I was privileged last month to participate in the Summit on Jewish Teens, in Atlanta in conjunction with the annual international conventions of BBYO and NFTY. As I walked around the convention floor observing 3,000 proud, energetic Jewish teenagers, my thoughts drifted back to my own term as international president of USY, 36 years ago. In the ballroom now, just as there were then, were the future leaders of our Jewish community.
With the alarming statistics telling us that we are “losing” a large segment of our Jewish kids after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, many organizations and funders are working hard to offer opportunities to keep teens engaged and empowered. Jewish camp provides a critical connection point. In summer 2014, of the 77,000+ campers who attended overnight camp, more than 38,000 were teens!
Camp offers robust and diverse ways for young children, teens, young adults, parents, and staff to connect to Jewish life in a powerful and meaningful way. Now, more than ever, we are reaching teens with a wide variety of immersive Jewish experiences. Beyond the traditional overnight camp experience, we are helping make possible for teens to spend the summer traveling by bus across North America, spend a month outdoors hiking and kayaking, or doing community service projects. There are also a myriad of summer teen travel programs to Israel. And we are growing the specialty options available at traditional camps that give teens greater access to the skills in which they are most interested in developing.
The immersive, Jewish environment at camp empowers all campers, and specifically teens, to develop their Jewish pride, and deepen their connections and friendships to their peers and role models. The positive Jewish experience at camp creates an emotional connection with their Jewishness that informs them to lead Jewish lives. Beyond the joyous Judaism they are exposed to at camp, teens develop skills and enhance talents that help them to succeed in life, and they increase their self-confidence and independence.
Camp also has a tremendous impact on the Jewish choices teens make during the school year. When they have returned from camp, they tend to engage in more Jewish activities – such as youth groups with peers – and are involved in Jewish communal life.
Teens today are caught up in a world of after school activities, SAT prep, and resume building, but summer after summer, teens come back to overnight camp. They return because of the friendships made, leadership skills gained and memories they will never forget. Each summer, they are also challenged differently, they have upgraded privileges and additional responsibilities. This rite of passage is what makes them return to their summer home each year.
As a community which cares deeply about teen engagement and empowerment, Jewish camp provides a meaningful answer, worthy of further investment and expansion.