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What Can Camp Teach Us About Judaism at Home?

What Can Camp Teach Us About Judaism at Home?

Canoe full of excited campers on a lake

Every summer I return to my youth, spending two weeks at URJ Camp Harlam, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Kunkletown, PA. This year, thousands of Jewish kids will spend the summer living Judaism by wearing white on Shabbat, praying before meals, swimming with other Jews, playing sports with other Jews, singing in Hebrew after meals, and staying up late with the other Jews in their cabins.

These expressions of Judaism can only happen in a home away from home, a place where you’re encouraged to be yourself – your Jewish self. These things can only happen when Judaism is in the air, the water, and the trees. These things can only happen at camp.

Camp is my favorite place on earth. At camp I feel, smart, handsome, and sometimes even like a superhero. I feel like anything is possible at camp. In fact, I became a rabbi because of my Jewish summer camp experiences as a teenager.

At camp, Judaism is a joy. It’s woven into camp stories, camp friends, and every camp experience. Campers live Judaism in a way that makes it positive – and makes it stick. How does camp imbue our children with a positive Jewish identity? What does camp do to create the ultimate Jewish experience? And how can we, as adults, bring “camp Judaism” into our homes and congregations so that we, too, can live Judaism as our children do at camp?

At camp…

1. Judaism isn’t limited to services and Sunday school.

At camp, there’s no compartmentalization of Judaism. You don’t have to go to a certain place at a certain time to “do” Judaism; it’s a given in every place, at every time. Blessing are said before and after every meal, when you wake up and before you go to bed. Judaism is the theme for art, music, and drama.

At camp, Judaism is present in every hour of every day. It’s living, breathing, sleeping, eating, playing, showering, and even breaking the rules Jewishly. Camp is a living Jewish laboratory where we try new things, establish new curriculum, and learn new songs. It teaches us new ways to bring Judaism alive, helping us make Judaism relevant; it keeps our practice modern and fresh.

At camp, Jewish values, beliefs, and practice aren’t reserved for holidays or lifecycle events; instead, they’re tried, practiced, and even played with. Camp provides an opportunity for personal Jewish expression that isn’t tied to external schedules or expectations, allowing for an organic and joyful growth of Jewish identity for each individual.

We can and should encourage Jews everywhere to embrace Judaism wherever and whenever they find it.

2. Shabbat is different from every other day.

Outside camp, most of us still work on Shabbat. We check emails, we read the news, we worry.

During Shabbat at camp, though, the schedule changes. We embrace personal time. We shower, we wear nice clothes, and we eat nicer food. We sing and dance; stay up late on Friday and sleep in on Saturday morning. There’s no mail or cleaning on Saturday, so we have the opportunity to try special activities. We breathe, we rest, we don’t rush, and we end Shabbat with Havdalah, the ceremony of separation as we enter the new week ahead of us.

At camp, we make time for Shabbat; everything else has to wait. We can do this at home, too, telling the world that, on Shabbat, we take priority for a little while; our families, our marriages, and our children are the most important things – and everything else can wait.

3. At camp, prayer is a communal activity, not something you just show up for.

At camp, children are a part of the creation of prayer – shaping the experience and owning it. In Judaism, it takes a community to truly pray; at camp, our young people contribute not only their voices, but their yearnings and our desires. Campers tell us what they need from prayer, and we work together to make it happen. Imagine what we could do with this model in our congregations!

That’s only the beginning. There’s so much we can learn from camp, but we have to start somewhere. So let’s allow and encourage Judaism to happen everywhere and at all times. Let’s find time for Shabbat. Let’s us truly learn to pray together.

It can be magic, just like camp.

At the end of each summer, I’m overwhelmed with excitement about the possibilities that returning campers can bring to our congregation. We will learn and grow with them as they return home and share their excitement and energy for Judaism with us all.

When it comes to fostering a positive Jewish identity, there isn’t a single better thing we can do for our children to than to send them to Jewish summer camp. Camp works.

Scholarships are available for Jewish summer campers. Contact your rabbi or visit www.urjyouth.org to make your child’s Jewish camp experience a reality.

Rabbi Scott M. Nagel is the Sophia and Nathan Gumenick Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond, VA.

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