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.
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The holiday of Shavuot demonstrates a method of gift giving that we may want to deploy when thinking about advancing social justice.
Think about it. What might have happened if instead of the whole counting of the Omer (those 49 days between Passover and Shavuot), and had instead received the Torah on the last night of Passover — perhaps as a gift for the hard work of putting together a Seder and drinking 4 glasses of wine?! That would have been more efficient, right?
There are many commentaries on the purpose of separating the holidays by 49 days. But all of them make it apparent that both the giver and receivers of the Torah needed to be prepared for the giving and accepting of this gift. After all, it seems as though the 49 day delay in the giving of the Torah was not a result of a lack of preparedness on the part of the giver. Rather, it was the receivers who had more preparing to do. When it comes to the giving of Tzedakah, it is not merely the content of the gift that matters, it is the time, place, approach and the people who we intend to help that define whether the opportunity for Tzedakah is ripe. Receiving the Torah prematurely may have resulted in an outcome different than the one we know—the emergence of an independent Jewish people.
Giving Tzedakah, effectively, requires mindfulness—awareness about the material objects that are being exchanged but also about the feelings felt by each person involved. This mindfulness made it possible for the Jews to accept the Torah and make it a defining part of Jewish life moving forward. The receiving of the Torah itself wasn’t an isolated incident. It came with 49 days of preparation, where the desire for the Torah led to extraordinary anticipation. Only when the Israelites themselves demonstrated their desire to receive the Torah was the Torah given to them.
When we think of the many gifts that the Israelites received before the giving of the Torah, they seem to be given by an omniscient and omnipresent God who rescued them from the Egyptians, gave them Manna, split the Red Sea, and so on. However, on Shavuot, we don’t see a God who knows what is best for the Israelites. Instead, we see another face of God – God as partner; God humbly asking the Israelites whether they will accept the Torah. The Torah may have been received differently if it were given by a high and mighty God who had little familiarity with the Israelites. Instead, Moses descended upon the mountain and then God is said to have descended onto the mountain. While it is true that God and the Israelites are not standing on equal footing, we certainly see an attempt to create a more balanced relationship, where God acknowledges the need for a receiver of the Torah, trusts that the Israelites will provide the answer that suits them best and gives them the opportunity to choose their own destiny.
Don’t people living in poverty deserve similar treatment?