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How Summer Camp Helps Create Communally Engaged Jews

How Summer Camp Helps Create Communally Engaged Jews

Group of teen campers outside in front of a tree

When the Israeli cabinet voted to pull back the government’s pledge to build an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel (the Western Wall), more than 10,000 campers and 2,000 staff and faculty were at 16 URJ camps across North America. As with other summer camps, the people who come to Reform Jewish camps experience something close to radio silence when it comes to news of the world. Mostly through policy, though sometimes because of poor cell reception in rural locations, exposure to relentless social media is severely contained at camp. So, when big news develops, URJ camps, which already have an educational mission and program, can choose to dive deep and focus on that one item – creating space for campers (and staff) to explore the background and underlying values, and, most important, to share perspectives openly in authentic communities of mutual Jewish concern.

Of course, the Reform Jewish community is deeply involved in the Kotel issue; one would reasonably expect it to be a topic of conversation in URJ camps. As the summer home to hundreds of alumni of immersive Israel programming, close to 300 Jewish Agency shlichim (emissaries), a few dozen campers from the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, and scores of rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators coming in and out of camp throughout the season, the Kotel indeed emerged organically as a hot topic in this environment. Pleased that this emergence occurred, year-long Israel engagement thinking and planning were ready to cultivate the organic into even more purposeful and fruitful engagement. This preparatory work includes system-wide visioning to align educational programs toward shared URJ Israel engagement outcomes, as well as professional development seminars that showcase and model programming aimed at these outcomes. When the Kotel controversy landed in our camps – a solid foundation for conversation and learning was already in place. 

Current issues present new complications as they unfold and we have learned that in-the-moment interventions have a two-fold purpose: to reinforce the foundation and to expand it so it addresses the complexity in educationally responsible ways. In reaction to the present religious pluralism controversies in Israel, we mobilized around these dual purposes at all 16 URJ camps, keeping this outcome in mind: Israel-engaged Reform Jews care about Israel and see themselves in partnership with it toward building a sustainable Jewish future. 

Before programmatic responses were suggested, we offered four framings to address both the foundational principle of a Reform Jewish education that values both the learner’s individual path to discovery and attitude-formation and the Reform community’s need to create an educated and supportive constituency concerning the actions set in motion by its leadership:

  1. Caring and Partnership: Israel’s founding vision based on Jewish and democratic values still invites the worldwide and diverse Jewish people’s involvement in the ongoing Israel project, and the tremendous growth of Reform and Progressive Judaism in Israel has expanded our partnership work in new and significant ways.
  1. Role Modeling: URJ camps conscientiously populate their summer communities with people who stand as a testament to and model Jewish involvement, and educational programming, in this case, around the Kotel, is more impactful when it includes staff and older campers sharing stories about their own personal intersections with the issues. 
  1. Action Through Consent: An articulated and desired outcome of Jewish summer camp is to cultivate lifelong engaged Jews. When we involve campers in deep learning and allow them to be active participants in developing individual and collective action regarding the Kotel, they are more likely to see themselves as people who can make a difference in this moment and on other causes in the future. 
  1. Room for Multiple Perspectives: Although the URJ leadership took a strategic and principled stand against the decisions of the Israeli cabinet, we can and must make room for open dialogue about the issues at hand. Camp programming can both explain and support the Reform Jewish position and make space for individuals within the community who may hold differing perspectives. After all, the desire to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel is symbolic of the commitment to pluralism from which progressive Judaism draws its strength.

The specific direction we took in reaction to the recent stir caused among the Jewish people worldwide illustrates how to approach other issues of current concern, and highlights the necessity and value of summer camp as a unique and vital space in which to prepare new generations of communally engaged Jews.

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.  His prior experience in re-thinking Israel engagement comes from work on innovative initiatives in the North American program of the Jewish Agency for Israel.  

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald
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