The following post is the second in our summer series hearing from the camps that were launched as a result of FJC’s Specialty Camps Incubator.
In an often-told story, Rabbi Hillel was asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot. His response was, “What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow person.” This is the foundation of the most basic rule of Jewish ethics: We should do no harm to other people.
Most of us don’t think of skipping the gym or choosing fries over salad as ethical decisions. These are personal decisions, the rationale goes, because they don’t harm others. But before deciding on your next snack, you might consider a very new perspective on Jewish ethics: Making unhealthy decisions is unethical because of the impact those decisions have on our peers.
Let’s use a brief thought experiment to understand why: If I were to tell you that most of my friends are health-conscious gym members, what would be your most reasonable conclusion about me? If you answered that I am also a health-conscious gym member, then you have successfully learned something about me from a statement about my friends.
Some recent research actually provides scientific backing for this conclusion. Social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found a correlation between our personal health choices and the choices made by members of our social circle. Their study, which relied on data from one of the longest health studies of the past 100 years, The Framingham Heart Study, led to the theory that seemingly-personal decisions about health influence the behavior of others. When one person in a community is active and eats healthy foods, everyone around them is more likely to do the same.
The Talmud teaches that “all of the people of Israel are responsible for one another.” Based on this ideal, we all might do a little more to make good choices and inspire healthy living in our community. This is why my wife and I decided to launch Camp Zeke, the first Jewish camp where kids celebrate healthy, active living.
Our inaugural summer is off to an amazing start. Campers are choosing from action-packed electives like running, yoga, strength training, dance, gymnastics, Krav Maga, and sports. They’re also putting on aprons and cooking healthy, gourmet dishes with a professional chef. In the process of making lifelong memories and forming amazing bonds with new friends, our campers are making very real connections between Judaism, nutrition, and fitness. When they go back home as ambassadors of vibrant good health, they will bring all of us one step closer to a healthier Jewish community.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) launched the second cohort of camps this summer through the Specialty Camps Incubator. We asked all of the specialty camps to tell us about what it looks like to be Jewish at a specialty camp. The following post is the first in our summer series.
Our director, Rabbi Eliav Bock, often says that our most impactful area of camp is not the rock climbing, backpacking trips, kayaking, or anything else—but rather the food choices that we make as a specialty camp. This is one aspect of what sets us apart as an outdoor adventure camp. We really strive to lift the veil on the food preparation process and involve our campers in it.
As a longtime Ramahnik, and recent transplant to Ramah Outdoor Adventure, I have had over 2000 camp meals in my life. While I have many fond memories of camp meals and routines, none have been quite like the dining experience that happens here at Ramah Outdoor Adventure. The first and most easily noted difference is the routine, which begins with a siur haochel (food tour) delivered by one of our tzevet mitbach (kitchen staff) upon entering the chadar ochel (dining hall).
This food tour includes an announcement of the menu and a discussion of what nutritional features or special ingredients the day’s meal might have. Past tours have focused on the anti-inflammatory properties of coriander or how quinoa is a complete protein, just to name a couple. Whatever the fact of the day, it helps everyone present to understand and appreciate the meal.
Our meals are longer than I am used to having in a camp setting, which allows for deeper conversations with tablemates as well as a more leisurely eating pace. Due to the more relaxed nature of the meals, we are able to fully understand the processes the food went through to reach our table, as opposed to simply wolfing down our food.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the meals at Ramah Outdoor Adventure is the lack of red meat or poultry. Tasty and more sustainable alternatives such as quinoa, tofu, seitan, and salmon have frequently graced our tables, however. As a part of Yom Wild Wild West, we brought in a shochet to discuss the ritual slaughtering process with chalutzim (campers/pioneers) who chose to attend. He discussed his process of going from vegan, to vegetarian, to kosher meat eater with everyone, and how his food process informed his Judaism.
These conscious decisions enable everyone to think about the environmental, moral, and social effects of the consumption of such foods. Much of our meat now comes from a kosher farm run by a camper’s family. Also, all of our fish and dairy, and much of our produce, is sourced locally.
Our Jewish values teach us bal tashchit; (do not destroy, coming from the Biblical commandment not to cut down fruit trees in times of war) at Camp Ramah, we take this commandment seriously. We follow the maxim “take what you want, and eat what you take.” Food left on plates is weighed as a part of a competition between age groups to have the least amount of food waste, and we compost as much as we can. Because we are “guardians of the earth,” we do as much as we can to minimize our impact via the choices we make about food consumption.
I have been continually impressed in my time here so far with the quality, intention, and effort that go into providing three daily meals. As I continue to learn my new home here at Ramah in the Rockies, I discover more and more about the camp and food culture here.
Every aspect of our nutrition here at Ramah in the Rockies is geared towards increasing awareness of the process undergone to get food on the table. Our campers leave camp imbued with a strong sense of responsibility with regards to their food and an extensive understanding of the importance of environmentally friendly nutrition. I look forward to seeing how the food education at this camp will transform the lives of all of our chalutzim and their families.
“All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.” – The Kotzker Rebbe
Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859), was a Hasidic Rebbe who was known for his caustic character and sharp wit. As the story goes he once asked his disciples, “Why don’t we do sins?” Knowing their teacher they should have known that this was a Klutz Kashe, a foolish question, to which they were never going to get the right answer. The students replied, “God does not want us to do sins,” “It is prohibited by the Torah”, and “The Rabbis do not want us to do sins.” The Rebbe snapped and summarily rejected each answer. Finally the Rebbe said, “We do not do sins because it is a waste of time. Rather, we should be using our time to do mitzvot- good deeds.”
Recently there has been flurry of writing on the “Body Talk” guidelines at Eden Village Camp. Many of the articles (including The New York Times, Slate, Kveller, The Forward) and just about all of the responding comments and blog posts explore the merits and risks of these guidelines, a warranted discussion for any parent. It should be noted, however, that the articles failed to mention that the camp does promote healthy body-awareness through sports, music, arts, nutrition education, and integrated conversations about body image, social pressures, and self-esteem. According to Eden Village Camp’s “Body Talk” guidelines,”the temporary respite from all the body commentary, together with… sessions and informal conversations on body image, allow for important sharing and insight about how one feels about one’s own body or the pressure one might feel to look a certain way, and where those messages come from, and tools for going home and being a lighthouse in a world that’s usually really different from camp.” The absence of this crucial nuance from this discussion has resulted in a conversation that has spiraled from valuable to hypothetical and misinformed.
It seems that we have fallen into the trap of the Kotzker’s Hassidim. Have we missed the point? Have we gotten lost in the merit or risks of “Body Talk” instead of focusing on having conversations that matter? What are the conversations that we want to be having?
In Jewish thought, we do not treat speech lightly. Words change lives. In Judaism, words are the very media of the creation of the world. There are so many examples that this world is broken. Each of us needs to do our part in fixing the world. What good conversations are you a part of that will lead to actions that will help fix the world? For thousands of years the discourse of Jewish life has been and needs to continue to be about making the world a better place. We need to demand of our girls, our boys, and ourselves to focus on having important conversations. It is not a question of morality; it’s a question of how we use our time.
Let’s be clear. I can make any conversation into a conversation about art. Especially when it comes to the Torah and art at camp. Parah Adumah? Let’s talk about the color red! Miriam leading the people in celebration? Kikar dancing! Moses with two tablets? Sculpture! But really, those are stretches. That’s what makes Vayakhel-Pekudei so exciting for me. It’s not just easy to make a connection between the story and “art,” it’s explicit.
We read about the nomination of Betzalel and Oholiav to design the Mishkan and lead it’s construction. And the Torah goes into great detail about the materials used (acacia wood, dolphin skin, crimson wool, etc.). So here I could talk about the different materials our campers get to create with in the art room and the wood shop: clay, mojpoj, paint, pine wood, woodstains, etc. And the Torah talks about the skill of the lead designers, how their talents are divinely inspired. Here I could talk about kavanah, and how every piece of art made at camp, from a 11 year old camper’s painting to a 16 year old camper’s original song, is done with Jewish content in mind, with a sense of Jewish intention behind the art. And of course, the Torah talks about portability – this is not going to be a permanent fixed structure. That is an easy bridge to the art work at camp being ephemeral, meaningful in the moment as a memory, and then lost to a blank canvas, which resets for the next session, the next summer, the next camper with an idea for expression.
But those things are not what makes this parsha so clearly about art at camp. In Chapter 36, Verses 1-7, we see that Bezalel and Oholiav were overwhelmed by the amount of things Israelites brought to contribute to the project. People brought their gold, their wood, their fabrics. They all wanted to be a part of what was happening, they all wanted ownership. And THAT is what Jewish summer camp’s philosophy of artistic creation is really all about. You go see group of campers perform Beauty and the Beast, and you’ll notice: the younger campers standing up with grey cardboard ovals on their heads, performing as ‘spoons’ in “Be Our Guest”; a 14 year old camper on violin, a special needs camper on drums, and a member of Sports staff playing the saxophone in the orchestra; the oldest campers running the tech booth. The list goes on and on. At Jewish summer camp, like our Israelite ancestors before us, we take communal ownership of our art. To me, this way of creating art is what I’ve always known from camp, it feels natural. In Vayakhel-Pekudei, the Torah tells us it’s genetic.
Jewish overnight camp is about so much more than campfires and color war. At camp, kids get the chance to explore who they are—and who they want to become—in an active, inspiring, fun-filled environment. (Marshmallows included.) But paying for camp can be difficult. We get it—we are parents too.
We have some easy ways to make the dream of overnight summer camp a reality for your child. We can even help you find the perfect camp—no matter what your background, you will find a place your child will have fun, be comfortable, learn more about themselves, and explore their Jewish identity.
If your family lives in the northeast, check out BunkConnect, a new program that offers introductory rates at 40-60% off to first time campers. Finding out if you qualify is quick and confidential—answer six questions at BunkConnect.org. Then start browsing for the right summer experience for your child for this summer! The website will connect you right to the camp director to learn more about the experience.
One Happy Camper
BunkConnect doesn’t work for your family? One Happy Camper offers first time campers up to $1000 off. With over 155 Jewish camps on Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Find a Camp tool – search out the perfect one. You can narrow down your search by choosing preferred session length, specialty activities, denomination, and more. Once you choose a camp visit OneHappyCamper.org to see if you are eligible for a need-blind grant.
While you are on our website, visit our scholarship database. Don’t forget to talk to your synagogue, local federation, JCC or other Jewish organizations. Many have scholarships available to make summers at Jewish camp a reality
At Jewish camp, ruach (spirit) is part of every activity—from dancing to hitting a home run—allowing campers to explore their connection to Judaism in a meaningful way while having the summer of their lives. Clearly, we are a little passionate about this. You will see the difference in your child the minute they return home. The impact of overnight Jewish camp is immediate. At camp, kids hang out with amazing role models, who inspire confidence and independence, guiding your child to hone their skills, build self-esteem, and discover interests and talents they never knew they had.
We can’t wait for your child to have the summer of a lifetime. (And you get a bit of a break from the logistics of the daily grind, not bad…)
January 28th was one such day.
I live and work in Atlanta during the school year. For months (MONTHS!) I’d been planning an Interfaith Social Action & Social Justice day, with Marist & Davis colleagues, for my 8th graders at the Davis Academy and our friends in the 8th grade at Marist School, a Catholic school just a few minutes away.
I hit roadblocks in planning. Locations, dates, times, school start times, Atlanta traffic concerns (Haha! Foreshadowing!) But then it came together, groups of 50 students each were scheduled to volunteer at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, MedShare, and Books for Africa. They were to be tasked with sorting and packing tons, literally tons, of: food for Atlanta’s hungry; books sorted into class sets for Africa schoolchildren; perfectly usable medical supplies, saved from landfills, and repackaged to be sent around the developing world. 120 kids were scheduled to participate in VolunteerStock at Davis, making turkey sandwiches for donation in midtown Atlanta, decorating a Prayer Canvas for the Boston Marathon, and making cards for Atlanta’s sick, elderly, and those who visit our local food pantries.
In the afternoon, everyone would meet at the MLK Center in Downtown Atlanta for lunch and a program that included the extraordinary speaker Stephon Ferguson.
The night before the program, we heard that we may have to cancel the second half of the program because of a snow storm. I stayed up late, calling and emailing faculty, staff, volunteer locations, and speakers. The plan for the morning? The show must go on! The afternoon? We will play it by ear.
The morning went off without a hitch. Then we said bye to Marist, hugged, and set up for our afternoon at Davis. Beautiful. I could stop there, the blog post would be done, everyone would smile and know that 220 students and many dedicated faculty and volunteer chaperone adults did good all around Atlanta.
Then, the afternoon arrived. Snow started falling. Carpool started early. Mr. Ferguson couldn’t meet us at Davis because of traffic. Atlanta was coated in dreamy white.
700+ sandwiches sat in my car. Google told me that because of the traffic caused by the storm, it would take two hours to get to the food bank, 24 miles away. My colleagues encouraged me to set out – “you should at least try to get there” even while the transit map was beyond foreboding. I was barely driving. I moved two miles in one hour, and this was better than most. I know many people who took upwards of 10 hours to get home. There were over 700 accidents A baby was born in a car on the highway.
285 minutes, an average of 11 mph, innumerable reroutes, countless others nearly skidding into my car, a giant headache, one stop for gas/bathroom/candy/medicine, and one guy who parked in front of me for a good 20 minutes, trying to turn left, transpired. Close to home, I FINALLY maneuvered my trusty all-wheel drive Subaru Outback into the driveway of the organization that was awaiting our sandwich delivery, hours after their usual closing time. Someone pointed out to me that I could’ve given those sandwiches out to my compatriots stranded on highways, but I’m stubborn and focused. I was a woman on a mission.
How’d I pass the time? I rolled down my window to thank emergency workers, and tried to add levity to the gridlock by making faces at my fellow stranded. I Tweeted and Facebooked while I was in park (which I was, most of the time). One of my colleagues, who took three hours to drive the three blocks between Davis and home, took this picture of two of our 8th graders, serving hot coffee to those stuck in traffic outside of their homes.
The day of service didn’t end at noon, 1:30, 2:30, or even 7:30. It marched into the night. I’m warm now, but every time I look at that picture of our 8th graders serving coffee, my heart melts yet again, as they lived out what it said on our Prayer Canvas “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”
Having a well-stocked pantry means being prepared for the unexpected, being organized, and giving yourself the best possible tools to make the best possible decisions. This is what healthy eating is all about. Most of the time we know what the healthiest choices are, but don’t make them because it’s not convenient or easy for us. When potato chips are the only thing available, potato chips are what we have for a snack. If we are ready with frozen veggies, a jar of tomato sauce, lean ground beef and whole wheat pasta we enable ourselves to easily make a healthy dinner rather than taking out from a local Italian restaurant because the cupboard is bare. If we provide ourselves with the right tools just at our fingertips, we will be more likely to make healthy eating choices.
Judaism is big on preparation, and kids learn that first hand at Jewish summer camps. Most notably, there is an important Jewish concept of Hachana l’shabat, or preparing for the Sabbath. At camp, kids do all sorts of things to prepare for Shabbat. They clean up their bunks, pick out (and usually trade) clothes and learn new songs and prayers. At home, other Shabbat preparation occurs, usually in the form of cooking and cleaning. In both settings, Judaism teaches that another type of preparation should occur- a spiritual preparation that entails readying one’s mind for resting from the craziness of the week and allowing oneself to stop for long enough to appreciate the joy in quiet, community, restfulness and some extra-delicious food.
With our busy lives it can sometimes be hard to find the time to prepare ourselves, whether that preparation be the kind of nuts and bolts actions of organizing a pantry, or the more spiritual actions needed to prepare for Shabbat. But, the reason preparation is so difficult to do is exactly the reason its so important to do- once you perform a few simple “preparatory actions” you are literally set-to-go with the ability to make healthier decisions and find spiritual rest and quiet. If you take the time to organize and prepare ahead of time, the actual work will be short and you can spend more time reaping the rewards of delicious food and the joys that Shabbat can provide. In that spirit, try this delicious from-the-pantry lentil soup recipe for your next Shabbat meal!
Straight from the Pantry Lentil Soup
1 large yellow onion
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons ground cumin
4 cups vegetable stock
1 14 ounce can small diced tomatoes
1 cup brown or green lentils
10 ounce box frozen whole leaf spinach
Salt and pepper to taste
- Dice the onion and mince the garlic.
- Heat the olive oil over high heat in a large sauce pot. Add the onions and cook until browned and softened, 5-7 minutes.
- Add the garlic and cumin and cook 1 minute longer.
- Add the stock and tomatoes and lentils and bring to a boil. Taste the broth and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Cook 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils have fully softened.
- Add the spinach and cook just until heated through.
Gilad and I welcomed our baby girl into the world on January 1st. Sivan Amali Shwartz arrived just in time to help us celebrate one of my favorite Jewish holidays, Tu Bishvat, which began last night.
Tu Bishvat is known as the New Year of the trees, or Jewish Arbor Day. It is an opportunity to celebrate trees and all their fruits, as well as the beauty and wonder of Nature. There are many different ways to celebrate Tu Bishvat – planting trees, participating in a Tu Bishvat seder, writing prayers for the trees, decorating trees with personal prayers and/or psalms, or simply eating fruit!
During camp each summer, it feels like a 10 week Tu Bishvat celebration in many ways. It is amazing to see campers arrive to camp and become immersed in the natural world around them. Free of their video games, computers, smart phones, and other technology, campers return to picking up natural materials and playing with them. Many of these materials come from the plethora of ponderosa pine trees that are situated on the Ranch Camp property. Sticks, pine cones, and pieces of bark transform from something that campers may not even take notice of at home to exciting toys and building materials here at camp.
For the last two summers, one of our most popular chuggim (electives) has been Fort Building. Boys and girls eagerly venture out into the forest, collect tree branches and construct natural structures with the help of staff members. I love to walk out and observe campers doing this activity. It never ceases to amaze me how really little it takes to make kids happy when they are given a mission and are turned loose in nature to use their imaginations and make it happen. The children play with and amongst the branches of our forest and in turn, become reconnected with the natural world around them.
Sivan is a little too young this year to truly celebrate Tu B’Shevat but I’m grateful that she will share her birthday roughly with that of the trees each year. Tu Bishvat is a great opportunity for us to get out in nature with our children and share with them the wonders of Creation.
Chag Sameach! Here are some resources to help you celebrate Tu Bishvat with your family this year:
1. Punk Torah’s Tu Bishvat Ideas
2. Make a Fruit Mandela With Your Kids, From Kveller
3. Creative Jewish Mom’s Tu Bishvat Crafts
4. MyJewishLearning’s Tu Bishvat Recipes
Last August, when my son, Jonah, returned from sleepaway camp with a sunburn, an array of nasty-looking mosquito bites, and a desire to water ski again (though this time for longer than a nanosecond), he also had a deepening connection to ritual. At camp, he’d taken to the morning flag-raising ceremonies, the campfire singalongs, as well as the Friday evening Shabbat dinners. I’m guessing that’s what inspired him to insist, this fall, on fasting on Yom Kippur; it was a carryover from his summer of Jewish education. His effort not to eat was, for a 14-year-old with an enormous appetite, remarkable: he made it until lunch.
But then Jonah, who was diagnosed with autism a little more than a decade ago, has always had an affinity for ritual. In fact, one of the early signs of his autism, for me at least, was his habit of lining up his toys single-file from one end of his bedroom to the other. He would have done this for hours if we let him. He could always tell, too, when I switched one toy’s place with another in the line. And, under no circumstances would he tolerate the chaos of double-file or a semi-circle. Eventually, it became clear that Jonah was a lot less interested in engaging in imaginative play with his tiny trucks and alphabet blocks and stuffed animals than he was in giving them an orderly world in which to exist. Which is, come to think of it, the whole point of ritual.
A point, I confess, I’m missing these days. After all, this was the year I deliberately passed on the apple slices dipped in honey on offer at my mother-in-law’s Rosh Hashanah celebration. It was also the first year, since my Bar Mitzvah, that I did not fast on Yom Kippur. My reasons were simple and admittedly childish: I was angry with God. The reason for that was simple, too. My beloved sister died this past August after contracting a mysterious illness and suffering for an excruciating six weeks in the hospital (Jonah came home from camp the day of her funeral) and I was determined to blame God. Childish, like I said, but once my initial anger subsided I had no need to see the world as an orderly place. I’d experienced this kind of thing before, decades earlier, when my mother and father died within two years of each other. When my sister died, I discovered the instinct to be vindictive was – like riding a bicycle – impossible to forget.
But now, it’s Hanukkah and Jonah is all in for the holiday, for the gifts, the candle-lighting, the dreidel spinning and the latkes; and I am doing my best to play along. Still, Hanukkah may be a good way for me to get back on the ritual bandwagon. As Jewish holidays go, it’s innocuous and undemanding. The emphasis is mainly on fun; the mood mainly lighthearted. No great physical, emotional or intellectual demands are going to be made on me. I also can’t help remembering that my late sister loved Hanukkah. She made mouth-watering latkes and, along with my other sister, devoted herself to finding and meticulously wrapping eight special presents for Jonah. It was just one of the many small ways she demonstrated her love for her nephew and also her acceptance of him, which was, from the moment he was born as well as the moment we learned he had autism, absolute and unconditional. So, for the sake of my son and my sister, I’ll put my holiday boycott on hold. The truth is I’ll be doing it for my own sake, too. And while I recognize it’s a lot to ask of any ritual to make the world seem less random, less cruel, it’s probably not the worst place to start.
Growing up in Odessa, Ukraine until I was 15 years old I knew about two dozen Jews personally. Of those, only about five of them were under the age of 50 and did not open every story with: “When I was your age we shared one pair of shoes between five siblings and could only wear them to stand in line for food.” Until I was 15, what I knew of being Jewish was limited to my grandmother’s cooking, some Yiddish curses, matza babka for Passover, occasional stories about family members who perished at the hands of Nazis and random outbursts of antisemitism at school or on the bus. And then there was summer that changed my life forever. Three unforgettable weeks at a Jewish Agency for Israel summer camp by the Black Sea that blew my mind. It was a summer of firsts: meeting an Israeli for the first time, learning “Hatikvah” with 300 other Jews my age, and most importantly –finding out Jews could be significantly taller than my family’s average 5’3”!
My Jewish camp story began on the coast of the Black Sea and continued to the other side of Atlantic when my family immigrated to the United States. It turned into a life-long mission of making sure thousands of others like me have similar experiences. Why? Because while we make up at least 15% of the North American Jewish population (20% in some larger metropolitan Jewish areas) most Russian-speaking Jews have not spent time at Jewish camp.
There are many historical and social reasons why Russian-speaking Jews are not coming to camp. Though the Soviet Jewry Movement made it possible for nearly a million Russian-speaking Jews to successfully resettle in North America, almost eight decades of living a very different kind of Jewish life – life that led to a very individual, intellectual and cultural Jewish identity with no ties to Jewish religion, community or traditions – left Russian-speaking Jews on the sidelines of organized Jewish life. Therefore, over twenty years later Jewish camps that could be providing transformative Jewish experiences to tens of thousands more children are not even on the radar for Russian-speaking families.
Last week, Sarah Benenson, a 17 year old from New Jersey born to a Russian-speaking family, shared her Jewish camp story with a group of major philanthropists who came together at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Funders Summit: Engaging Russian Speaking Jews in Jewish Camp. Her story, not unlike mine, began with very little interaction with the organized Jewish life until she followed her friends to spend a summer at Havurah, a Jewish camp program for Russian-speaking teens at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, NY. The experience led to three amazing summers as a camper, a summer as staff at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake and an upcoming year course in Israel. Sarah’s camp story is a success – a success that could be achieved for thousands of children and teens from Russian-speaking families. But such success can only be achieved when approaching engagement of this significant part of the Jewish community with intention and understanding of their unique interests and challenges; when hiring and training staff; and building programs that can address their interests.
I consider myself lucky. I found Jewish camp and strong ties to the Jewish community as a result. I spend every day at work making sure more great Jewish camp stories are written and shared. It is my hope that mine or Sarah’s stories are not unique and by sharing them we can engage families in Jewish life and build a stronger Jewish community.