To those who say we never see miracles or talk directly with God anymore, I say, “Nonsense.” We constantly stand in their presence; we just fail to appreciate them. We fill our lives with distractions, and only notice miracles that hit us over the head, like tornadoes, volcanoes and earthquakes, or childbirth, infatuation and skydiving.
It’s like Mel Brooks describing how the concept of God originated (in The 2000 Year Old Man): after lightning killed the terrifying tyrant Phil, Brooks says, “We looked up at the sky and said, ‘There’s something bigger than Phil.’”
Abraham Joshua Heschel noted that yirah (fear, awe, reverence) around natural phenomena can lead us toward belief in a greater power. Even for quiet miracles — the growth of living things, the seamless interactions of ecosystems, our ability to live on Earth — we must disconnect from noise and urgency, so we can listen and marvel.
That’s what summer camps are made for. They take advantage of the powerful connection between the great outdoors and Jewish spirituality. According to outdoor educator Rabbi Michael Comins, “nature is the everyday home of wonder, the place where most people regularly and reliably experience awe.” (ejewishphilanthropy.com)
There’s something miraculous about Jewish overnight camps. A comprehensive study from the Foundation for Jewish Camp shows that children who attend overnight camps will have higher engagement in Jewish life as adults. Camps generally weave respect for nature into their joyous, active programs (www.jewishcamp.org). And a very few now build their programs around Jewish eco-ideals, such as tikkun olam. In this time of global warming and resource stress, we hope to see more. Meanwhile, here’s the short list of those cutting-edge Jewish programs:
• JCA Shalom (www.campjcashalom.com), in the wooded hills above Malibu, Calif., for 2nd to 12th-grade kids. JCAS runs a three-acre, organic vegetable and fruit tree farm, which partially supplies its dining service, uses only eco-friendly dining and cleaning products, heats its Olympic-sized swimming pool with solar panels, and uses solar electricity to power its front gate, conference center, retreat house and activity center. It is developing a green site map of camp, analyzes its ecological footprint, and reduces paper use with online registration and electronic signature acceptance.
• Camp Tawonga (www.tawonga.org), welcomes 2nd to 12th grade campers to its Tuolumne River acreage, just outside Yosemite National Park. Campers can hike, backpack, raft, camp and explore the Sierra Mountain rivers, lakes, valleys and hills, and learn about — and embrace — the natural world. Camp emphasizes alternative energy production, energy and water efficiency initiatives, recycling and composting, local food and materials sourcing — such as farm-to-table and scratch-made, green building — including milling on-site lumber.
• Ramah in the Rockies/Ramah Outdoor Adventure, (www.ramahoutdoors.org/?page_id=20), a new, rustic outdoor program for 8–18-year-olds on a 360-acre ranch, 90 minutes from Denver. Its solidly built “base camp” includes large, walled platform tents where chalutzim (pioneers/campers) and their madrichim (counselors) sleep, communal showers and solar-powered toilet facilities. Eco-friendly meals are served in the dining hall and outdoor pavilions. Day and overnight rafting, hiking, biking, climbing and horseback excursions take participants out to learn adventure and leadership skills, and gain senses of personal responsibility for the world’s treasures.
• Eden Village Camp/Jewish Farm School engages 3rd–11th-grade campers and apprentices in organic farming, dairying and animal husbandry, natural science, outdoor adventures and skills development,
on wooded land 50 miles north of New York City. Among other activities, campers can harvest and grind wheat to bake their own challah in a solar oven, bake pita in a clay oven, and make pesto in a bike-powered blender. EVC/JFS sets a zero-waste goal, serves kosher organic foods, and uses eggs, cheese, fruits and vegetables from its own farm.
• Surprise Lake Camp/Teva Learning Center (www.tevalearningcenter.org/seminar3.php), 60 miles northeast of New York City, for youth ages 7–15. SLC works to reduce waste, cut its environmental footprint, inspire environmental responsibility, and promote environmental education and stewardship. Every session, SLC connects its campers with Teva, America’s premier, year-round Jewish environmental education program. Teva programs, including its Topsy Turvy Bus (www.tevalearningcenter.org/topsyturvy.php), reach about 4,000 children and adults each year in community centers, synagogues, youth groups and camps.
• For adults, Hazon–The People of the Bike (www.hazon.org), offers fully supported adult Jewish environmental bike rides that can go across the U.S. or Israel, or through various U.S. regions. Over just a few years, Hazon has welcomed 1,900 pedalers and raised more than $1.5 million for U.S. and Israeli Jewish environmental activities.
“A hundred million miracles are happ’ning ev’ry day,” wrote lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. To see them, and connect with the thing that’s “bigger than Phil,” follow philosopher Walter Bagehot’s advice (paraphrased here): Cultivate an atmosphere of awe, and walk wonderingly, as if we’re amazed at being us. And go to summer camp.