I have just returned from spending a week on the faculty of Camp Kalsman, the regional Union for Reform Judaism camp, culminating with the camp’s fifth anniversary celebration. The opportunity to spend a week at camp has been one of the highlights of my year throughout my rabbinate.
Jewish camping is arguably the greatest success story of American Jewish education. Many rabbis and other Jewish professionals attribute a significant influence of their choice of career to experiences at Jewish summer camps. Many of the lay leaders in my own congregation fondly remember their summers at Jewish camps.
Jewish summer camps first developed in the early 20th century to bring Jewish children from the city to the country and help to introduce these children — most of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants — to American culture. Toward the middle of the 20th century, camps with explicit Jewish educational or cultural programming began to develop. The second half of the 20th century saw the development of Jewish summer camps by the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements to further their educational goals and help assure the development of future Jewish leaders. These camps remain particularly strong at the beginning of the 21st century.
Although I never attended Jewish overnight camp growing up, I have strong memories of retreat weekends and family camp weekends at Camp Swig in Northern California. I was a staff member at Swig, Hilltop camp in Malibu, Calif. and Jacobs Camp in Utica, Miss. Since becoming a rabbi I have served on the faculty of Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute in Wisconsin, Swig and Newman in Northern California, and most recently Camp Kalsman.
While each camp has its unique atmosphere and programming emphasis, all share a strong commitment to fostering Jewish identity and education. Why does Jewish camping have such a powerful influence on our youth?
• Virtually every camp is located in a beautiful natural setting, far from the city. For many Jewish youth, camp is the only opportunity to experience the wonders of the natural world and recognize the benefit of spending time in nature.
• Camp is an opportunity to live a Jewish life 24/7. The best camps assure that Jewish values, traditions and Hebrew are a natural part of day-to-day life, teaching our youth that Judaism can be an integral part of their lives each and every day.
• Especially for youth from small Jewish communities, where they are often the only Jew in their class, to attend camp allows them to experience life as part of a Jewish community. My children, who are now young adults, made life-long friends through camp.
• Counselors, who are most often college students, become powerful role models to campers, showing them that it is cool to be Jewish.
• Campers and counselors have the opportunity to interact with rabbis and other Jewish professionals in ways that they rarely do at their home congregations. The rabbis are not just leading services, but working with campers to design a service or telling a story at cabin time or just shooting hoops and hanging out.
• Jewish camp is an opportunity for staff members to grow Jewishly and help others grow Jewishly and — in some cases — find a lifelong partner.
• Jewish camp provides opportunities to experiment in areas of Jewish life, both individually and communally, that are often lacking outside of camp. Much contemporary Jewish music, for example, was directly or indirectly developed at Jewish camps.
• Jewish camps often expose our youth to Israelis who serve as staff, giving them a perspective on Israel that they do not get elsewhere. And the camps often give Israelis their first exposure to non-Orthodox Judaism, helping them understand that being a religiously committed Jews does not necessarily mean being an Orthodox Jew.
By sending our children to camp, we are saying to them: Being Jewish is an important part of who you are and we want you to have the opportunity to develop this part of your identity in a loving, supportive Jewish atmosphere. One of the greatest gifts that we can offer our children is the chance to attend Jewish summer camp where they learn about Judaism, Israel and about themselves.