While growing up in Cincinnati, Elissa Ben-Naim attended a Jewish sleep-away camp. At the end of the summer, still filled with camp spirit, she insisted that her family begin saying blessings before and after every meal.
This lasted only a month, but it led the family to institute weekly Shabbat dinners. Ben-Naim went on to earn a master's degree in Jewish education. A year ago, she became a rabbi. This summer, as part of her duties at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, she will be rabbi-in-residence at the temple's two Malibu camps, Gindling Hilltop Camp and Camp Hess Kramer.
Like Ben-Naim, many youngsters begin taking Judaism seriously as a result of their summer-camp experiences. (These camps generally accept children age 7 through the teenage years for sessions of various lengths, from one week to the full summer.)
Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, home of Camp JCA Shalom, also in Malibu, explains, "Camp is where Jewish identities are built. We know it works."
Like other sleep-away camps that attract Southern California's Jewish children, JCA Shalom works hard to incorporate Jewish beliefs and rituals into the fun of camp life. This, of course, means that exuberant Sabbath celebrations are among the highlights of each session.
But local camps also find ways to breathe the spirit of Judaism into daily activities. For instance, kids might talk about Jewish environmentalism while making rain sticks as an arts-and-crafts project. Sports activities might be conducted in a way that encourages the Jewish values of sportsmanship and teamwork.
Brian Greene, who heads Camp Ramah in Ojai, says of his campers, "They know that they're in a Jewish place, whatever they're doing. It creates wonderful, positive Jewish associations for them."
At Wilshire Boulevard Temple's camps, which are run according to the precepts of the Reform movement, Ben-Naim will oversee educational and ritual offerings. She'll make sure that staff members, as well as campers, have enriching opportunities for Judaic study. Equally important, her presence will help demystify the rabbinate. In the eyes of congregants, rabbis often seem superhuman. Ben-Naim notes that during the school year "kids don't see their rabbi at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and in the pool."
At camp, they'll watch Ben-Naim interacting with her husband and coping with the antics of her toddler son. The six rabbinic students on this year's staff, as well as visiting clergy from local congregations, will provide useful Jewish role models. They will also contribute to an atmosphere of informal education, in which spotting a rainbow on the way to the beach can be an opportunity to learn a prayer and see the hand of God in the universe.
Camp Ramah, however, which has branches at a number of sites throughout the nation, reflects the standards of Conservative Judaism. Daily prayer services, egalitarian but otherwise traditional, are an important part of camp life. Greene makes clear that at Camp Ramah, although rabbis are frequently on site, they never lead the davening. Instead, formal services are conducted by the campers themselves or by young counselors. This, Greene says, contributes to "a real sense of entitlement.... Everyone is an equal participant."
Ramah is unusual because of its emphasis on Hebrew, using it as the language of public address as well as prayer. And the camp mandates one hour of age-appropriate Jewish text study daily for every camper. All staffers are also expected to take part in Jewish study and ritual practices.
"We wouldn't hire a basketball instructor who wasn't committed to religious ideals," he said.
Malibu's Camp JCA Shalom has undergone a metamorphosis. Fifty years ago, when the camp was founded by the Jewish Centers Association, it was intended to be, in Bill Kaplan's terms, "a camp for Jews, not a Jewish camp."
Religious observance was therefore downplayed. But a decade ago, JCA Shalom adopted a more traditional Jewish approach. The fact that the camp is affiliated with no specific Jewish denomination means that Shabbat and other rituals are pluralistic in nature. Diverse forms of worship are respected, but the kitchen is kosher, study of the weekly Torah portion is obligatory, and each two-week session revolves around a specifically Jewish theme.
Overseeing the Judaic component at JCA Shalom are senior staff members with rich Jewish backgrounds. One recently graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary; another spent last year at an egalitarian yeshiva in Jerusalem. Also on staff are five Israeli shlichim (emissaries) sponsored by the Jewish Federation's L.A.-Tel Aviv Partnership, as well as two counselors-in-training who are products of Tsofim, Israel's scouting movement. In addition, JCA Shalom boasts
a Jewish nature director and
a Spielberg Fellow experienced in Jewish theater.
Jewishly committed young people such as these frequently interact with campers whose knowledge of Judaism is minimal. Greene insists, "I love to have the Jews who aren't connected, so that we can connect them. If they go to Camp Ramah the next year, or an Orthodox camp -- great!"
Rebecca Hailpern has spent 13 summers at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley, first as a camper and now as the youth and family programs administrator for the camp's parent organization, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. Over the years, she has come to understand Alonim's goal: to give a Jewish cultural experience to any Jew of any background. In its quest to reach everyone, the camp has devised its own prayer book containing transliteration and English translation as well as Hebrew text. To avoid favoring any Jewish denomination, it sets traditional prayers to unique melodies.
Alonim prides itself on its warm and welcoming Shabbat celebrations. As Friday night approaches, all campers help prepare the camp. Then everyone dons white clothing, like the mystics of Safed, as a way of symbolizing purity and unity. They form a joyous procession to the rec hall, where Shabbat is greeted with jubilant song. In Hailpern's words, "Everyone's really caught up in a certain spirit. Kids love Shabbat!"
Ben-Naim agrees that Shabbat is probably when Jewish camps make their biggest impact. It's not always necessary to educate campers with explicitly Jewish teachings, Rabbi Ben-Naim says.
"Sometimes being in one place at one time with hundreds of Jewish people saying the same blessings is enough."