Once upon a time, Jewish summer camp was a place for beautiful Shabbat and Havdalah services, s’mores around a campfire, Shabbat-o-grams, and letters from home. Camps nowadays are all of this and more! You will be hard-pressed to find a summer camp without at least one climbing tower, outdoor adventures which include rappelling and cave exploration, experts coming for several days to teach everything from a capella singing to basketball to pastry baking. At my camp, Camp Ramah in New England, campers even have the opportunity to learn from an artist experienced in duct tape art!
And all camps have found creative ways to incorporate technology in to their daily operation. I remember “purists” ten years ago objecting to our wiring the camp for the internet. Now, security enabled wifi access points allow our 40 Israeli delegation members, our 20 Eastern European kitchen workers, and the other 140 staff members to be in touch with family, friends and the outside world.
We successfully walk a fine line: we do not allow campers to bring IPhones and other electronic gadgets to camp, but we use technology to communicate with camp families and to simplify their lives. Families register online, they send emails to their children which get printed out and delivered daily to their bunks. The director sends out a weekly d’var torah and updates from camp—with a spotlight on several notable events of the week. Families daily check the photo gallery to see pictures of their children—nicely arranged by division, and parents are informed of daily highlights by going to the camp blog. Today alone features news of the Amitzim (special needs program) talent show, the Machon etgar (15 year olds hiking and canoeing trip), the camp wide Six Flags trip, and the 14 year olds production in Hebrew of Alice in Wonderland.
Yes, technology in a Jewish summer camp has its limitations: rain storms bring the internet down, families come to expect more communication than we can offer, and more transparency leads to the occasional comment about: why is my son not smiling? (and the follow up, “doesn’t’ he have any friends?) Why is my daughter not in the bunk photo? (she was in the bathroom) or Why is my son (in the special needs camping program) putting tefillin on his left arm?—he is a lefty!
I’d like to think that Jewish summer camps will continue to find creative ways to use technology. Perhaps we will build on the already wonderful use nowadays--posting photos and blog entries, to the provision of year round on-line learning, video chatting on Jewish topics, discussion boards for parents, and more! Technology is empowering and has the potential to play a important role—year round—in the lives of Jewish summer camps.