December 23, 2004
Reach Out and Touch Faith
When Elizabeth Cobrin goes to Israel this winter break with Birthright Israel, she and her friends have devised a plan to find each other when participants in all the different Birthright trips get together.
They are going to sing their camp songs really, really loudly, until they hear each other and can sing together.
Remembering the songs won't be hard, since Cobrin will spend a week before she goes to Israel in Winter Camp at JCA Shalom in Malibu, her summer home for five years.
Cobrin, a freshman at CSUN, says that her experience at camp, from camper to counselor, has been central to her Jewish identity, and that it stays with her year-round.
"Now that I am a counselor and I'm teaching kids about Judaism and can influence them, it is an even more central part of camp for me," Cobrin said.
For many kids and counselors who attend Jewish summer camps, these winter months bring a Diasporic separation from a source of spiritual and social life. Camp gives a 21st century context to Judaism, cements Jewish identity and perhaps, most importantly, introduces children to lifelong friends, colleagues and even future spouses.
E-mail, instant messaging and weekend cell phone minutes now play the role that stationery and stamps used to in sustaining relationships. Many camps hold weekend reunions or winter camps, and, of course, some campers return together as counselors to continue spending summers on the same hallowed grounds.
The trick seems to be to weave the threads of camp life into the cloth of daily existence. Jill Zuckerman Powell, director of admissions at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, has no trouble keeping in touch with her friends from Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley more than 30 years ago.
"I'm related to them!" she laughs, explaining that her husband, brother-in-law, pediatrician and veterinarian are all camp pals. "I see them all the time, so it's easy to stay in touch."
Jewish camps are known to be one of the best tools of a Jewish education, with their emphasis on multidimensional teaching of values, Hebrew language, culture and religious customs. Young Judaea, a Zionistic youth organization with six camps across the United States, reports in a 1998 survey that 59 percent of alumni light Shabbat candles as compared to 20 percent of the whole Jewish community polled in a 1990 National Jewish Population Study.
The Limud Report, a research project conducted by an independent firm concerned with Jewish life at summer camps, found that 85 percent of Jewish camps conduct Friday night services and that campers cite it as the No. 1 source of spiritual and personal satisfaction in the camp experience. Many recall the magical feeling of standing with the entire camp dressed in white for Shabbat, and walking hand in hand to Friday night services.
For Cobrin, Shabbat services are the most powerful factor in building unity among campers.
"My favorite Jewish activity is Havdalah," she said. "I think that after such a busy week, it is nice to get the whole camp together in one place.... Knowing that [it] could be the first time all week all the age groups are together and participating in the same program."
A former camper notes that whether or not you enjoy services, you are there with everyone else with the single purpose of honoring Shabbat.
But it might be the informal weaving of Judaism into day-to-day activities that provides camp's most powerful impact. Powell points to Alonim's dancing, music and games that all have elements of Jewish culture. In this way, the construction of kids' Jewish identity is not even conscious. It is not until they have time to think about all they have learned in the week or the summer that they notice the change in themselves.
"All my identity as a Jew is through camp. Hebrew school and Sunday school were negative experiences for me, as I think they are for many kids," Powell said.
She met her husband at camp, has sent her two daughters to camp and recommends the experience for every child.
"I wanted to give my children that love," Powell said, emphasizing camp's pivotal role in fostering attachment to a Jewish heritage.
She has a tradition that started when taking her 8-year-old daughter to camp:
"You turn off the radio when you get there. It's almost a spiritual experience, driving down the road to camp."
And it is that experience that lives on throughout the year. Even in the darkness of winter, campers reach to reconnect with spiritual roots that lie dormant, knowing that the warmth of summer, though a few months away, never really recedes.