I just returned from a week serving on the faculty of URJ Camp Kalsman, a Jewish summer camp affiliated with the Reform movement up in Arlington, WA. This was my first time serving as faculty, though I have visited camp plenty of times as Yohanna has served on faculty in the past and both of my boys attend as campers. And TBH sends several kids to Camp Kalsman, in addition to Camp Solomon Schechter located in Tumwater.
It was a great week of fun and creativity. Four other rabbis were with me this same week, and we had a great time leading services, developing a creative Torah study, tutoring b’nai mitzvah students, telling stories, giving divrei Torah and just spending time with the kids. The week was doubly productive because during my down time I was able to do some reading, planning for the High Holidays and the year, and connecting with the other rabbis about ideas, issues and topics of mutual interest. (Unfortunately, the timing was such that I wasn’t able to get a column out last week! Apologies!)
The Jewish summer camp experience is such a wonderful opportunity. It provides kids (and the young-and not so young-adults who serve as counselors and staff) the chance to live in a completely immersive Jewish community where time is based around Jewish time, the schedule includes opportunity for song and prayer, the activities are infused with Jewish values and experiential Jewish learning is the framework. And those at camp get to develop connections and friendships with other Jews.
It is this last part perhaps which is the most valuable. For one, this is one of the few opportunities that these campers will be able to experience an environment in which they are not the minority, that their experience is the normative and they don’t have to make accommodations for living Jewishly.
Additionally, over the one, two or three weeks campers attend camp they build community based on shared values and mutual concern for one another. They learn to live with each other, share with each other, respect each other and support each other.
Camp fosters such an experience. It is why, as tensions flare up again in Israel/Palestine, that one of the things that gives me hope is Seeds of Peace, a summer camp that brings together Israeli and Palestinian youths for an opportunity to live together and learn from one another-simply to recognize the humanity of one another. The opportunities that camp creates are so vital to our society, not just internationally-as racial violence rears its ugly head once again in Ferguson, we are reminded that we so desperately need to find new ways of being in community and fellowship with one another.
I never went to Jewish summer camp growing up, though I did go to camp. I went to two different camps, first in Connecticut then in upstate New York, for 8 weeks over the summer starting when I was 10. (They were somewhat “Jewish” camps because most of the staff and campers were Jewish!) I can look back now and admit that I did not always have a great camp experience, primarily when I was younger. I was bullied, though we didn’t call it that then. And although my camp experience got better as I got older, that early experience still stays with me.
Camp Kalsman has everyone sign an anti-bullying pledge, and consciously addresses bullying in training the staff and in programs with the campers. It is in this way among others that camp not only has evolved and changed to meet changing norms, but that camp takes a very conscious effort to affirm the value of each individual and create a strong community at the same time.
I look forward to returning next year to again have the opportunity to do something that was so personally and professional enriching. And I hope those of you with kids of camp age consider sending your child to Jewish camp. Your child, the Jewish people and the world will be better for it.