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Seven Reasons (Of Many!) to Send Your Child to Jewish Summer Camp

Seven Reasons (Of Many!) to Send Your Child to Jewish Summer Camp

This is the season when families start thinking about summer plans – more specifically, summer camp for their kids.

For me, it happened 45 years ago last month. On a Sunday morning in January, my father drove my brother and me up to Great Barrington, MA, to visit URJ Eisner Camp to see if we wanted to go there. It had snowed the night before. We could not find the camp. We were about to ditch the entire mission and head back to Long Island.

Finally, my father stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. A gas station attendant pointed down the road.  We followed his (general) directions, and found the road. We had passed that road several times. It turned out that the freshly-fallen snow had obscured the sign that pointed towards the camp.

The rest is history – my history and my family’s history. I attended Eisner, fell in love with Judaism, became active in NFTY, the Reform youth movement, and went on to become a rabbi. My sons would ultimately go there and would work there. Had it not been for that anonymous gas station attendant, my Jewish life would have been radically different, and I know that I speak for countless thousands of American Jews.

Jewish summer camps are not summer camps where the preponderance of campers is Jewish. (That would be true of most summer camps). Jewish summer camps are camps where the entire meaning of camp is to create and to model Judaism. What can Jewish summer camps do that almost nothing else in the American Jewish world can achieve?

  1. Jewish summer camps create Jewish community. That’s no small thing; in fact, it is the biggest thing. We talk a lot about sacred community in the Jewish world today. In many places, it happens. But it is rare. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that the contemporary synagogue suffers from a severe cold. The Jewish summer camp becomes the kehillah (community) that we all dream of experiencing.
     
  2. Jewish summer camps provide a 24/7 Jewish experience. Sadly, this happens nowhere else in non-Orthodox American Judaism. That’s because American Jews – all modern Jews, really – have bifurcated their “Jewish” selves and their “secular” selves. You would have to travel to Israel (which is, of course, indispensable) to get that kind of 24/7 Jewish experience elsewhere.
     
  3. Worship comes alive. At camp, kids are engaged in camp services. Usually, they are writing them themselves. Those services have their own aesthetic which has greatly influenced American synagogue life.
     
  4. Jewish camps allow kids to see rabbis, educators and cantors as real human beings. My life was profoundly influenced by the young rabbis, etc. who spent time at camp. Those relationships create other Jewish professionals.
     
  5. Jewish summer camps create leadership. Kids learn how to dream, plan, and create. Many American leaders – not only Jewish leaders – attended summer camps. This list details how various famous people spent their summer vacations!
     
  6. Jewish summer camps create lasting friendships. Jewish summer camp friendships create webs of relationships that in some cases have helped transform the Jewish world.
     
  7. American Jewish kids meet Jews from other countries. Jewish summer camps routinely recruit foreign staff members. Many are Jewish. Many more, of course, are Israeli. I am still close to my fellow Israeli staff members from Eisner. That experience shapes Jewish peoplehood.

That is simply a short list. Jewish summer camps not only transformed American Judaism; they actually helped create American Judaism. And they have created American Jews – in some ways, far more effectively than any other institution in American Jewish life. 

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, NJ, and the author of many books on Jewish spirituality, published by Jewish Lights. He blogs at Martini Judaism.

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
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