The beginning of June brings more than sunshine and warm weather. June brings an end to the school year and the beginning of summer vacation. While some may calendar their summers around laying out on the beach or family vacations, many of our children’s summers (and lives for that matter!) revolve around summer camp.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp, the non-profit organization that “unifies and galvanizes the field of Jewish overnight camp,” explains that “Jewish camp weaves Jewish values, culture, and traditions into the fabric of camp, helping campers to connect to their own identity and the larger Jewish community.” Jewish overnight camp is about more than camp fires, hikes, swimming, and sports, like other sleepaway camps. Jewish camp creates memories that no preschool, religious school, day school, or high school can! Jewish camp even offers experiences that youth group cannot offer! Jewish camp is a utopian, temporary, but perfect community, in which every single bunkmate quickly becomes like a brother or sister, in which time simultaneously stands still and speeds up so that camp memories can last forever and camp friendships of a few days or weeks feel like lifelong relationships.
Furthermore, Jewish camp offers experiential educational opportunities so that children aren’t only learning about Shabbat, prayer, dietary laws, or Jewish ethics and morals; they are living it on a daily basis. Camp offers a creative and fun learning experience with your peers – an environment that allows you to be both the student and teacher. Finally, Jewish camp is truly a kehillah kedosha, a holy community and a safe space, an environment that celebrates that each camper is made in God’s image.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s study, Camp Works, suggests that Jewish summer camp attendance increases the likelihood of adult participation and identification. In the study, those who attended Jewish camp were more likely to donate to a Jewish charity, light Shabbat candles, attend synagogue regularly, and be emotionally attached to Israel. Participation in Jewish camping leads to a greater connection to tradition, ritual, and community.
The challenge of Jewish camp experiences though is that they are limited to the summer. Camp is a temporary holy community, much like the Mishkan, the temporary sanctuary built and rebuilt as the Israelites traveled throughout the desert. The irony of the unique community that camp offers is that it is limited to the summer. Most suggest that camp wouldn’t work as a year-round experience, that what makes camp so special is that it is limited to only the summer. Campers yearn for a return to camp during the winter. If camp lasted year-round, then campers wouldn’t count down the seconds until camp returns, or stay in touch with bunkmates via phone, email, and Facebook.
The Israelites depended on their temporary sacred space as they traveled through the wilderness until they settled in the Promised Land and found community in the permanent structure of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. Our goal and our task as a Jewish community, is to encourage our children to attend Jewish camp and expose them those life-changing positive Jewish experiences over the summer. Furthermore though, we must ensure that those positive experiences aren’t limited to the summer. The Jacksonville Jewish community serves as that permanent community that our children return to after spending the summer in their temporary utopias. We need to make sure our children bring those experiences of camp home. Havdallah cannot be limited to lakeside in the summer. Singing and dancing and clapping during services can take place year-round! Let us encourage our children (and adults!) to lose their voices because they are singing so loud, with such energy and ruach. Let us send our kids to camp, but make sure they bring a bit of camp home with them. This way, the life-changing summer memories can become life-changing daily memories.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky
This Blog Post originally appeared in the “Rabbinically Speaking” column of the June 2013 edition of the Jacksonville Jewish News