succumb to the pressure, “I will do it my way.” Yes, Eli has the monster truck Bento box, with his name and an extra monster truck printed on it. The only challenge now is that he loves monster trucks so much that he keeps closing his box, looking at it and not eating his food.
At the end of a not-so-successful week one, we braced for week two. The funny thing is that what was previously foreign to Eli became second nature. As we walked in and saw all the children, some hanging on to their parents’ legs, some using their vocal cords to their full extent, Eli already picked up on where he’s headed and consistent with week one, there were tears as we quickly (as is customary) parted ways. Week two did not end up being quite as successful as we hoped. Another call from the director informed us that if Eli was going to keep coming, he will need to be picked up early, at 11 a.m. instead of the normal 12:30 p.m., since he wouldn’t stop crying. Our child excelled to the top of the class as being the best crier and the most maladjusted COVID baby. As we anxiously awaited the call to pick him up, we got a different call. It turns out he was doing great and was welcome to stay until the normal 12:30 p.m. end of the half day. What a relief. Of course, this success was right before a 10-day camp hiatus due to the holiday weekend during which camp is closed.
As we went into week three of camp, we asked friends to keep us in their prayers for a successful week of Tiger Camp. Now, as we embark on the last and final week of camp, reflecting on almost two months, this was truly the best thing that could have happened to the boy. He made friends, learned new skills, was surrounded by teachers who absolutely loved him and began socializing (and picking up a few habits I would rather not) so much so that he looked forward to coming to camp and being embraced by Ms. Tracey or Ms. Shelly (true story!).
My three biggest takeaways from the past few months: 1) Change is good. It should be embraced and welcomed. 2) You’re not reinventing the wheel. Seek help and guidance from people who have done it before. 3) Cherish the time and experience. Enjoy every moment of the bumpy ride, since this is very much only the beginning of the journey called parenting.
In case you were wondering, we were able to secure an incredible full-time setup for the new year with a new school, where the three covenants we believe in are at the core — love unconditionally and keep the boy safe and well, feed him, and be flexible with us. I would argue that nothing speaks to Jewish values more than the above.
Good luck to all other pandemic, first time parents out there as we’re about to start the new school year. Thank you to all teachers who are committed to our children’s (and parents) success and integration.
Shimon Levy is the chief operating officer of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.