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:
Lavish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs
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.