Jewish Journal

Camp Passion

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

January 28, 2014 | 7:46 am

This is the season when families start thinking about summer plans – more specifically, summer camp for their kids.

So, here comes my shout out for Jewish summer camps.

Several items that are floating around the ‘net these days remind us of the enduring power and worth of such summer experiences. Check out http://www.summercampculture.com/famous-summer-camp-alumni, which details how various famous people spent their summer vacations. Check this one out as well, mostly for laughs and nostalgia. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/135213/jewish-summer-camp-1980s

It turns out that many famous Jews attended Jewish summer camps. OK, alumni, get ready for bragging rights (and remember, the web site data is incomplete so don't get on my case). Camp Ramah: Ben Bernanke, B. J. Novak, Henry Waxman, and Wolf Blitzer. Camp Massad in Pennsylvania: Ralph Lauren and Alan Dershowitz. Camp Herzl in Wisconsin: the Coen brothers, Thomas Friedman, and Bob Dylan.

Seth Rogen spent his summers at Camp Miriam in Canada. Matisyahu attended Kutsher’s. Two great American Jewish songsters, Eddie Cantor and Neil Diamond, went to Surprise Lake. So did Joseph Heller, Larry King, Gene Simmons, Jerry Stiller and Neil Simon. Leonard Cohen went to Camp B’nai B’rith near Ottawa. Robert Smigel went to Camp Modin in Maine.

Reform summer camps? Julie Gold went to Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania. So did Seth Green. Susan Sandberg, COO of Facebook, went to Camp Coleman in Georgia. There is a persistent Jewish urban legend – or, actually, rural legend – that Adam Sandler attended Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Some people swear that they saw him there. Can't you see Adam Sandler as a summer camper? And Jonah Hill? He looks like every camper I have ever known. 

For me, it happened forty five years ago this month. On a Sunday morning in January, my father drove my brother and me up to Great Barrington, Massachusetts to visit the Eisner Camp to see if we wanted to go there. It had snowed the night before. We could not find the camp. We were about to ditch the entire mission and head back to Long Island.

Finally, my father stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. A gas station attendant pointed down the road.  We followed his (general) directions, and found the road. We had passed that road several times. It turned out that the freshly-fallen snow had obscured the sign that pointed towards the camp.

The rest is history -- my history and my family’s history. I attended Eisner, fell in love with Judaism, became active in the Reform youth movement, and went on to become a rabbi. My sons would ultimately go there and would work there.  Had it not been for that anonymous gas station attendant, my Jewish life would have been radically different.  And I know that I speak for countless thousands of American Jews.

But if you are reading this, you probably already know about what Jewish summer camps do. Please note: Jewish summer camps are not summer camps where the preponderance of campers is Jewish. (That would be true of most summer camps). Jewish summer camps are camps where the entire meaning of camp is to create and to model Judaism. There is a wonderful foundation that does nothing else than support the holy work that happens under the trees – Foundation for Jewish Camp, that deserves individual and communal support. http://www.jewishcamp.org

What can Jewish summer camps do that almost nothing else in the American Jewish world can achieve?

1. Jewish summer camps create Jewish community. That’s no small thing; in fact, it is the biggest thing. We talk a lot about sacred community in the Jewish world today. In many places, it happens. But it is rare. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that the contemporary synagogue suffers from a severe cold. The Jewish summer camp becomes the kehillah that we all dream of experiencing.

2. Jewish summer camps provide a 24/7 Jewish experience. Sadly, this happens nowhere else in American non-Orthodoxy. That’s because American Jews – all modern Jews, really – have bifurcated their “Jewish” selves and their “secular” selves. You would have to travel to Israel (which is, of course, indispensable) to get that kind of 24/7 Jewish experience.

3. Worship comes alive. Kids are engaged in camp services. Usually, they are writing them themselves. Those services have their own aesthetic which has greatly influenced American synagogue life.

4. Jewish camps allow kids to see rabbis, educators and cantors as real human beings. My life was profoundly influenced by the (then) young rabbis, etc. who spent time at camp. And those relationships create other Jewish professionals. 

5. Jewish summer camps create leadership. Kids learn how to dream, plan, and create. Just go back to that web site and notice how many American leaders – not only Jewish leaders – attended summer camps.

6. Jewish summer camps create lasting friendships. Jewish summer camp friendships create webs of relationships that in some cases have helped transform the Jewish world.

7. American Jewish kids meet Jews from other countries. Jewish summer camps routinely recruit foreign staff members. Many are Jewish. Many more, of course, are Israeli. I am still close to my fellow Israeli staff members from Eisner. That experience shapes Jewish peoplehood.

That is simply a short list. Jewish summer camps not only transformed American Judaism; they actually helped create American Judaism. And they have created American Jews -- in some ways, far more effectively than any other institution in American Jewish life. 

On the subject of American Jewish celebrities, my candidate for Jewish heroine of the week is....

Scarlett Johanssen. She has continued her support for SodaStream, and she has stood up to the BDS movement and Oxfam, who have criticized her publicly visible support for this company that operates on the West Bank.http://forward.com/articles/191595/scarlett-johansson-stands-by-sodastream-response-t/

Thanks, Scarlett, for your courage and commitment to genuine peace.  You are a role model for Jewish celebrities.

Wait. Scarlett didn't go to Jewish summer camp?

OK -- it happens. Sometimes. 

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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