One of the saddest days of my life was when I finished graduate school. Instead of going to Jewish day or overnight summer camp (either as a camper or counselor/unit leader) for the summer (which I had been doing since age 5), I was on my way to work at the Jewish Federation in Baltimore. It hit me hard -- no more summers away in “my special place.”
Luckily, in my role at the Jewish Federation, I have the opportunity to visit several Jewish camps each summer. Recently, I had the pleasure to visit both B’nai B’rith Camp and Camp Solomon Schechter, two camps with longtime connections to our community.
It was so much fun to see the children doing activities and having a great time. The facilities are fantastic, the food tasty, and smiles abound across the campgrounds. Kudos to the executive directors of each camp, Michelle Koplan and Zach Duitch, who do an outstanding job developing camp programs, hiring the right staff, upgrading their facilities, and making the camp environment as safe as possible.
Although I only visited these two camps, our community has children attending 16 different Jewish overnight camps in 11 states. Many of these children are first-time overnight campers who received a One Happy Camper incentive grant from the Jewish Federation.
Jewish summer camps fuse together the activities, friendships, and communal life of traditional camps with the Jewish values, role models and culture from our shared heritage. The Reform movement created this excellent list of six reasons why a child should consider Jewish overnight camp:
1. Experiences first, explanations later. Every child contributes to their Jewish community at camp. In other realms of Jewish life, they are taught about Jewish communal life and then experience it. At camp, they experience it (at meals, during Shabbat, on the ropes course, in the cabin - everywhere), and the explanations come later.
2. Camp friendships last beyond the summer. After the dirty laundry has been washed and the camp trunk put away, the friendships endure. Camp is an easy entry point into a lifelong Jewish community. As kids grow, opportunities increase to connect with Jewish peers through bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, Jewish youth groups, Israel travel, and much more. Many alumni of Jewish camps maintain friendships through college, young adulthood, and beyond – and social media makes it even easier today.
3. Immersive Jewish community - 24/7. Campers are exposed to adult Jewish role models, Jewish peers, and Jewish friends from different places. Campers experience joy in a Jewish community, develop self-confidence as Jews, and forge Jewish connections that stay with them into their lives beyond camp. It is powerful! Nowhere else do campers get to experience Judaism infused into daily life and reinforced by a community of Jewish peers from backgrounds of all kinds.
4. Camp ends, but the Jewish community continues. Research shows that children who attend Jewish summer camp are more likely to identify as Jewish adults and actively engage in the Jewish community. The experience of “living in a Jewish community” – camp -- has a deep and profound impact on Jewish children, who are more likely to practice Jewish behaviors as adults as a result of attending camp.
5. Jewish camp addresses the whole camper. Children learn confidence, skill-building and socialization by living in a community. They learn how to manage in a diverse group of peers, and they face new situations and overcome challenges daily. They also have role models and mentors who create safe spaces for campers to grapple with complex ideas based in Jewish values, texts, and traditions. Jewish camp provides balance by creating space for spiritual, emotional and physical growth for campers.
6. Camp helps kids succeed beyond childhood. Camp is all about fun and can be an environment for "real-world" learning. Campers who return to camp as staff members can create opportunities to advance themselves professionally. Many camp staff have found that their experiences as camp counselors have helped them jumpstart their careers, establish their network on their college campuses, and meet new people as they settle in their hometown or new cities after college.
Multiple studies show the incredible impact Jewish overnight camping has on our children. Click here to read the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s breakthrough study on Jewish overnight camping.
Jewish overnight camp is great, but nationally only 8% of all Jewish children attend. Last year, I shared a different study detailing the impact Jewish day camps have. Portland is blessed to have five wonderful Jewish day camps – MJCC Day Camp, Portland Jewish Academy Summer Discovery Camp, B’nai B’rith Day Camp, Kollel’s Camp SEED, and Chabad’s Gan Israel Day Camp.
Jewish camping is one of the most effective ways for our children to develop lifelong Jewish friendships, to grow as individuals, and to form meaningful connections with the Jewish community and Israel. Our community has approximately 1000 children attending Jewish day and overnight camps. That is approximately 25% of our Jewish youth ages 6-15. Let’s work towards the goal of more children (and their families) sharing in these priceless experiences.
On a different note, this past week, Portland was honored to host the national NewCAJE Conference with over 400 Jewish educators from across North America (including 100 from Oregon). The wide array of sessions and programs show the efforts being made to reimagine Jewish (formal, informal, experiential) education in the 21st century. Seeing the enthusiasm, collegiality, and special bond between these educators felt just like being at summer camp.
These past few weeks have been filled with ruach (spirit) and inspiration and I was delighted to experience it all. I hope you continue to enjoy your summer.
Finally, this Monday night at 7:00 p.m. at Neveh Shalom’s Stampfer Chapel will be a special program on “Israeli Innovation” with StandWithUs Shaliach, Eitan Teiger. The program is free and open to everyone. We are grateful to the co-sponsors: Jewish Federation, Israel 360, StandWithUs NW, and Moishe House.