Tag Archives: Jewish camping

Not 10 for 2. Instead 2 for 12.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks going on a camp tour. Rabbi Marder and I visited our Congregation Beth El kids at the NJ Y Camps, at Nah Jee Wah, Cedar Lake Camp, and TAC. I went last week to see a few of our kids who are at Young Judea Sprout Lake and at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. On Sunday, I visited with our community members at Camp Ramah in the Poconos as well.

I went to see the magic of Jewish camp, to see the joy that these kids were experiencing while at Jewish camp, joy that we understood and wanted to replicate at Beth El, by having our own Beth El Goes to Camp retreat.

While at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Rabbi Ethan Linden, camp director,  made an important point. All those who work in the camping world have a slogan: 10 for 2. You live 10 months of the year for the 2 months of summer. Those who work year round at camp, work hard for ten months to present a meaningful product over 2 months. Campers put up with school and winter and all that comes with living at home, for 2 months in their happy place, in the utopia that is camp.

As marketers, that is what you want from consumers, for them to yearn to come back, to count down the days until next summer, in the same way that people await the next blockbuster superhero movie to hit theaters, or wait in line to buy the newest iPhone. Camp should be on their mind in the same way.

But as educators, 10 for 2 is a failed model. Because that means that you put all your love and energy into the two months of the summer and then after the summer, that joy and impact stays at camp, remains in the summer, until next summer that is. Maybe it should instead be 2 for 10, or 2 for 12, that the experiences one has over the two months at camp carry with them for the whole year.

ramahpoconosSometimes, we don’t realize the impact in the moment itself, it is only after the fact, when we look back, the memory of the moment is what has the lasting impact. I remember when I’d come home from camp, long before these days where camps would post hundreds of pictures a day online, and the first thing I’d do was go and drop off 20 rolls of film. I’d anxiously wait from them to be developed and then sit and look through picture-by-picture. I’d Looking back at time and place of the memory and better understanding the impact of that experience.

That is what is going on in Parashat Ma’sei, the last Torah portion in the book of Numbers, and originally the last portion of the Torah. Before editors added on the book of Deuteronomy to the biblical canon, Torah ended with a reminder of all the places the Israelites traveled and stopped along the way, a reminder of those places that were inhabitable, a reminder of how quite remarkable it was that the Israelites survived wandering for 40 years.

And for those 40 years, they complained a lot. They made a Golden Calf, they wanted better food to eat, purer water to drink. At times they wished they had never left Egypt. They were “home sick” if you will. And yet, looking back, as we retrace our steps, and retell the story, we come to realize the impact of the journey. The journey, the wandering, defines us as a people, and we weren’t even there for it.

Nachmanides points out that a recounting of the Israelites’ wanderings in these uninhabitable lands only highlights their faith in God that they continued to wander and trust in God. Clearly the experience of their wandering was quite different than how they experienced it in the moment.  The impact of the 40 years of wandering, the Israelites’ metaphorical 2 months at summer camp, was felt more when they returned home, in the recounting of their journey, than during the journey itself.

And that’s our goal as well. Not just for our children who go off to camp, but for all of us, whatever we do and wherever we find meaning. We may not appreciate it in the moment itself, but if done well, the impact is everlasting after the fact, as we continue to recount our journey, even as we continue to figure out our destination.

May every summer be the experience of a lifetime. And may each summer camp experience impact our children’s lives for the entirety of their lives. When they return home, may they reflect on camp and appreciate the holiness of that experience and make those experiences a regular part of their lives.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Bringing the Joy of Jewish Camping to our Community

There’s a legendary story often told among experiential Jewish educators about the child who returns from Jewish sleepaway camp. Upon returning home, her parents ask her how camp was, and she responses with a smile that camp was incredible. When asked what her favorite part of camp was, she quickly responds that it was Havdallah. Her parents are elated. Among all the activities at camp, it was a Jewish ritual, the moment when we say goodbye to Shabbat for the weekend, when we separate out that which is kadosh – holy – from that which is chol – ordinary – that stuck with her most. When asked if she wants them to start doing Havdallah together as a family every Saturday night, she quickly responds “no!” When her parents ask her why, she clarifies: “we don’t have a lake!”

While this story is meant to cause us to laugh, there is some truth to it. Jewish summer camp is one of the most successful institutions in the American Jewish community for engaging Jewish youth in joyful Jewish experiences. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to bring those experiences back to synagogues and Jewish communities who are in search of the community building and spiritual growth that the utopian environment of Jewish camping provides. At Congregation Beth El, we too were interested in bringing the joy of Jewish camp to Beth El. Our answer was to bring Beth El to camp.

Ever since I arrived at Congregation Beth El, I had a vision of having a congregational retreat at a summer camp. I know that some members of our community had this vision long before I was a part of the community. Thanks to our dedicated volunteers who made up our retreat committee and an enthusiastic community, we had over 250 members of our community join us over Memorial Day Weekend at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah in Milford, Pennsylvania.

RetreatShabbatService2019This retreat was an incredible opportunity to build community, to disconnect from the outside world and our devices and screens that often consume so much of our time (including mine!), to be with loved ones, to make new friends, to strengthen existing friendships, to connect with God as Creator in the beauty of nature, to try new things, to have fun, and to appreciate the sanctity of Shabbat. The melodies and singing of prayers and Hebrew songs brought Judaism to life. Shabbat services outdoors in the amphitheater and weekday minyan by the lake allowed us to experience the Presence of God that we were praying to all around us. Our meals allowed us to break bread with new friends, building intergenerational connections around the tables of the dining hall. And friendly competition – congregational-wide softball, kickball, and ultimate frisbee games – helped build community as well. The gorgeous whether was an added bonus.

RetreatBonfire2019.jpgOn Saturday night, as we saw three stars glisten in the sky, we gathered by the lake for Havdallah, just like the camp experienced in that urban legend. Earlier, each child had made their own havdallah candle, and slowly as the light of one candle extended to another, and the flickering flames of over 100 candles illuminated our circle, we experienced the true light of community. Singing and swaying and saying goodbye to Shabbat transitioned into a late-night bonfire with s’mores and karaoke.

RetreatZipline2019.jpgAnd although we had a closing activity on Sunday morning, with everyone taking home a new friendship bracelet to wear, reminiscent of the new relationships we’ve built, there were no tearful goodbyes or bus notes to write. We weren’t saying goodbye to a community, to a home away from home. Rather, we were bringing the joy of camp back home with us, as a community. The ruach of that experience will carry with us in so much that we do. And for those who yearn to go back, we are already beginning registration for next summer.

May the joy we feel at summer camp carry with us all the time. May we always smile like we do when we are singing outdoors, or zipping down the zipline, or tie dying our t-shirts, or hitting the bullseye in archery. And may we always have enriching Jewish moments, without needed a lake to make them happen.


We are especially grateful to the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and One Happy Camp NJ for their generous grant that helped make this retreat a reality! One Happy Camper can help your child find the right Jewish summer camp for them. Click here for more information.

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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