Ruth Kaplan

Summertime…and the living is Jewish: My letter to American campers

I usually write a personal essay about Jewish overnight camp in early July.  It’s no surprise, as summertime invariably brings wistful memories of my childhood spent among the pine trees by Lake Potanipo at Camp Tevya in Brookline, New Hampshire far away from the routines and pressures of school and family life.

This summer is no exception, but my focus this time is not on nostalgia and memory, but rather on Jewish identity formation and connection to Israel.  It’s no surprise really.  The traumatic and tragic attack Israel suffered on October 7 continues to have a profound impact on many of us, myself included.  This time, I am choosing to write an open letter to Jewish kids lucky enough to currently be at camp.  So here goes:

Dear campers,

As always, I envy you!

You get to be away for the summer in a dream environment of endless fun and activities, making new friends, reconnecting with old ones, and of course spending time with the coolest teens and young adults on the planet:  your counselors!  While you may not realize it, most of them are only a few years older than you, but they just seem so wise and cool and fun that the actual age difference is irrelevant.

Your camp experience is in some ways no different from that of any American overnight camp:  boating, canoeing, sailing, swimming, sports, singing, trips, arts and crafts, evening activities, etc.  However, it is indeed very different in one important respect:  you are at a Jewish camp, surrounded by fellow Jews with the goal of enhancing your positive Jewish identity and your sense of belonging to a unique ethnic-religious community.

As we know, Jewish camps differ.  Some of you may have daily prayers, while others have only Shabbat services on Friday nights and Saturdays.  Indeed, for many of you, it’s the only time in your lives where you are marking the conclusion of Shabbat with the beautiful Havdalah ceremony.

Some of your camps have more focus on formal learning, while others have Jewish culture classes a few times a week at best.  However, there’s still a lot you all share in common:  you are in an immersive Jewish setting where all the campers and most of the counselors are Jewish, and you are all exposed to the centrality of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.  You pray and sing in Hebrew, even if you don’t understand the words, and learn Israeli folk dance steps.

It’s completely natural to take all this for granted at this stage of your lives.  A minority of you may attend Jewish day schools during the academic year, but most of you do not.  So this is a unique experience for you to be surrounded by Jews and Jewish culture 24/7.  Even the sense of time is Jewish:  Friday is spent anticipating Shabbat, your day of rest is Saturday, and you return to a weekday schedule on Sunday, just like in Israel.  Unlike at home, Sunday is not part of your weekend.

While it’s hard for any of you to appreciate most of this at this stage of your lives, your Jewish overnight camp experience is a tremendous gift—you are being introduced organically to the wonders of your Jewish heritage which is a bonus to your American identity.  Like all American Jews, you have access to the best of both worlds:  you do what all other American kids do, but you possess a whole other “extra” part of your identity that makes your life richer.

And there’s more:  You have a special bond to Israel, our one and only Jewish state,
the creation of which 76 years ago was nothing short of a miracle.  It’s a tiny nation the size of New Jersey, but its story is remarkable, both in terms of the millions of immigrants it absorbed over such a short period of time and its remarkable and innovative accomplishments in the areas of science, technology and culture which have transformed the world and the Jewish people globally.  Israel has in its short history helped millions of people worldwide to improve their lives.

But Israel is located in a region where it has historically had many enemies, and unfortunately its people have had to fight difficult battles to survive.  Although some of you are still very young, you probably know that this past fall, the Israeli people—Jews and Arabs alike—were the victims of a vicious and violent attack that killed roughly 1200 innocent people in one day.  And there are still over 100 hostages being held captive by cruel terrorists right over the border in the Gaza Strip.

But resilient and brave young and not so young soldiers are still at war defending their fellow citizens to prevent this kind of brutality from happening in the future, and fighting for the return of the innocent hostages. Believe it or not, many of those brave young heroes who fought for Israel are your camp counselors this very summer.  Most of your camps have contingents of young Israeli “shlichim” who are just like your other cool counselors.  But unlike your American counselors, most of whom are either going to or returning to college in the fall, your Israeli counselors may actually be returning to the army.  You have the rare opportunity to get to be their friends and learn about their lives in Israel.

How are we alike and how are we different from our Israeli “family?” Ask them lots of questions about their lives and share your experiences with them as well.  What’s it like to be Jewish in your public school?  Are there times when you’ve felt uncomfortable this past year because of your Jewish identity?  Are you proud to be Jewish or is it sometimes a burden?  I’m sure they are curious about you as well.  They live in a country where roughly 80% of people are Jewish.  You on the other hand live in a place where Jews are a small minority.  It’s two different realities.

Many years ago when I was a camper and counselor,  we had only one Israeli counselor named Yoram.  He played the lead role of “Tevya” in the camp’s musical production “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Yoram and I had some interesting debates about the meaning of the Israeli flag that summer—was it only the flag of the State of Israel or was it the flag of Jewish people everywhere?  We couldn’t agree, but I’ve never forgotten that dialogue.

You campers are even more fortunate than I was to have so many more Israeli counselors at your camps.  Make them your special friends.  You can even visit them when you travel to Israel!

The older you get, the more you’ll come to understand how being Jewish can sometimes mean living in two different worlds simultaneously.  In my experience, this is a great benefit that will only enrich your lives.

And believe me, I know sometimes you might wish you didn’t have to go to Shabbat services, or listen to your Jewish Culture counselor lead discussions about religion or history.  But trust me:  someday in the not too distant future, you’re going to appreciate how blessed and fortunate you are to have the “bonus” in your lives of your Jewish identity and connection to Israel and her people.

Have a great summer at Jewish “never-never land.”  I’m with you in spirit!

About the Author
Ruth is a writer and consultant with a varied career including academic pursuits in Jewish history, social services and governmental work, private practice as an attorney, and public service as an elected and appointed official dealing with public education. For the past 15 years, she has served the Jewish and Israeli communities in a variety of leadership roles, including Director of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies Boston-Haifa Connection and Director of Community Relations for the Consulate General of Israel to New England.
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