Summer Camp is a Jewish Tradition
My wife and I got up early, packed our car with trunks, suitcases, plastic drawers, and sleeping bags, and drove our two daughters to Jewish summer camp. Actually, first we stopped outside the gates to wait in line with a hundred or so other cars. The “gate opening” tradition is a long one at our camp. People get there up to three hours early and wait in 95 degree heat to drop their kids off. The kids walk up and down the rural road reconnecting with old friends from summers past; many of the parents who are alumni do the same.
Finally, at 11 am, the gates are opened, we receive our cabin assignments, and we help move our kids into their bunks and cubbies. As soon as we help them unpack, we are encouraged to hit the road, so the “magic” of camp can start.
I suspect this experience is quite common for parents who send their kids to summer camp, but there is something about the camp my kids attend, URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, located in Utica, MS, that makes it rather unique. For many of the kids “walking the line” on this hot summer morning, the friends they reunite with make up most, if not all, of their Jewish social life. My two daughters are the only Jewish kids in their classes at school, and most all of their friends at home are non-Jewish. In places like Jackson, MS, where we live, and other places across the Deep South – like Hot Springs, AR, Shreveport, LA, and Mobile, LA, where many Jacobs campers come from – this is not uncommon. Each summer, my daughters look forward to experiencing the immersive Jewish social environment of the camp. For 60-plus years, the Reform Jewish Movement’s summer camps have helped make sure that Jewish kids become Jewish adults by helping to instill in them a love of Judaism and Jewish community – something we don’t take for granted down here.
This function is no accident. Jewish summer camp provides an immersive Jewish community and peer group for campers. In this setting, campers experience joy, develop self-confidence, build skills, and forge connections, all reinforced by Jewish values and peers. Learn more about the top reasons families send their kids to Jewish camp.
Our forbearers built Jacobs Camp with the dream of providing a Jewish environment for the next generations of Jews in the Deep South. My children are now part of that generation. While much has changed in the Jewish South over the past 43 years since our camp opened, the challenge of raising Jewish children in an overwhelmingly Christian environment with little in the way of a Jewish peer group remains. And so each summer we continue the ritual of labeling shirts and shorts, pulling trunks out of the attic, packing the car, and walking up and down the line, eagerly waiting for the gates to open.
Dr. Stuart Rockoff is a historian for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life.