Glowing Around the Jewish Campfire

Glowing Around the Jewish Campfire

You know how people always say that pregnant women have a certain “radiance” or “glow” to them?

Well, I swear my 8-year-old daughter Ellie has returned from her first-ever overnight camp experience with a similar glow. And no, I’m not worried she’s pregnant. She’s just very happy, and in less than six days has become visibly more independent, confident and mature. Not to mention tanner.

As regular readers of this blog will know, she was at Eden Village Camp, a Jewish environmental camp/farm that is one of five Jewish “specialty” camps launched last year through the Foundation for Jewish Camp “incubator.”

I’ve become a big fan of Jewish summer camps (at least this particular one), even as I try to maintain some modicum of journalistic objectivity. After all, my job is to write about Jewish education, a field in which summer camps are playing an ever-larger role.

Now that my own child is one of the 70,000-plus kids to attend a Jewish sleep-away camp this summer, I can see firsthand what a nurturing and empowering experience camp can provide, how much a kid can learn and absorb while at camp and how thrilling it can be for a child who is usually one of the few (if not the only) Jewish kids in her class to be in an all-Jewish environment for a chunk of time. Not to mention having a full, immersive, 25-hour Shabbat experience, complete with prayer services and Havdalah. (We do Friday night blessings and dinner at home, but that’s about it for our Shabbat observance, something I feel kind of bad about.)

I don’t know what it’s like at other Jewish overnight camps, but at Eden Village, having a non-Jewish parent is a total non-issue, because it’s the kind of place that just seems comfortable and welcoming and inspiring for everyone (including observant Jews). At the family camp there in May at least a third of the parents I chatted with were intermarried.

Friends of mine — he’s Jewish, she’s Chinese (and not Jewish) — visited the camp for a Sukkot program there last fall, at my suggestion. They have not been particularly involved in Jewish life, but I was hoping they would send their daughter Claire on the five-day session, so Ellie would have a friend there. My plan both succeeded and failed: they loved the camp and its directors so much that they decided five days was too short and signed her up for the three-week session instead. Even though she’s an only child and had never been away from her parents for more than a night!

Fortunately, Ellie’s friend Olivia (another — gasp! — child of intermarriage) came for the five-day session, and it sounds like all three girls had a great time.

Having said that (and not exactly in the way Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld use the phrase in this clip from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), much of the rhetoric promoting Jewish camps — and Jewish education in general — still drives me crazy. In particular, touting it as a sort of insurance against intermarriage and assimilation.

Reading an otherwise excellent series of articles in The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent (the reporter, like me in another, of course excellent, camp article, visited, among other camps, Camp Galil) I found myself rolling my eyes at the following:

In the battle against assimilation, demographic shifts and the rise of intermarriage, camp is right up there with Jewish day school, home life and trips to Israel.
Camp is a way to "invest in Jews ahead of time," so we don’t have to deal with repairing disengagement later on, said Steven M. Cohen, who has worked on several camp studies and also directs the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University.

Love the “battle” language and the clinical description of human beings: “invest” in them, so we don’t have to “repair” them later.
Later in the series, the reporter quotes a parent who speaks approvingly of her children’s camp "infusing Jewish identity.”

Maybe their three kids don’t "need" camp because their home life and day school instill enough love for Judaism that they would never think of intermarrying, [she] said, but "I’d like to put the odds in my favor."

Please, folks: our children are not little androids to be branded with Jewish identity and programmed not to intermarry. They are human beings with whom we wish to share the richness of Jewish texts, traditions and community. We send them to camp not because they “need” it, but so that they can have a rewarding, educational, fun summer in which they learn about their heritage, feel the joy of being part of something larger than themselves and, hopefully, one day grow up to be thoughtful, contributing (and not just in the financial sense) members of our community. Right?

While I’m alienating Jewish communal leaders, right and left, here’s another anecdote in the article that made me wince. A counselor approvingly describing a former associate director who "used to stand up randomly in the dining hall and yell, ‘I love being Jewish,’ to which all the kids would roar back the same phrase."

I, too, love being Jewish, but somehow this type of cheerleading seems kind of superficial and dumb to me. But then maybe that’s just because my Jewish identity wasn’t invested in adequately when I was a child— after all, the only overnight camp I ever attended was Girl Scout camp.

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