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Jewish summer camp: There’s no substitute for this essential ingredient

It’s not an exaggeration to say that two summers at Herzl Camp in Wisconsin made me want to live a Jewish life
The Shabbat caravan, with everyone dressed in their "Shabbos whites". Photo: courtesy Herzl Camp

Every time I stand in an Israeli classroom to talk about what it’s like to be a Jew who doesn’t live in Israel, the subject of Jewish summer camp elicits astonished reactions.

“Kids go away for a MONTH? For TWO MONTHS?”

It takes considerable explanation and a lot of photos on the screen to convey the essential, beloved role of Jewish summer camp in the lives of American Jewish kids. The anticipation, the countdown, the packing, the big sendoff in the synagogue parking lot.

And then, the magic begins; long, sweet days filled with friends, sports, nature and all the things that make camp a happy place. What makes Jewish summer camp different from other camps is this; not only is camp joyful and fun, camp makes being Jewish joyful and fun. Meaningful. Special. Something you’re proud to be.

Jewish camps, especially the overnight camps, create experiences that connect kids powerfully with Judaism, enabling them to seize the heritage that is their birthright. Campers (and staff, too) taste Judaism’s beauty and feel its sense of belonging. Away from parents and home, they have an opportunity to find a Jewish path authentically their own.

It’s so easy to join America’s broad, secular mainstream culture, to drift away from Jewish faith and peoplehood. Jewish summer camps are a counter to that trend.

So, as one camp after another is, of necessity, shuttered this summer due to COVID-19, I’m heartsick over what kids will miss.

The formative, even transformative, impact of Jewish summer camping is documented. That data only affirms what I learned first-hand, as a camper, and later, as a parent of campers.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that two summers at Herzl Camp in Wisconsin made me want to live a Jewish life. It’s not an overstatement to say that singing Hatikvah every day at flag raising (along with the Star-Spangled Banner and O Canada) planted the seeds of lifelong Zionism. It’s not a stretch to say that Shabbat at camp taught me what Shabbat could be — and why I needed it. And there’s this — I learned the meaning of tzedakah from those summers at camp because scholarship money enabled my financially strapped parents to send me.

Just two summers, three weeks at a time, accomplished this.

The camp legacy continued with our four kids. They went eagerly to Jewish day camp, and made the switch to overnight camp as soon as they were old enough. Herzl Camp, Ramah, Camp Chi…there was a good fit for each child. They continued on as staff, in jobs that required them to problem-solve, think on their feet, and be responsible. That helped them mature, preparing them for the transition to college and adulthood. Our kids are all married now. They are building Jewish homes of their own. Jewish summer camp was an irreplaceable ingredient in that outcome.

Sending our kids to Jewish summer camp had a profound impact not only on each child’s growing Jewish identity, but on our family’s Jewish experience. For example, when our daughter returned one summer from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, she pushed hard for us to keep kosher at home. This future lawyer argued such a compelling case we made the switch, twenty years into marriage! While we began keeping kosher to accommodate our child’s sincere yearning to ascend the ladder of mitzvot, it was not long before keeping a kosher home became quite meaningful to me, too.

Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is where one of our sons met his wife, at age 15. Their long-distance teenage romance thrived through high school and college, and they married upon graduation. They will celebrate their tenth anniversary this summer, along with their beautiful, growing family. This is impact beyond measure.

And, thanks to Jewish summer camp, we got our ‘fifth child’ the easy way. The beautiful Israeli girl who became a member of our family 20 years ago was part of a group of young Israelis sent by the Jewish Agency for Israel to bring a taste of Israel to Jewish summer camps. We volunteered to house her while she worked at a local day camp. The depth of our forever bond is best summed up by telling you this: When she got married our entire family attended the wedding in Israel, and my husband and I stood under the chuppa next to her parents.

Camp strengthened our kids’ connection with Israel. Our kids see travel to Israel not as a “one and done” bucket list item, but as a beloved place to return to again and again. They’ve visited Israel on family trips, teen programs, and Birthright. One child spent a semester at Hebrew U, another went on Young Judea’s Gap Year program. They talk about Israel with familiarity and affection. Each one has a personal bank of experiences to draw upon. The love of Israel that began at home was deepened at camp.

Ask anyone who went to Jewish summer camp and the warm, vivid memories will pour forth. But warm memories will not be enough to sustain these camps during the financial crisis they are facing due to the COVID-19 closures. The visionary Harold Grinspoon Foundation is stepping up to help, committing up to $10 million to a matching fund to help camps weather the crisis. Matching funds mean they aren’t solving the problem for us but with us. We, who value Jewish summer camp and want camp to be there for years to come, must help as best we can.

Jewish summer camp is an essential ingredient of American Jewish life and there is no substitute. I hope and pray that camp will resume next year, and until then, may the strength of personal memories, communal support, and creative efforts at online camp carry us through this strange summer.

Losing one summer of camp generates a long list of ‘what could have been’- the total of all that would have taken place in a typical year.

Let’s summon the resources, both spiritual and financial, to go forward toward ‘what can be’, God willing, in the summers ahead.

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. A resident of suburban Minneapolis, Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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