This past Thursday, my wife and I got up early, packed our car with trunks, suitcases, plastic drawers, and sleeping bags, and drove our two daughters to the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi. Actually, at 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 Jacobs. People get there up to three hours early and wait in 95 degree heat. The kids walk up and down the rural road reconnecting with old friends from summers past. Many of the parents who are Jacobs 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 Jacobs Camp 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, Mississippi, where we live, and other places like Hot Springs, Arkansas, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama, 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 the past 43 years, Jacobs Camp has helped make sure that Jewish kids in the Deep South become Jewish adults, not something we can take for granted down here.
This function is no accident. In fact, it was the central reason the camp was created in the 1960s. Jewish parents from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and western Tennessee decided that such a camp would help provide a desperately needed Jewish peer group for their kids, many of whom lived in small, isolated communities. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, to which most congregations in the region belonged, did not support the plan, fearing that the region’s Jewish population was too small to support a camp. But the small Jewish population was precisely the point for the camp! Once the congregations in the region raised the money and broke ground, the Union agreed to take ownership of Jacobs as part of its national network of camps.
No other camp has to attract anywhere near the same percentage of Jewish kids in residing in its region to fill its beds (nearly 30%!). The Henry S. Jacobs Camp, named for the former executive director of Temple Sinai in New Orleans who died while the camp was being developed, was truly a grassroots effort of the region’s Jewish families. Because of this, there is a pride of ownership and a strong sense of connection to it.
Our forebears built the 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, 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.
Do you have memories of going to summer camp growing up?
As a parent of teenagers, there are times when you make decisions for your kids and there are times when you empower them to make their own decisions. A recent conversation around the dinner table at our house included discussion of the upcoming Confirmation service in which my 10th grader Jacob will participate.
My youngest son, Eric, asked Jacob: “Why do you have Confirmation?”
Jacob’s immediate response, before explaining what Confirmation meant (which is probably what his younger brother was asking), was simply: “I’m doing it because mom and dad didn’t give me a choice not to do it.”
I didn’t respond to that statement – at least, not first.
First, we discussed what Confirmation meant, perhaps not quite as eloquently as the explanation from MyJewishLearning.com: “The custom most commonly associated with Shavuot is the ceremony of Confirmation. The festival of Shavuot, because of its association with giving of Torah, has been linked with the study Torah. The ceremony of Confirmation was introduced by Reform Judaism in the early part of 19th century in Europe and was brought to the United States about mid-century. In this ceremony, the now-maturing student “confirms” a commitment to Judaism and to Jewish life. While boys and girls are considered to be spiritual adults by age 13, they are better prepared at age 16 or 17 to make the kind of emotional and intellectual commitment to Judaism that Confirmation implies.”
Then, we “discussed” the other issue.
“I’m doing it because mom and dad didn’t give me a choice not to do it.”
That’s right – there was no choice.
When it was time to sign up for religious school, we completed the paperwork for Jacob. It was not even a consideration that he wouldn’t participate. My husband and I believe that it’s our job as parents to give our children opportunities for learning. It’s also a larger lesson in taking an active role in the community. I would like to think that Jacob would have come to the same decision. I mean, what’s so terrible about having dinner once a week with your friends, and then spending some time with the rabbi discussing current events and learning more about Judaism and other religions?
Tonight, May 10, Jacob will join his six other classmates as they lead the service, share in the Torah reading, and discuss what they have learned this year. I am proud of him, proud that he understands that this is just one more step in his Jewish learning and his participation as a member of his Jewish community.
We don’t take the commitment and participation in the Jewish community lightly. Our confirmation class has seven students – not because students that age opted out – that’s the total number of Jewish kids in our community that are Jacob’s age! Out of those seven students, two students live out of town – in fact, they live about two hours away. Although they have Skyped many weekly sessions, they (and their parents) have also driven 4 hours round trip in the middle of the week to participate whenever they could. This is truly a commitment to Judaism and the community.
As I listened to the confirmation students and the rabbi have one last practice of the Torah service on the bimah, I heard laughter, gentle teasing of each other, but also support of one another. They have created a wonderful community and they genuinely care about each other.
When I see the group in their white robes chant The Ten Commandments and discuss what they have learned this year, I know I will feel proud of Jacob and his classmates as they continue on their Jewish paths. I also feel confident that when he gets a little older, he’s not going to mind at all that we “made” him do this. In fact, I’m pretty sure tonight, he’ll be glad to be standing with the members of his community.
Mazel tov to all of you who have kids participating in Confirmation services this year!
Did you ever “make” your kids participate in Jewish communal life? Did your parents “make” you? How do you feel about it?
(Editor’s Note: the photos included in this post come from the archives of the ISJL’s museum department. From the top: Columbus, MS, Confirmation Class of 1937; Clarksdale, MS, Confirmation Class of 1963; Auburn, AL, Confirmation Class of 2008. Yasher koach to the Schipper family, and all of the students soon to be pictured in the Jackson, MS Confirmation Class of 2013, continuing the community tradition!)
When historians write about social or political transformation, they often make a distinction between “change from above” and “change from below.” Change from above comes directly from the leadership—Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal is a good example. Change from below is brought about by the efforts of regular people, whether directly from their actions or as a result of pressures brought to bear on those in power. The Civil Rights Movement is an especially compelling example of this. In researching the Jewish history of Louisville, Kentucky, I found a fascinating instance of “change from below” that literally came from above.
Keneseth Israel was created in 1926 from the merger of Louisville’s two oldest Orthodox congregations, both of which had been established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, a new generation of members had begun to chafe under the requirements of strict Orthodoxy. After World War II, the younger members of the congregation, especially its women, began to push for mixed-gender seating. In 1950, a group of female members, who normally sat in the synagogue balcony, held “sit-down strikes” in the downstairs men’s section during services. During one of these demonstrations, the police were called to restore order, and some members threatened a court injunction to stop the protests. Keneseth Israel’s Rabbi Benjamin Brilliant supported the traditionalists and refused to continue services while women were sitting in the men’s section.
Finally, the board sought to strike a compromise by allowing women to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary separated from the men by a mechitza, though this solution did not satisfy the protestors. Finally, after Rabbi Brilliant left Keneseth Israel in 1952, the congregation voted to institute mixed seating in the middle section of the sanctuary, with separate sections for men and women at the sides. Over the years, the congregation would continue to struggle with how to balance traditional Judaism with the demands of the modern world. Later, Keneseth Israel affiliated with the Conservative Movement and become fully egalitarian.
It’s quite remarkable that thirteen years before Betty Friedan published of The Feminine Mystique, which helped spark the second wave of American feminism, the women of Keneseth Israel decided to challenge the gender inequality of their congregation in such a direct way. Their effort is a perfect example of how most social change comes from pressure from below, even if it actually comes from the balcony!