Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Are Jewish summer camps a luxury?

Since I began my career in Jewish education I have been identified as a "formal" Jewish educator. First in day schools in the United States, then in post-high school programs in Israel; most recently at the Lookstein Center where I have been moderating the Lookjed list for day school educators for 12 years and now play a role in directing the Jim Joseph Fellowship project, which is the inspiration for this blog.

But there comes a time when I proverbially "let my hair down," when I trade my formal attire for a pair of jeans, cajole my kids into the old station wagon and head to summer camp. On-and-off for the past 20 years I have played the role of Rav Machane - camp Rabbi - at Camp Moshava in Indian Orchard, PA. To be honest, when I first began doing this as a newly married day school teacher, it was a "summer job." As years went by, though, it became a central part of my educational being. It became clear to me that a Jewish summer camp experience is not merely a way to keep the kids occupied in the summer, it is a hothouse environment where kids can be nurtured and developed in a more holistic way than can be offered by most formal Jewish school settings.

Over the years, many of the campers who I met grew into positions in camp as counselors, into division heads, and from there into positions in Jewish education via the rabbinate, graduate studies or both. Some of the most creative, dedicated, thoughtful educators I know trace their roots not to the classroom but to the experiences that they had climbing mountains, fording streams and learning Torah under the stars and trees.

I share this in the context of a conversation that I recently had with a concerned parent who told me that he doubts that he will send his kids to camp this summer. On one level, his reasons are financial - the job market is slow and he has had to turn to the scholarship committee of his kids' day school to ask for help with tuition. Same with camp. But the choice to forgo camp appears to be that of the day school's scholarship committee. He was told that the committee would be looking very closely at "discretionary spending." Included in that list were:
Luxury automobiles
Lavish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs
Family vacations
Summer camps.

He is nervous about losing his kids' scholarship at the day school.

If I understood him correctly, the day school committee's perspective about the educational experience offered by a Jewish summer camp was that it was a "discretionary activity" much like a lavish party or expensive vacation.

I hope that I am wrong. In any case it is time that the world of formal Jewish education accepts Howard Gardner's "Multiple Intelligences" and recognizes that for many of our students who don't shine in the classroom, summer camp is an opportunity for learning and fulfillment, and for virtually all kids it can be an essential part of their educational experience.


  1. I've never been involved with an overnight camp myself, only more formal Jewish education. But my observations of others lead me to think that Jewish camps are actually MORE important that the more formal settings. It is not just the learning, but the sense of Jewish community, the feeling of belonging, and the lifelong memories that I hear people rave about, many many years later.

  2. Ellen, consider offering to be a visiting staff member for a few weeks at a camp ....

  3. I see that Jack Wertheimer has a post on a similar subject. See

  4. Our 7th grade class, in their tefillah unit of Keva and Kavana (set rules vs. spiritual intent) were talking about services in shul vs. services at Jewish camp. When asked what the difference was and why they are so "into" camp prayers but not during the rest of the year, they couldn't define no matter how hard I pressed. All they could say was "you just have to experience it."

    And I guess that's actually the correct answer. No matter how hard we try to make "formal" education fun and even more experiential, there simply is nothing like a true experience - especially on an extended basis like a camp session!

  5. I have to second what Barry related. Many of us have tried for years to distill the essential camp experience down into something we can translate in our supplemental school settings. While some efforts have been successful, the kids tell us that "it's just not the same." Perhaps it is the setting. Perhaps it is the absence of competing compulsory activities (i.e. secular school and supplemental school.) Whatever the reason, Jewish camping remains a primary method of creating new Jews, and day schools and others ignore it at their own peril.

  6. so why not take them to camp year-round? and build synagogues that pay attention to outdoor spaces and "camp" spaces as they are building?

  7. Robyn,

    What the kids make clear is that camp is "different" than the rest of the year - different setting, friends, routines, activities, etc.... Even if we were to succeed in making our schools "year round camps," they would soon become the norm and no longer "different."

  8. Barry,

    Our mistake is we don't use "surprise and delight" year-round ... like camp does every day (it's the Amy Sales thing she talked about to NAACHHS a few years ago). We tend to have our kids experience basically the same setting, the same teacher, the same routine 20 out of 25 weeks in R.S. We don't do enough to make them have 25 different experiences. My 2 cents.

  9. I am dismayed at how Rosh Katan this scholarship committee seems to be. It is reflective of the same "our preferred method of Jewish education (insert your choice of day school, synagogue school, camp, early childhood, Israel experience, adult Jewish learning or dare I say it -- Birthright) is the ONLY valid choice. All others are a waste fo valueable resources."

    I have heard this canard spouted in its various forms since Mort Mandell convened the commission that authored "A Time To Act" in the early 90's and the sentence parsing that began with the publication of the 1990 Jewish Population study. And it stinks and is bad communal policy.

    I could defend or attack any or all of the ways we do Jewish education. And sound very intelligent doing it. The reality is that the more modalities we choose to offer our children, the deeper and richer their Jewish identity will become. My sons are developing wonderful Jewish identities throguh our religious school and our familiy life. And I would forgo many meals in order to enable them to continue as campers at Eisner, the jewish summer camp they have each attended since they were in day camp. (Like Shalom, I put in time there every summer - it is part of why I became an educator.)

    And my older son's semester in Israel was life changing. The list of "luxuries"the scholarship committee is concerned about including camp is a bushah. I sincerely hope your friend'skids do not have to miss out on one experience in order to have the other. And I hope that we can help communal leaders come to the realization that it is not a question of who has the magic bullet, but that we need to take each child and find the best experiences for him or her - the ones that they will find engaging.

  10. 15 years ago I began writing curriculum for Jewish Day Schools and Religious school using Multiple Intelligences as the foundation for all learning modules / lesson plans. One of the reasons camp is so effective (I am a 30 year veteran Ramahnik) is that each persons unique strengths can be met through the variety of mediums offered - musical, spatial, nature, visual... All of the senses are stimulated. I believe that this is possible in daily / school year learning environments and it is up to the educators and school administration to create these opportunities that will connect students to their studies in personalized and meaningful ways. There are great teachers doing this every day and their students are surprised and delighted. Let's hear more from them and keep sharing the resources out there.

  11. Seems pretty obvious that the people who decided that Jewish camps is the equivalent of buying a Lexus are not "camp people." If they were they would never make such a foolish equation.

    -- Sid (have to figure out the whole Google profile thing)