Dan Ornstein

“Recommend” or “Share” this essay if you love Jewish summer camp

Before you dismiss the above title as no more than a shameless plug for my blog, consider the profound impact that Jewish summer camping has historically had on Jewish children throughout the Diaspora. If you, your children or grand children had or are having a life transforming experience or just a lot of fun at camp, consider what Jewish summer camp has meant and means to your family. As you are thinking about these things and about my request, let me tell you a story about my family’s relationship with camp.

My children’s “second home” is Camp Ramah, the Jewish summer camp that they attend and at which they work as counselors. It is one of several Ramah camps in our religious denomination of Conservative Judaism. Since Ramah was founded by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1947, it has built lasting friendships, produced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jewish marriages, inspired families to perpetuate the values of Judaism, and provided over six generations of kids and their families with cherished memories and powerful social networks.

Each summer, my wife and I go back and forth to camp several times for a variety of reasons. When we do, I continue to be mystified by the power of camp to draw my kids away from the comforts of home and into the secret society of their friends and fellow counselors, bugs and heat waves notwithstanding. I attended a Jewish camp only once as a camper when I was thirteen. My parents committed a great deal of money to the endeavor, then made me go. This was my maiden voyage away from home for an extended period of time, eight weeks to be exact. I was a scared, insecure, un-athletic homebody, who wanted nothing more than to escape that prison and hitchhike back to our house in Queens, New York. I wrote my father long, eloquent letters explaining why it was OK for him to bring me home early. He wrote me longer, more eloquent letters in longhand, explaining how, sadly, that would not be possible. Though I recognize now how much the experience helped me to “cut the cord” and become an independent adult, at the time I was miserable. Other than two brief stints as a counselor, I never went back to camp. My kids and their peers cannot wait to return each year, which I will never be able to fully fathom emotionally.

Seeking to understand the mysterious appeal of Jewish summer camping I turned to some current research. The Association for Jewish Camp estimates that 70,000 Jewish kids attend a rich variety of overnight Jewish summer camps each year in North America, which is dramatic demographic testimony to the profound potential educational impact of camping upon Jewish children. A paper published relatively recently on the association’s website explains in great detail the successful appeal I alluded to above. Here is its conclusion:

The impact of camp on Jewish community awareness should not come as a surprise…Campers and counselors live together for weeks, removed from outside influences, forming bonds of friendship and loyalty that will be, for most, unlike any they have experienced in the past. They grow together, learn about themselves, and acquire new skills of self-reliance and peer interdependence…[Camping]also creates habits of Jewish practice. It makes Judaism part and parcel of life’s most joyous moments. Moreover, those moments are experienced as integral parts of life in a beloved community.
Cohen, Miller, Sheskin and Torr, 2011, Camp Works: The Long Term Impact Of Jewish Overnight Camp, concluding page.

My kids and their friends put the study’s first conclusion in much simpler, non-sociological terms: “Camp is where we can be ourselves with people who understand and care about us.” This could be said about any good camp program, which is why the study’s second conclusion should be emphatically repeated. Jewish camping works Jewishly because it seamlessly weaves Judaism and Jewish identity into every aspect of that lived experience of community and fun that people crave. It is a humming, natural subtext to a child’s life during the summer, his or her favorite time of the year. Most significantly, it allows a Jewish kid to grow in an organic Jewish environment, temporarily relieved of the complexities of living as a minority in a largely non-Jewish majority.

Much has been made about the inevitable disconnect between the intensity of camp life and life in the real world when a kid returns home at summer’s end. Obviously, no social experiment works perfectly beyond its own walls. Further, I certainly understand that camp does not work for every child, and that it is still only one among many pieces needed to help the global Jewish village to raise its children. Finally, the often prohibitive cost of camp still makes it extremely hard, even impossible for some families to send their kids away. Nonetheless, as any happy camper’s experience will show, Jewish summer camp remains one of the most successful long-term Jewish continuity endeavors ever created in the Diaspora. That certainly is worth “liking” and supporting.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at
Related Topics
Related Posts