The Magic of Jewish Summer Camp

Posted on Mar 19, 2012

I spoke last week at the Leaders Assembly of the Foundation for Jewish Camp on a panel, hosted by the Jim Joseph Foundation, with President Richard Joel of Yeshiva University and President David Ellenson of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. We were there to celebrate the enormous achievements of serious Jewish camping in North America in recent decades, to thank donors such as the Jim Joseph Foundation who have greatly assisted in that achievement, and to reflect upon the still-greater possibilities to be tapped in years to come. I share the gist of my presentation to the Foundation for Jewish Camp here.

First things first: I was proud to address the gathering as chancellor of JTS, the institution that founded Camp Ramah more than 60 years ago and which has worked closely with it ever since, and doubly proud to speak as the parent of two former campers and counselors. I know first-hand, as well as through my scholarly work on Judaism in North America, the tremendous role that intensively Jewish camps play as a vehicle of Jewish education, a building-block of Jewish identity, and a vital source of Jewish community. That role is why JTS is intent on working ever more closely with Ramah. We want to help grow the Ramah network through new camps, new sorts of camps (such as Ramah Outdoor Adventure in the Rockies), and increased numbers of campers. We hope to participate in deepening the links that join Ramah to Israel and to heighten Ramah’s impact on experiential education that takes place in day schools and congregational schools—and to increase Ramah’s impact on JTS. The challenge facing all of us in Jewish education, I think, is to take the phenomenally successful model of Jewish camping in places like Ramah and adapt it to the generation that tweets, blogs, multi-tasks, and routinely embraces changes with which people of my generation struggle to keep up.

The current enthusiasm for serious Jewish camping is well justified. There are not many things any of us could do for the future of Judaism and the Jewish community in North America that would be more effective than getting more Jewish kids to spend more time in serious Jewish camps, experimenting with different educational aims and methods at those camps, and increasing the presence there of Hebrew, Israel, and compelling, relevant teachings from the Jewish tradition—such as Jewish ethics pertaining to relationships and other issues that are at the forefront of kids’ and teens’ minds. Our people, our tradition, and our society will be the better for this effort.

Why is this so? There are two major theoretical sources for understanding why Jewish camps like Ramah matter so much right now.

The first source is the Torah. We Jews are here, I believe, to build communities guided by Torah, and to carry forward the tradition of thought and practice that has Torah at its core, so as to serve as God’s partner in a covenant designed to make the world better—more just, decent, and compassionate. To that end, we Jews were not constituted as a religious group alone but as a people: a nation; a global community; diverse and disparate local communities. We need the enhanced ability to get things done in the world that comes from community, and the added resolve to go against the flow. We know from the Torah, as well as from our own experience, that participation in the building and maintenance of communities can take individuals higher and deeper than almost any other activity in which they engage. Communities focused on what Martin Buber called a “Living Center,” capital L, capital C, have the proven power to elicit, as nothing else can, the gifts and talents with which we are blessed.

The Torah demands and makes possible a kind of wholeness. We yearn for that wholeness: heart and soul and mind wrapped up together, every member of the group needed for the task at hand, every experience and source of wisdom valued. And, as wise educators know, when you teach lessons that seek to take hold of a person, especially when these lessons go against the taken-for-granted assumptions of a larger culture, the teaching must be operative 24/7—“when you lie down and when you rise up”—and must take place in public space and not just private space—“sitting in your house and walking upon the way.”

That’s where camping in North America rises to meet the challenge of a social reality that for the most part does not place Jews inside Jewish gates or Jewish doorposts very much of the time. The Jewish part of life is usually off to the side, marginal to the main business of life as we live it—and so a Jewish educator wants to create a counter-reality, where sports take place in Jewish space, where drama and arts take place in Jewish time, and where Torah is studied and practiced in surroundings filled with Jews, Jewish commitments, Jewish images, and Jewish fun.

These imperatives are amply confirmed by current sociological and pedagogical theory. We know from social scientists such as Peter Berger about the “social construction of reality” and the need for “plausibility structures” strong enough to bear the weight of transmitting values. Educational theorists and developmental psychologists have explained over and over why giving kids a space of their own, safely away from parental supervision, can have the remarkable effect of making those kids committed to bringing new energy, direction, and ideas to the service of their parents’ ideals.

Jewish camps like Ramah regularly accomplish that. They make the parents of campers wish that their own Jewish lives were more like camp, their synagogue services more like those at camp, their friendships as intense as those one forms at camp and often keeps for life. At its best, a camp such as Ramah creates a world where Jewish kids can come to be at home in the world, including the natural world, at the same time as they grow comfortable inside their own bodies and skins. They are places where teens can feel themselves growing, and growing more confident; coming alive intellectually and emotionally and, yes, awakening sexually. They are places where they reach the bedrock of self, in the dining hall and the bunk, and so no longer need worry that they’ll be “found out” as being less than what they are and less than what they want to be. Add other elements such as Hebrew, Israel, the fact that studying and even davening are part of the culture rather than the counterculture; factor in the information that campers and junior staff learn less from books than from activities with good friends supervised by teacher-role-models just a few years older than they are; and you have a Jewish reality where community is not discussed or planned but danced, sung, played, loved.

I’d add one more piece to this mix, which is the particular genius of Ramah: camp is a place where education for the staff at every level is given pride of place, where they keep growing and learning Jewishly well into their twenties and beyond. Now, thanks to new programs like Ramah Service Corps, the staffers of Ramah are bringing the spirit of camp, and especially of the kind of learning that goes on there, to schools and communities around the continent, and by doing so they are interesting more young people in signing up for the Jewish magic of summer.

I’ve learned from my colleagues in JTS’s Experiential Learning Initiative, sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation, that school classrooms where you sit in rows and spend time studying texts until the bell rings can be sites of Jewish learning no less experiential than what goes on at camp. But it’s harder. Experiential learning requires engagement of multiple faculties, it demands reflection of the whole self, it thrives on passion. It takes long twilight hours, benefits from raucous dining halls, and makes good use of swimming and baseball.

Camp is not the only venue where valuable learning of this and other sorts takes place. Day school is the next best thing in terms of creating Jewish social realities, and has the advantage over camp that it is school, which for kids is the heart of social reality, 5 days a week, 10 months a year. Congregational schools have to work extra hard to create community and transmit meaning. Many good congregational schools accomplish this now, despite the obvious difficulties raised by afternoon fatigue, competition with soccer and music lessons, uneven quality of staff, and lack of total support from the parent body. Congregational as well as day schools will benefit, JTS believes, from a healthy dose of experiential learning that we hope to transmit from its home at Ramah. Jewish camps can’t do the job of making Jews all by themselves. Educators, community leaders, and donors in the world beyond camp need to show that they also care about living Jewishly, building communities, and learning Torah. But what a difference a good camp makes!

As the chancellor of JTS, as a scholar of contemporary Judaism, and most of all as a caring Jew, I thank the Jim Joseph Foundation and Foundation for Jewish Camp and everyone else who is helping us build camps, sustain camps, and bring Jewish kids and counselors to camps in ever-increasing numbers. I’m grateful in particular to everyone who has played a role in building and sustaining Ramah over the past six decades. The difference camps are making to the Jewish future is incalculable—and well-demonstrated by the difference they have made to the Jewish present.

We need to take advantage now of possibilities and resources that are available at this moment for camps, other educational venues, and training grounds for ideas, personnel, and innovation, such as JTS. We won’t want to look back a generation hence having missed what everyone recognizes as a tremendous opening. The investment we make in camps will repay itself many times over.