Jewish camp is everywhere, Terry Gross confirmed on NPR the other day. While interviewing filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, she noted that she’d recently discovered that the Coen Brothers had attended the same Jewish camp – Herzl Camp, in Wisconsin – as folk icon Bob Dylan, albeit not at the same time. An excerpt from the interview follows:
GROSS: So I have to know, is this the kind of summer camp where you sing songs with lyrics about how great the camp is, and then there’s team songs with how great the team is?
GROSS: Aw, shucks. I wanted to think of [Dylan] as singing those songs.
COEN: No, you sang – it was Zionist summer camp, and you sang Zionist songs in Hebrew.
Those of us who attended similar camps recall similar activities. Personally, I can’t even read these lines of the interview without involuntarily breaking into ‘Mi anachnu? Anachnu tziirim! Sharim doo wa diddy diddy dum diddy doo!’ Sad, but true.
That overnight camp comes with a form of indoctrination shouldn’t surprise anyone – but in my experience, both as a Jewish camp camper and a Jewish camp parent, I’ve found that it’s less “indoctrination” and more “immersion.”
Camp is a time for children to be separated from their parents – let’s call them the Indoctrinators-in-Chief – and to be submerged in a world unto themselves for the first time. This is an inherently heady experience. For many children, it’s their first substantial time away from ‘home’ in a place that is not a family member’s home. Campers find themselves in a new place, where things are done differently. And without their parents at hand, they look to other sources – counselors, fellow campers, and the camp itself – as guideposts of authority, and as compasses to provide direction.
The world of each camp is carefully curated in order to convey a particular message and meaning. Some sports camps are known as fostering a spirit of camaraderie and teamwork; others are notorious for being intensely competitive. Performing arts camps fairly vibrate with the sense that there is nowhere more worthwhile than the stage. More general arts camps convey the worthiness of aggressive individuality with their free-to-be-you-and-me, anything-goes wild sense of creativity.
And yes, Jewish camps focus on being Jewish. And whether that is being Jewish as manifested by davening (praying) three times a day, by performing “Ata Ish Tov, Charlie Brown” in Hebrew or by learning about Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, a Jewish camp has as its baseline assumption the validity and continuation of the Jewish people.
So yes, Jewish camps are Zionistic and pro-Israel. Jewish camp teaches different ways of seeing the world – but those ways are through Jewish lenses and perspectives. I attended camps which made me reevaluate who I was in relation to the Jewish people. Questions, whether about kashrut or Israel, were not only tolerated, but welcomed.
Yes, I learned from camp that I was fundamentally, unalterably pro-Israel. But I also learned that ‘Israel’ means ‘to struggle.’ Immersion in a Jewish environment fundamentally differs from indoctrination: Jewish camp, whether through teaching text or history, teaches kids that being Jewish is a struggle, and one to which they should devote their entire lives.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Jerusalem where I participated in two important gatherings: the Planning Summit for a new proposed Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry and the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. For those of us who are dedicated to bolstering Jewish identity and creating a more vibrant Jewish future, these proceedings demonstrated a paradigm shift – a new two-way street between Israel and the Diaspora – with exciting possibilities. Despite the diversity of perspectives and approaches, we worked together in an open and collaborative way. And I was personally very encouraged to hear the almost universal consensus that the transformative power of Jewish camp mandates further investment and expansion.
The Government of Israel initiative represents a huge opportunity for world Jewry to work together to confront assimilation and to enhance Jewish identity. Building on the success of Birthright, the new initiative will be comprised of a significant investment by the Israeli government which will be matched with philanthropic contributions in order to reposition the place of Israel in the hearts and minds of young Jews throughout the world. We hope to leverage opportunities by taking advantage of the “adjacent possibilities” that emerge from the successes we are already having. This would include two areas which would impact our camp community in particular: enhanced Israel education at camp and increased immersive teen travel experiences in Israel.
During the GA, JFNA board chair Michael Siegal and CEO Jerry Silverman shared their priorities in response to the issues raised in the Pew study. With clarity and purpose, they called for the significant expansion of Jewish summer camps. When asked who had attended or had sent their kids Jewish camp, the vast majority of the GA delegates raised their hands affirmatively – a clear visible demonstration of how camp creates adults committed to our Jewish community. Federation leadership from across North America expressed to me their commitment to expanding that which we know is working.
Read the rest of this feature on the Times of Israel.
I remember being a little kid, maybe four or five, when my dad sat me down with a workbook and began teaching me to read Hebrew. He didn’t know what any of the words meant, but he could read it and teach me to read it as well. I also remember it seeming really important to him. In fact, being so young, I think that Hebrew workbook is my earliest memory of homework. I don’t remember enjoying it one bit.
When I was in fourth grade, a Jewish day school opened in my neighborhood in Memphis. My parents transferred me there but my Hebrew comprehension was non-existent. I only knew how to read, but not how to understand. I was behind most of the other students…I struggled. And, again, I didn’t enjoy learning the language.
Then came the summer before sixth grade. My parents sent me to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, a sleepaway camp in the northwoods of Wisconsin. A camp where all the public announcements were in Hebrew. Where all the singing in the dining hall was in Hebrew. Where all the prayer services (and there were lots of these at Camp Ramah) were in Hebrew. And, most importantly, where all the musical theater performances were in Hebrew, too. I had already been bitten by the acting bug in my local community children’s theater in Memphis. So in my second summer in camp, when I had the opportunity to audition for a part in the musical (Free to Be You And Me) I was so excited! But Hebrew? I could read it, I could memorize my lines, but I still wouldn’t know what they meant. I was doomed. Until I wasn’t. Until I started learning my lines for more than just how to pronounce them, but for the meaning behind them. I got a solo song that summer. Singing, in Hebrew, alone in front of 600 people. The song? “It’s All Right To Cry.” And you know what? I did. The entire time I sang it. Cried. But I made it through.
And the next few summers I got to play Fagan in Oliver! and Kenickie in Grease and Berger in Hair. All in Hebrew. That’s when I really started learning the language. I was understanding Hebrew! Then I went to Israel on Ramah Seminar in the summer of 1998. And I was able to ask Israelis how much things cost, what time it was, and, most importantly, where the sherutim (restrooms) were. It was an amazing summer.
Fast forward to the summer of 2005. My family went on a trip to Israel – and it was my father’s first time there. Seeing my father see Israel for the first time was pretty special. Seeing my father watch as I navigated us around Israel, showing off my Hebrew? Priceless. I owe my Hebrew skills (which are still improving) to my father for teaching me how to read and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for teaching me how to understand. I couldn’t be more grateful to both. Todah Rabbah!
After months of anticipation, I arrived in a slightly damp and chilly Israel for the annual training of summer shlichim (Israeli counselors) and the annual training of Union for Reform Judaism Israel Educators. I arrived a few days early with a busy schedule in mind: Shabbat with a former Israeli co-counselor who is like family, observance of Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day).
While I was in Israel, I saw a number of things. I ate all of my favorite foods. I watched a ridiculous and humorous McDonald’s commercial while watching TV with my “family.”I swayed with thousands of people in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Rabin (Rabin Square) to commemorate the somber memorials of Yom HaZikaron. I sang, danced, and shouted with glee with thousands more in downtown Jerusalem on the very next night, Yom HaAtzmaut.
The transition from Zikaron to Atzmaut, tempered by the horrifying news of a pigua (terrorist attack) in Boston, really struck me. How can you be so sad, mourning thousands of Israel’s fallen in the very place where Rabin was assassinated, and then, in just one day, transition into singing and dancing outside of City Hall in Jerusalem?
The answer came at the Israeli staff seminar. The delegations from the different camps, chosen from a large applicant pool, are excited to teach about Israel. They have stories, histories, interests, and life experiences that are uniquely their own. Uniquely Israeli, but also uniquely individual. Each person is different. And just like they each bring their own experience, they also represent the full life and times of Israel. They remembered their own family members and friends on Yom HaZikaron, celebrated their country on Yom HaAtzmaut, and talked about how to share their stories with their campers over the course of the summer. Memory and joy for the whole country and people of Israel is important. So too is the ability of each shaliach/shlicha to share those memories and those joys with their campers this summer.
The answer is that the transition from Zikaron to Atzmaut became MY transition, too. Because I’ve lived in Israel, loved in Israel, eaten in Israel, commemorated in Israel, and learned in, from and about Israel, those stories and transitions are mine, too.
Israel is for all of us at Jewish summer camp. My hope is that those memories and joys will become the memories and joys of the campers who receive them this summer.
Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Unlike many parents who send their children to overnight camp, I have seen many camps. As the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp I spend my summers on the road visiting various types of Jewish camps across North America. This summer my wife and I are sending our eldest child on his first overnight camping experience. Despite all of my experience, I have anxiety about sending our child away. Just like every other parent, there is no doubt that part of this anxiety is the irrational fear of sending our baby away. But, there is another part of this anxiety which is realizing that while he will always be our baby, when he returns he will have grown up so much. At camp he will experience being included in a community of his own. There he will make deep friendships of his own design. There he will make his own connections to his heritage. There he will have a new sense of independence. And all of this will happen because we will not be there. We have chosen a camp that has role models who manifest our family’s highest values, but in the end he will need to buy into these values for himself. The trick seems to be in the fact that these role models are not telling him who to be, but rather inspiring him to make choices based on their profound example.
It is interesting to reflect on the fact that many of the camps that we all send our children to are not so new. Actually, many of them got their start in the late 1940’s or 1950’s. This was a profound period of growth for institutions in the North American Jewish community as it was in the newly founded State of Israel. This is not coincidental. After the cataclysm of the Holocaust we needed a place to call our own. Both Israel and camps speak to a renaissance of Jewish life. In so much of history we found ourselves defined by those around us. In a land or a camp of our own we found, and continue to find, a unique opportunity to define ourselves on our own terms.
This week we will celebrate the 65th anniversary of Israel’s Independence. Israel is an amazing place and I am excited to introduce my children to our homeland. It represents the hope of two thousand years. But for now I am excited for our 9-year-old getting his first taste of independence at camp.