“And go round and round and round in the circle game…”
The words of Joni Mitchell’s classic folk song have been sung many a summer. Now, truly, I feel as if my life has come round and round and round, full circle in the circle game… thanks to Jewish summer camp.
In the early 1970s, I was a young girl from a classical Reform congregation in New Orleans. Back then, for me the most engaging thing about going to Temple was wearing my new patent leather shoes. All I knew about attending Shabbat services was to stand and recite the Shema, and beyond that to sit still and be quiet until it was over. The service was an endless stream of responsive reading in “high” English, and frankly even on Family Night, the sermon was highly intellectualized. As a kid, it wasn’t for me.
I was very lucky, though—because my family did celebrate joyously at home on Shabbat and holidays, and my sisters and I got sent to Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi.
1971, my very first summer at camp, was absolutely magical! Services were filled with the music of Debbie Friedman, there was joy in prayer, Hebrew was an engaging and new thing for me to learn, and not only did the campers participate in worship services, but also the sermons were actually geared to teach young people.
That summer changed my life forever. I had found my personal Jewish self and was lit on fire. The experience was so powerful that out of my cabin of eight girls would ultimately emerge two rabbis, two synagogue presidents, a URJ National Board member, and a Captain in the United States Army! Leadership and a love of Jewish life were things we all developed, that summer and each summer we returned.
Macy B. Hart, who served as Jacobs Camp’s Director for 30 years, was and remains a force of nature. One of his most distinguished qualities is that he is a seed planter and a seed reaper, each summer and over the course of many years. Long after I was a camper, we stayed in touch, and when the time was right for the ISJL to offer me an opportunity to become a Jewish professional, he called and I said YES!
I still am delighted to be the Director of Programming for the ISJL. Last year I was doubly blessed to marry a wonderful man, move back home to New Orleans, AND become the Director of Education for my home congregation, Temple Sinai. A lot has changed since I was a kid in the 70s, and I have a chance now to be a part of the continued growth of my community, as a congregant and staff member.
This summer I had the privilege of serving on staff as a guest educator for a week at Jacobs. I arrived on Friday afternoon and during Shabbat dinner I looked around in awe as I realized that there were 20 of “my” kids from Temple Sinai in New Orleans, with whom I was sharing this beautiful Shabbat!
And now I get to be a part of their circle game, just as they have become a part of mine. Generation to generation, on a small campground, learning to be the next leaders and shapers of Jewish life. That’s the magic of Jewish summer camp.
Like many Jewish children, my kids live for camp! They count down every day of the year until it’s time for camp to begin. It’s the highlight of their year. They come by this camp obsession naturally, because I was the same exact way. Camp was and is still a profound experience in my Jewish life. For many of us, the moment we arrived at camp we were forever changed.
My husband and I share four kids, and with a price tag of about $4,000 per child, that means it will cost us roughly $16,000 to send our kids to summer camp. Yes, you read that right: sixteen thousand dollars.
I know the three-and-a-half-weeks my kids spend at camp are priceless. I also know that with $16,000, I could pay a full year’s tuition at a state college.
For almost 20 years, I have worked in the field of Jewish education. I am not destitute, but I do not have $16,000-a-summer kind of money. Camp isn’t the only expensive Jewish experience for our children – there’s religious school tuition, youth group events, retreats, and let’s not even talk about Israel trips.
Especially in the South, and small communities anywhere – we can’t afford to make these opportunities anything other than amazing and accessible for our Jewish children and families. The question is – are we? Specifically, do Jewish organizations provide Jewish financial assistance in a way that honors and displays the values of Judaism?
Judaism teaches us time and time again the importance of tzedakah and how it is our obligation, not choice, to help others. (That’s why it’s great to see lots of new camp scholarship opportunities, like BunkConnect—though it’s for first-time campers only.) We need to give assistance, and just importantly, we must give it the right way.
We don’t make this process very easy. As an educator, I have helped countless families find aid because they had no idea where to look. If you don’t know the system, you can get overwhelmed fast. Then, once you find an opportunity, you start on the paperwork. Oh, the paperwork! I have had to provide less financial paperwork to buy a car than to receive a $500 camp scholarship. This paperwork is to be filled out each and every year, despite the fact that most people’s financial situations do not change drastically from one year to the next.
Because of my public role in the Jewish community, I am very open about the fact that I get scholarship money to send my kids to camp. If people know that I do, perhaps they will feel more comfortable asking me about it and doing the same. I actually try to model that asking for Jewish dollars to send Jewish kids to Jewish camps is a good thing.
However, going public with that information is my personal choice. Many people who need assistance do not want everyone to know their circumstances. Yet last year, my synagogue listed all of the children by name that received financial assistance for camp in our monthly congregational bulletin. When I called to ask why they felt the need to do this, I was told that it “could encourage others to ask for money.” I thought just the opposite. If people knew that they would publicly be categorized as needing help, many would be less likely than ever to ask for it. Nowhere did it say on the forms that if your family received aid, your child’s name would be publicly listed. My complaints resulted in yet a new question on the application; now you check a box if you DON’T want your child’s name listed. I would wager that 100% of families check the NO box. Yet the question remains.
I know that funding agencies do need to know some information to determine who needs aid and who doesn’t, but this could be a far less invasive process. This year I saw a new question on the paperwork. I was asked to calculate my family’s food expenses for the year. I was stunned. Why would anyone need to know this? This question brings up so much that is wrong in our society and I was saddened that the Jewish community was so insensitive and uninformed. It is a fact that healthy, fresh food such as produce and proteins cost more than processed and packaged food.
Why would the scholarship committee want to know what I spend on food? Will I be penalized for feeding my family healthy, more expensive food? What if I spent a lot of money on food because I fed others, as an act of tzedakah—or what if I invited people to my home when they needed somewhere to celebrate the Jewish holidays? What if someone in my family had a food allergy that necessitated us to follow a specific and more expensive diet? Why am I second-guessing what I feed my family as I am asking for help sending my Jewish children to Jewish summer camp? I remain stunned.
This has been on my mind for some time. I have spoken with some of the heads of these funding agencies as well as those who serve on the committees. These are people who are committed to helping others and who are engaged in doing good work for the Jewish community. I am certain of this and yet we have a lot to fix in this process. I am charging all of us to do better and to be guided by the principles of Judaism that somehow always lead us in the right direction.
It starts with each of us. My husband and I talk about how we will spend our money when our kids are grown and when we have a little more to give, and our top choice is always to give back to the places that helped us send our kids to camp. We want to support those important scholarships— and we want the funding to require little to no paperwork, bring absolutely no stigma, and instead just make access to life-changing camp experiences more affordable for all families.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.