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Taking a Stand Against Camp Bullies

Pointers to help children stop bullying at summer camp. 

By Elicia Brown
June 2012

When Michelle Koplan was just 8-years-old and new to overnight camp, she witnessed a bedtime ritual that still makes her cringe. Every night, one camper in her bunk would climb onto the bed of another girl, a girl who seemed different—a child who would likely be termed “special needs” in today’s lingo. The first child would then sit on the girl’s head and pass gas in her face.

It has been more than 30 years, but “I can’t forgive myself for not having stopped that,” says Koplan, who is now executive director of B'nai B'rith Camp in Beaverton, Oregon.

Just as bug juice and bonfires continue to be staples of summer, camp bullies still exert influence over their weaker peers. Witnesses still stand idly by. But much has changed too. And as parents and grandparents prepare to send their offspring to the rural, wilder pastures of sleep-away camp, they can rest assured (and on their soft mattresses at home!) that many camps now employ proactive, anti-bullying programs, says Jodi Sperling, who is director of the Merrin Center for Teens and Camping Services at the JCC Association, which works with 24 overnight camps and 135 day camps.

Sperling, who worked as director of Camp Wise, of the Mandel JCC of Cleveland, for the past eight years, notes one of the successful programs she implemented, which requires bunk counselors to draw up a “social map” of their cabins after the second week of the season. With this exercise, the counselors might discover, for example, “one little girl with no lines” connecting her to the other campers. 

But what about parents back home? How can we advise children before they board the camp bus on how to avoid a summer of torment?

Here are five pointers:

  1. Inquire about friendships at school, where social friction and dynamics can function similarly to camp. “Adults think they should tiptoe around issues of social hierarchy, but parents need to create a space where kids can talk about this,” says Sperling. “They need to feel that they have an ally at home who is not judging how they handle situations.”
  2. To trigger a conversation about an observer’s role in an episode of bullying, you might listen together to the song, “Responsibility," , by Naomi Less. Less, aka the Jewish chick rocker, brings her lively music and anti-bullying workshops to Jewish camps throughout the country each summer, as well as to schools throughout the year. The song, available for free, tells of an onlooker’s regret because she “stood and stared” as her peers targeted another kid.

    The song includes a modified line from the Talmud, kulano yisrael Arevim Zeh ba zeh, or, we are responsible for one another. (See lyrics in small print below.) “The singer is reflecting back on a poor decision,” says Less, who suggests we discuss the “risks associated with speaking up,” and ask children “what would enable them to take a stand.”
  3. You might discuss Jewish values related to social responsibility and dynamics: hachnasat orchim, how we welcome new people into the community—or the bunk; lo l’vayesh, which suggests that embarrassing someone in public is the same as shedding blood; gemilut chasidim, on approaching others with loving kindness; and finally, from Leviticus: “Do not stand idly while your neighbor’s [or bunkmate's] blood is shed.”
  4. Parents of older campers might consider reading and discussing Camp, released this spring, and written by Elaine Wolf. The story, set in the shadow of the Holocaust, depicts chilling scenes of psychological torture that occur in a Maine camp. “I wish the protagonist Amy could have been stronger and spoken up for herself,” says Wolf, a retired teacher from Long Island, N.Y. She notes that “the bully engine revs up” when the perpetrator recognizes the impact of their cruelty on the victim.
  5. Wolf, who has been dubbed the “anti-bullying novelist,” but insists that she isn’t an expert on the topic, just an author, nevertheless offers another useful tip for parents. Before her own son left for camp many years ago, she gave him a code word to include in his letters home, which would hint at a difficult experience. This way he could communicate without fearing that his bunk-mates or counselors might read his letter. Their code word? Peanut butter.


Music and lyrics ©2008 Naomi Less and Glenn Grossman

You see I understand it’s not so easy what you’re going through
Even though it might look easy for me but I’m tellin’ you
And I regret the times I didn’t follow my own inner rule
When I my voice choked up – I didn’t speak because it wasn’t cool
Oh I stood and stared - but didn’t try
I think that I know why
I won’t keep this to myself
There’s something that I’m trying to make you see
I won’t run from my responsibility
If I don’t speak then I’m to blame
I’m done with all these games it’s all the same
We can’t run from our responsibilities
I remember they were cruel to her but I just gave in to them
I knew I oughta stop but never thought my words could make it end
That quiet voice inside that’s killed by pride but knows what’s right from wrong
Listen to it, dontcha know – it doesn’t take much to be strong
Oh I stood and stared - aware but didn’t try
I got no reason why
I won’t keep this to myself
There’s something that I’m trying to make you see
I won’t run from my responsibility
If I don’t speak then I’m to blame*
I’m done with all these games
We can’t run from our responsibilities
Oh, we should take care of one another
Oh, it’s easier to help each other
Kulanu aravim zeh ba-zeh**

Oh look at that mirror deep inside
Don’t try to run and hide
I won’t keep this to myself
There’s something that I’m trying to make you see
I won’t run from my responsibility
If I don’t speak then I’m to blame
I’m done with all these games
We can’t run from our responsibilities

*Kulanu arevim zeh ba zeh is an adaptation of the Babylonian Talmud quote “kol yisrael Arevim Zeh ba zeh (Shevuot 39a).  This version is more inclusive of all humanity, not just the people Israel to each other.

**The Torah states, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Leviticus 19:16). Elie Wiesel added, “because when you stand idly by you become an accomplice.”  I rename the “blood” as someone’s emotional blood. Still, what can parents do?


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