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How Camp Helps Jewish Youth Believe in Themselves

How Camp Helps Jewish Youth Believe in Themselves

kids in white shirts viewed from the back

Author Helen Fine’s 1961 At Camp Kee Tov takes (mostly) young readers to an eponymous summer camp much like any of the Reform community’s summer camps, except that its name changes annually, thanks to a contest open to all its campers. Twins Marsha and Michael Ross, camp first-timers, submit the winning name, Kee Tov, at the beginning of the summer. They chose the name from the first chapter of Genesis, in which, as God completes various stages of the world’s creation, we read several times, “va-yar Elohim kee tov” (“and God saw that it was it good”).

The twins’ victory is heralded by an impromptu cheer from the entire camp. Having spent time as both a camper and a faculty member at Jewish summer camps, I’ve seen those real, heartfelt, and enthusiastic reactions at least a hundred times. And, as a fan of At Camp Kee Tov, I never read the creation story without thinking about the book.  

Both Marsha and Michael make new friends in their respective cabins as they encounter bunkmates with personalities as diverse as their own. Each chapter deals with a problem-solving situation in one of the cabins, and each child in each cabin takes a turn as the focus of the story. Even Marsha and Michael, though usually among the wiser prevailing heads in each bunk, each get their own challenge story.

The conflicts become just heated enough to hold our interest, and each protagonist resolves his or her problem with the help of friends, bunkmates, and camp staff, including Bill, Michael’s counselor, a rabbinical student; Miriam, Marsha’s counselor, a Jewish education student; and Aaron, the camp director. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Miriam is more than a decade too early to be a candidate for ordination. In real life, 1972 saw Sally Priesand ordained as Reform Judaism’s first female rabbi.) Last, but far from least, Gramps – although readers aren’t told who Gramps is or how he comes to be at camp – always shows up (with a smile, a listening ear, a helpful Talmudic tale, and a roll of Life Savers®) just when the kids need him most.

Fine tells the book’s stories with such a wonderful mix of humor and solemnity that kids enjoy re-reading At Camp Kee Tov even once [we!] reach adulthood. Following each chapter, a comprehensive question set for study and discussion allows readers and instructors to explore the characters’ choices, feelings, and actions.  

At Camp Kee Tov inspired me to go to summer camp. Real-life problem-solving wasn’t quite as simple as in the book, but I kept going back to camp – in real life and in the book. Each time I read the book, I put myself in the shoes of a different camper.

As I reached adulthood, I wondered if it was high time to re-read the book from the point of view of either Miriam or Bill, even though I see myself most like Gramps. But life doesn’t stop handing us challenges when we become Miriam or Bill. In fact, one reason Miriam, Bill, and Gramps are so helpful to the kids is that they can see where each protagonist is coming from emotionally – because they’ve been there. Miriam, Bill, and Gramps know that each camper is basically good, even with their trials and errors. Because the adults believe in the kids so positively, the kids begin to believe in themselves, actualizing the adults’ belief.

We don’t have to be at camp to experience conflict. We don’t have to be in the middle of summer to give ourselves a break for our imperfections, even as we learn to work and play with others. We always can reach for the proverbial roll of Life Savers® with one hand even as we embrace lessons old and new from our texts and our tradition. Now then, has anybody seen my copy of you-know-what?

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Cantor Jacqueline L. Marx was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music in 1997. She tutors b’nai mitzvah students and teaches Hebrew enrichment at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC, where she lives with her family in an enchanted forest. During the High Holidays, she serves as the cantor at B’nai Sholom Congregation in Bristol, TN.

Cantor Jacqueline L. Marx
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