Jewish summer camps have created American Jews — in some ways, far more effectively than any other institution in American Jewish life.
The second-best place to have spent this past Shabbat would have been Camp Kutz, in Warwick, New York, a pristine spot just south of the Catskills.
(The best? Jerusalem, which is where I have been).
Kutz is known and beloved for its programs for Reform Jewish teens, involving serious and joyful learning, arts, and leadership training. Kutz has also been a retreat center for weekend and school vacation programs. It is an indispensable part of the sacred map of American Reform Judaism.
And it has changed lives — thousands upon thousands of lives.
At Jewish summer camps the entire meaning of camp is to create and to model Judaism. There is a wonderful foundation that does nothing else than support the holy work that happens under the trees – Foundation for Jewish Camp, that deserves individual and communal support.
Let’s consider some famous alumni of Jewish summer camps.
Camp Ramah: Ben Bernanke, B. J. Novak, Henry Waxman, and Wolf Blitzer.
Camp Massad in Pennsylvania: Ralph Lauren and Alan Dershowitz.
Camp Herzl in Wisconsin: the Coen brothers, Thomas Friedman, and Bob Dylan.
Seth Rogen spent his summers at Camp Miriam in Canada.
Two great American Jewish songsters, Eddie Cantor and Neil Diamond, went to Surprise Lake. So did Joseph Heller, Larry King, Gene Simmons, Jerry Stiller and Neil Simon.(Pete Seeger used to visit Surprise Lake, and that inspired Neil Diamond to become a songwriter).
Leonard Cohen went to Camp B’nai B’rith, near Ottawa.
Reform summer camps? The list is long, but here’s one. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, went to Camp Coleman in Georgia. There is a persistent Jewish urban legend -– or, actually, rural legend –- that Adam Sandler attended Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Some people swear that they saw him there. Can’t you see Adam Sandler as a summer camper?
I never ran into Adam Sandler at Camp Eisner, which was where my Jewish life began. I attended Eisner as a camper, and I was a staff member as well — waiter, dishwasher, counselor, song leader, and unit head. My kids started there in day camp, and graduated to regular overnight campers, and then became staff members. All of my closest friendships began at Eisner.
What can Jewish summer camps do — that almost nothing else in the American Jewish world can achieve?
1. Jewish summer camps create Jewish community. We talk a lot about sacred community in the Jewish world today. The Jewish summer camp becomes that community that we all dream of experiencing.
2. Jewish summer camps provide a 24/7 Jewish experience. This happens nowhere else in American non-Orthodoxy. You would have to travel to Israel (which is, of course, indispensable) to get that kind of 24/7 Jewish experience. Jewish summer camps feature bunks with Hebrew names, announcements in Hebrew, songs in Hebrew.
3. Worship comes alive. Kids are totally engaged in camp services. Usually, they are writing them themselves. Those services have their own aesthetic which has greatly influenced American synagogue life. Many composers of Jewish liturgical music, especially the late Debbie Friedman, started in Jewish summer camps.
4. Jewish camps allow kids to see rabbis, educators and cantors as real human beings. My life was profoundly influenced by (then) young rabbis, who spent time at camp. And those relationships create other Jewish professionals.
5. Jewish summer camps create leadership. Kids learn how to dream, plan, and create.
6. Jewish summer camps create lasting friendships. Jewish summer camp friendships create webs of relationships that in some cases have helped transform the Jewish world.
7. American Jewish kids meet Jews from other countries. Jewish summer camps routinely recruit foreign staff members. Many are Jewish. Many, of course, are Israeli. I am still close to my fellow staff members from Camp Eisner, who happen to live in Israel. The camp experience shapes Jewish peoplehood.
Jewish summer camps not only transformed American Judaism; they actually helped create American Judaism.
So, Jewish parents — it’s not too early to make plans for next summer……