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Jewish Journal

Why a Jewish camp?

by Joel Einleger, JTA

March 18, 2010 | 2:01 pm

With winter’s snow at an end, thousands of parents are now imagining their children swimming in a mountain lake after a long, hot run in the summer sun as they send off applications for their children to attend summer camp. But only some parents will choose a camp that can also help build their child’s Jewish connections, identity and pride while they also enjoy a seemingly endless choice of camp activities.

This powerful Jewish growth opportunity should not be missed, especially since campers today don’t have to forgo anything to enjoy the long-lasting benefits from the summer experience.

Considering the shifting cultural patterns among Jews during the past century (remember bungalow colonies?), it may be surprising that overnight camps are still popular more than a century after the first one opened. But it can’t be a secret, can it, if Jewish families last summer enrolled 70,000 children in a Jewish summer camp?

What do they know that some of us must be missing, even though we are all responsible parents?

After having visited dozens and dozens of camps across North America in my work for a national Jewish foundation, I have three reasons to choose a Jewish camp (based on various archetypes):

1. No sacrifices necessary. Skateboarding, anyone?

Most Jewish camps today offer the same activities and experiences available at non-Jewish camps. Alice, 14, was naturally gifted in basketball, so her parents thought that sending her to a sports specialty camp would help her develop this skill. When they explored options and talked to friends, they were surprised to find so many Jewish camps offering an array of specialty and sports programs.

It’s not unusual to find field hockey, cooking, climbing walls, ropes courses, mountain biking, tennis, waterskiing and yes, even skateboarding, in Jewish camps—options far beyond what Alice’s parents remember from their time as campers. (Of course, these camps also offer the traditional baseball, basketball, swimming, arts and crafts, theater plays and other activities that they do recall.)

Last summer Alice attended a Jewish camp that offered a basketball “intensive”: three weeks of instruction and practice for 2 1/2 hours every day. There were five other intensive programs from which to choose. Jewish camps have taken strides to keep pace with the competition, regularly adding specialties and new programs to accommodate the interests of their campers.

2. Judaism … that’s for school! What does it have to do with the summer?

David, a sixth-grader, goes to his temple school weekly in preparation for his bar mitzvah. The image of Jewish summer camp raised fears that he would feel as if he was attending Hebrew school all summer. But camps that create intentional and thoughtful Jewish summer programs make lasting positive impressions on children, who learn that playing baseball and being Jewish are not mutually exclusive. After the summer, David came home proud that many of the behaviors and values he learns in school are rooted in Jewish ethics and found in our historic texts.

Even for day school children who benefit from Jewish education daily, their classroom learning comes to life easily when shared with friends at camp. Judaism is experienced in Jewish camps in a natural, comfortable and positive way. Ask a Jewish adult where they had the most intensive and enjoyable Jewish experiences as a child, and many will say at camp.

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