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.
In addition to beginning to plan for the upcoming 2014 camping season, Gilad and I find ourselves also busy preparing to become new parents in approximately three months. We recently started Jewish Baby University (JBU) classes through the JCC, which are not only helping us gain important knowledge about items related to delivery and infant care but perhaps more importantly, giving us an opportunity to discuss how we want to create and maintain a Jewish home.
Rabbi Jeffrey Kaye, a community leader, Ranch Camp parent, and JBU instructor, led a session for the group that Gilad and I found to be very interesting and I want to share it with you here. In the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a)*, there is a list of things that parents are obligated to do for their child after birth. Interestingly enough, basic necessities such as providing food, shelter, care, and love for a child are absent from the list. Perhaps the Talmudists felt that these were items likely not to be neglected by parents and therefore unnecessary to mention. Instead, “spiritual care” items are listed related to the obligation to provide a child with knowledge about values, morals, and a sense of shared history or collective memory (Torah). This is interesting in and of itself but then, there is something completely unexpected and even more interesting – included at the end of the list is the obligation to teach your child how to swim! Fascinating.
At first glance, teaching your child how to swim might seem very out of place. However, upon further reflection, this makes a tremendous amount of sense. Certainly, there is great value in literally teaching a child how to swim after all, humans have lived next to bodies of water for tens of thousands of years and certainly this is a matter of basic survival. However, I think the rabbis had a larger intent in mind when writing this. After all, learning how to stay afloat in inhabitable, dangerous, and/or difficult conditions is what life is all about really. And the teaching does not say, “hold your child afloat when swimming” or “make sure your child wears a flotation device at all times when in water,” no, it indicates that we are obligated to teach our children skills that will allow them to survive independently of our help when the need arises. And I think this principle is perhaps the essential function of effective parenting.
Gilad and I were really taken by this concept. I think it resonates so strongly with us because of what we feel camp provides to children each summer. There are so many “hard skills” that campers learn every day at camp such as swimming, archery, horseback riding, and mountain biking that will help them to survive, thrive, and be healthy, active adults. But within each activity and social interaction at camp, we are able to impart “soft skills” such as confidence, resilience, and cooperation that gives them a secondary set of competencies that are invaluable in leading a successful and independent life. As parents, I think this is what we all ultimately desire for our children and together, through skills we teach at home and in places like camp, we can successfully fulfill our obligation to teach our children how to swim.
*Kiddushin 29a: A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well.
Jeremy J. Fingerman is the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Last week, I had the distinct privilege of attending the presentation of the top-line results of the new Pew Research Center study of Jewish Americans. Among the small group were several of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s key funders, philanthropists and trustees. Overall, the people in the room had two immediate reactions to the news that so many Jews living in the US today are non-practicing or don’t identify with Judaism: Why is this happening and what can we do about it?
As a Jewish communal professional involved in identity building and continuity, the findings were not surprising to me. These are the challenges the field of Jewish camp faces every day, the challenges that push Foundation for Jewish Camp and our colleagues in the field to work harder, to get more kids to camp and to make every minute that they are at camp count. According to the Pew findings, 44% of practicing Jews reported attending Jewish overnight camp as opposed to only 18% of those who are non-practicing. We read those results to mean that those who experienced Judaism through the lens of Jewish camp were influenced to make it part of their lives long after they attended their last campfire. We believe that many of those children may have had no other Jewish experiences growing up besides camp.
In his remarks on the findings, Dr. Steven M. Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, made the case for Jewish camp. His comments echoed those that he shared on the release of our research, Camp Works, “We don’t have to repair the lack of adult engagement in Jewish life. If you invest in Jewish youth, you’re going to automatically get all kinds of engagement. With Jewish camp…you continue to see the results 20, 30, 40 years from now.” Camp is a place where children live joyous Judaism and explore our religion on their own terms. At FJC, we work hard every day to make sure more kids have that opportunity each summer.
As we have conversations with our many colleagues and partners in the field and beyond regarding the implications of this study, I am confident that together we can and will work to create a more vibrant Jewish future.
This past Sunday I convinced my sons to join me out back to put up our Sukkah, ritual dwelling for Sukkot, arguing that it was just a really big Lego set. They were happy to build and play until we got to the s’chach, the cut organic material used as the roof of the sukkah. The boys just did not understand it. The s’chach, as compared to all of the other Lego pieces, did not click or tie into place. So I went on to explain that while it needs to be porous enough so that we can see the stars, minimally the s’chach must be thick enough so that it provides more shade then sun light in the Sukkah. Of course they asked why?
Just five days after the solemn day of Yom Kippur, we are off to one of the most joyous holidays of the year. Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, is commonly referred to in our liturgy and literature as Zman Simchateinu, the time of our happiness. I began thinking and questioning the so-called happiness of Sukkot. Traditionally on this holiday we read the book of Kohelet. The author of this book retells his investigation of the meaning of life and the best way to live your life. Kohelet proclaims all the actions of humanity to be inherently fleeting, futile, empty, meaningless, temporary, and done in vain. This sentiment is well-said in the most quoted line from Kohelet which reads:
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. (Kohelet 1:9)
Learning that life is senseless seems like a real downer for a holiday of happiness. This juxtaposition is only highlighted in that we read this just after Yom Kippur, a day during which we appealed that mercy would win out over justice. If Kohelet is correct, we will never be able to change. Despite our best efforts to repent and atone, we are stuck and should be judged in light of the fact that will never be able to renew ourselves.
Then it all came together for me.
Kohelet is right; nothing is new under the sun. The difference is that just after Yom Kippur we escape the sun under the shade of the Sukkah. There we find shelter from the harsh judgment of the world. If we spend a serious amount of time practicing being the people we aspire to be, we might be able to achieve it throughout the rest of the year. We see a similar dynamic in the shelter of summer camp. There we are able to immerse ourselves in an Eden of our own design. Is there any greater joy then the promise of a better future?
The Jewish values of Klal Yisrael and Am Yisrael speak to an idea of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish communal unity that are often described in the past tense, as some relic of days gone by. At Camp Tawonga, in this moment, these values are alive, and flourishing among the Jewish camping community.
This summer, Tawonga endured a tragic incident that claimed the life of one of our beloved staff members. This experience has been unbelievably sad and trying for everyone who is part of this large, loving and caring community.
When a tragedy strikes it is easy to shrivel up and shut out those around us. Similarly, when something happens far away, it can be easy to thank our lucky stars it did not affect us directly and move on. Our Jewish tradition teaches us to ignore this path, and to seek help when in need and to give support when those in your circle need it most.
From the moment that our community began hurting, grieving and being in need of help, it came. No one decided to simply be grateful that they could go on unaffected in their own lives; instead, they took the ideas of Klal Yisrael and Am Yisrael to heart and reached out.
Local therapists and grief counselors from our community and from places like The Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and Jewish Family and Children’s Services offered support immediately and came to our remote location to help us in a time of need.
Our “neighborhood” camps in California like URJ Camp Newman, Camp JCA Shalom, Ramah California, Camp Hess Kramer and many more - sent condolence cards, said Kaddish at their services and even donated to us one of their holy ark’s.
Camps from around North America sent messages of strength and condolence. In the midst of their busy summer seasons, many offered to send us their staff if they were needed. The Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jewish Community Center Association, who provide support and guidance on movement levels across Jewish camping, reached out immediately to support us.
Many local rabbis were the first to call. Rabbi Dev Noily and Rabbi Chai Levy joined our community to lead services and offer support. Rabbi Levy wrote a wonderful piece after her time with us.
This entry could stretch on endlessly about the people and organizations that continually offer support to our Jewish community. We will absolutely reach out when we are able to express our deepest and sincerest gratitude to them all.
We read week after week in this blog about the transformative power that the Jewish communal experience known as summer camp can offer. We read about the joy, the fun and the lifelong bonds that are created. We learn about the incredible communities each camp creates for its campers and staff. Through the many contributors herein, we continually discover the larger community of Jewish camps across North America.
If the measure of a community is how it responds during times of crisis, our Jewish camping community is rock solid.
This summer my plan is to start writing a book with the working title God Laughs: How Judaism Ruined My Life. I recently received a grant to proceed with the project, but the idea is still a little vague as is my plan for its eventual execution. I like the title though – taken from the famous Yiddish proverb, “Man plans and God laughs” – and I especially like the subtitle, though I can see it getting me into trouble down the road. Also, in thinking about what to write, I keep coming back to a recurring theme in my life or, as I prefer to call it, a running gag – my ambivalence about being Jewish.
A quality, incidentally, I do not share with my 14-year-old son, Jonah. This probably shouldn’t be surprising. Jonah has autism and ambivalence is not really something he’s wired for. He lives in a predominantly black-and-white world and is inclined to take things literally. And while, lately, he’s become more interested in complicated, existential issues like what happens to us after we die and why does time only move forward, I couldn’t even guess if he believes in God in the conventional sense. Then again, I doubt he’s plagued by doubts about how Jewish he is or feels. He’s Jewish, mainly because his mother and I told him so. A reason, let’s face it, that has been good enough for countless generations of Jews before both of us.
Still, I’ve never seen Jonah quite so focused as when he’s following along with the reading from the Haggadah at family Seders. Or, last year, when he just about flawlessly delivered the long, difficult Hebrew passages in his bar mitzvah portion. Jonah has also participated in the Friendship Circle since he was a kid. Friendship Circle is a branch of the Chabad movement, with chapters across North America as well as in countries like Australia, France, England, South Africa and Israel. Its mission is to provide friendship and foster acceptance for kids with special needs by matching them up with volunteer teenagers. (It also fosters much-needed respite for the parents of kids with special needs.) Jonah is right at home whenever he shows up at the Friendship Circle for an event or a simple get-together. In June, he participated in the Montreal chapter’s annual and rather extravagant fundraiser. It was a talent show this year and Jonah was one of the featured acts. He was a hit singing and playing “Hey Jude” on his guitar. I’m guessing the Friendship Circle organizers aren’t big Beatles fans but I hope they noticed that the lyrics he sang perfectly summed up what their organization is so open-heartedly dedicated to doing. Simply put, to “take a sad song and make it better.”
The B’nai Brith sleep-away camp Jonah attended last year and will go to again this year is obliged to have a more ecumenical approach than the Friendship Circle as it has to cater to a wide spectrum of Jewish beliefs. It’s not specifically orthodox or reform or conservative. This is one of the issues that can be tricky to deal with, the camp director Josh Pepin admitted to me recently. He and his staff will have to weigh how much religious instruction is too much; and how much is too little. Whatever they decide on I suspect Jonah will greet it with his unique brand of matter-of-fact spirituality, one I often find myself envying. He will enthusiastically participate in Friday Shabbat dinners and Saturday morning services. When the Israeli flag is raised he will sing the Hatikvah loud as he can. He will spend his summer living Jewishly. “Jewish identity is paramount at our camp,” Pepin told me. “Our job is to create Jews.” With Jonah, they already have one. With me too, for that matter, though I’ll spend this summer – as I’ve spent most of my life – wondering what being a Jew means to me. I’ll also probably have to figure out a way to explain my book’s subtitle to whoever I end up telling about my book. I’ll have to point out that when I say Judaism ruined my life, I’m just joking. Well, half-joking anyway.