Ever since Adam toured the Garden of Eden, humanity’s first sleepaway camp, humans have been trying to get back there, or at least re-create it here. It’s part of what leads us to idealize summer camps — as little slices of Eden.
Judaism is based on connections to the earth and heavens; Jewish rituals and holidays are built around the seasons, and in most interpretations of the Genesis story, God instructs Adam to steward the Earth’s resources, not dominate them.
So it’s no surprise that more and more parents who send their children to camps are asking, “What makes this camp environmentally sustainable?” Even camp directors and staff members are asking.
Ideally, Jewish camps should embody understandings of stewardship and healing the earth (tikkun olam), kindness to living things (tsar b’aleh chayim), and avoiding waste (ba’al tashchit). And each participant should become a shomer adamah (guardian of the earth).
How close to the ideal is your camp coming? You send children there with your hopes that their experiences will change their lives for the better, and that they’ll bring some of that back with them to brighten — and perhaps improve — your lives, too.
Generally, we assume camps are “natural” establishments, because they’re situated in the “wilderness.” However, most camps are not built or operated “sustainably” — that is, on land where administrators understand and support their ecosystems, the structures are “built green,” and equipment is resource-efficient. Instead, most camps don’t take full advantage of their sites, and they consume resources and generate wastes at levels similar to small suburban towns. That kind of operation tends to run against basic Jewish environmental principles.
So it’s refreshing to find camps and conference centers that are setting great examples that others can both follow and profit from. Specifically, cost savings, attractiveness and profitability track directly with efficient, minimum-waste operations — for any organization. And several Jewish camp organizations offer trend-setting examples:
• Adamah, at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut (www.isabellafreedman.org), and Jewish Farm School, based in Philadelphia (www.jewishfarmschool.org), offer grounding to 20- to 30-year-old adults in Jewish environmental principles, land use, and sustainable living.
• Surprise Lake Camp’s Teva Learning Center, based in New York (www.tevacenter.org), focuses on environmental and experiential education, emphasizing awareness, interconnectedness, responsibility and community.
• Berkshires Camp Ramah uses a Green Camp Initiative to create a sustainable and environmentally responsible camp. It raises awareness, increases activism among staff and campers, and works to reduce its waste and CO2 footprint.
One can also take guidance from a host of non-Jewish camp examples: Islandwood Environmental Education Center on Bainbridge Island (www.islandwood.org) and YMCA’s Camp Orkila on Orcas Island; Arroyo YMCA Camp in California; Concordia Language Villages in Minnesota; and Frost Valley YMCA Camp in New York.
Most people don’t choose camps for their sustainability practices. They choose them to connect their children with their friends, their interests, and Jewish activities. But since people absorb the character of places they live, we can use camp experiences to teach our children basic environmental principles, and how to help arrest climate change, waste and pollution. Then, they can bring that knowledge home to teach us, our congregations and communities — and help change our world for the better.
So, let’s deputize ourselves as shomrei adamah, and encourage camps to run “green.” We start by looking at the carbon footprints we create by sending our kids to camp — and then offsetting them, using the simple calculator and contribution format at Carbonfund.org or TerraPass. Then, we ask the camp director:
1. Does camp state its commitment to sustainability?
2. How is camp reducing its carbon and environmental footprints? Is it reducing its energy, water and other resource consumption? The smaller the footprint, the more efficiently it runs, the better example it sets, and the less it costs to run.
3. What kind of food does it serve? The less meat, the smaller the carbon footprint; the more organic, the healthier the food, and combined, the less the output of greenhouse gases.
4. How does camp manage waste? Ideally, it creates none. Its campers compete in dining halls to see who wastes less food; all organic waste is composted, and all other materials are recycled.
5. Does camp emphasize connections to nature? These calm the spirit and teach respect for living things. Does camp de-emphasize or ban electronics — which, on average, take up five hours a day of kids’ time — to get kids engaged in the calming, inspiring effects of nature, and present at camp?
The list is short, but it’s significant. Good impact on camp participants will ripple out toward everywhere they touch. Imagine how different the world would be if all campers came home thinking this was the way to live?