Jewish Pirates and Other Treasures

It’s the end of the summer, and my children are educating me about Jewish pirates.

“They lived in the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries,” my teenage daughter insists. “Hebrew was their secret language, because no one else around them spoke it.”

“And,” my ten-year-old son adds, “they never raided on Shabbat.”

The kids go off to draw pictures of Jewish pirates. I may have trouble wrapping my mind around the concept, but it doesn’t occur to me to ask where the children learned about Sabbath-observing buccaneers. I can already guess: camp.

My children have spent five summers at Camp Be’chol Lashon, where, every summer, the Passport to Peoplehood™ curriculum takes campers and counselors on a three-week adventure through Jewish history and time. Every day, they explore places and cultures that are far outside their personal experience of Judaism, and every discussion will further underscore the Jewish concepts and values they’ve been living and learning their whole lives. Each new story — yes, even Jewish pirates of the Caribbean — will draw them into deeper waters.

Certainly, pirates are far from the average camper’s experience of Jewish culture. But, by awakening children’s natural curiosity, Passport to Peoplehood helps children to see that these long-ago sailors aren’t so very exotic. What did these pirates eat? They’ll discover the answer by preparing, cooking, and eating jerk chicken, a highly-spiced method fugitives used to preserve meat. What music might the sailors have heard, docking in unfamiliar ports far from their native lands? The kids will dance and listen to reggae, which evolved from traditional Jamaican folk music. These hands-on activities help them to really experience the differences between this culture and theirs, while acknowledging the similarities: after all, everyone dances, and everyone eats.

Spending an entire day on Jewish history in the Caribbean means that kids can dig deeper, moving on to discussions that range far beyond eye patches and mainsails. These pirates were much more than rogues on the open sea; many were Anusim (forced converts) who secretly fought to maintain their faith and identity under constant threat of the Inquisition. They had to be brave, quick-thinking, and resilient. They supported one another and, ultimately, survived and thrived. It’s not difficult for kids to see that the story of the pirate Anusim isn’t unlike the stories of other past and present Jewish communities—and, by extension, even connected to modern Jewish kids like them.

We choose a Jewish education for our children because we want to reinforce the Jewish values we want to pass down through the generations—the knowledge of Torah, the power of faith. But we also hope they’ll take those values and make them concrete in the global world— tikkun olam, making the world a better place. The Passport to Peoplehood curriculum prepares children to do both. Using Jewish values to highlight the astonishing diversity of the Jewish people brings those values alive. Focusing on crews of Anusim, working together to survive, brings the children, naturally, to a discussion of Jewish unity—so beautifully illustrated by the Shema. The Jewish people are varied in our experiences, but, ultimately, all one.

Will my children ever unearth a Jewish Jack Sparrow in our family tree? Probably not, though not for lack of trying. But they will return from camp with a mandate to embrace and respect diversity. And I’m grateful they’ll see that as an inherently Jewish value.



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