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Jewish Journal

Happy Campers

by Rob Eshman

September 2, 2004 | 8:00 pm

We are driving to pick up our son from camp. He's been there three weeks, the longest stretch he's been away from us since his birth.

In this age of e-mails and BlackBerrys and cell phones, the rule at Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley is no e-mails, BlackBerrys or cell phones. He's sent us a few postcards home, clearly written by an 11-year-old who has put away childish things, like parents.

"Dear Family: We prayed and prayed and had havdalah end of story. Love, Adi. P.S. I love you. P.P.S. Tomorrow's our overnight and we're creating our own fire and no letters on Sunday."

We follow a dusty procession of cars making its way toward the bunks -- the one time of year these SUVs will touch actual dirt. Our son and his friends pour out -- and they are different. Taller. Browner. A bit of manly bunk-stench still clinging to their clothes. We ask them how it was and they laugh among themselves and break into secret jokes and chants and hints of midnight sneak-outs, leaving the details to our imaginations. For a decade their lives have been lived out solely on our turf. Now we are strangers on theirs.

On this warm August morning, the endless agonizing over Jewish continuity and how best to ensure a Jewish future seems especially vapid. You want to know what works? Camp.

A fraction of American Jewish children attend Jewish summer camps, despite a small but growing body of evidence that no other institution is as effective in passing Jewish values and community to the next generation.

"The 24/7 experience can't be replicated," said Jerry Silverman, the executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping (www.jewishcamping.org). "It's living communally outdoors, integrating Jewish learning with fun." A former executive with Levi Strauss and Stride Rite, Silverman's change-of-life moment came when he picked one of his own children up from her first stay at Camp Ramah New England and found she had been transformed by the immeasurably positive experience. Jewish camping, he said, "evolved into a family passion."

Silverman joined up with the foundation, which was founded in 1998 by Wexner Fellows Robert and Elisa Bildner to be a national advocate for the Jewish camp movement. There are 120 nonprofit Jewish camps in the United States and Canada, serving between 55,000-60,000 children. That's just 8 percent of the total Jewish population. The Foundation's goal is to double the number in five years.

The obstacles are as close as your checkbook. Sleepaway camps range from $475-650 per week, with the average close to $600. An Avi Chai Foundation study found that while 67 percent of Jewish professionals are summer camp alumni, the high tab puts off many families.

Those that aren't deterred often confront a lack of camps themselves. There is no camp on the West Coast serving the Modern Orthodox. The high price of land and start-up costs in the millions mean few new camps come on line with any frequency. Film producer Doug Mankoff, the Foundation's only Los Angeles-area board member, put it this way: "There are three fundamental ways to strengthen Jewish identity among young people: day schools, Israel and camping. But nobody seems to be doing much about the last one."

But the Foundation hopes to chip away at these problems, and money and effort are starting to flow in the right direction. In Western Massachusetts, the Grinspoon Foundation gives every Jewish child a $1,000 scholarship to attend the first year at camp. The Avi Chai Foundation is funding improved Judaic and leadership training for counselors and Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation is funding specialized courses in the dramatic arts for camp leaders. And here in Southern California, home of sticker shock by the square foot, organizers in San Diego have just broken ground on a new, pluralistic camp in the San Bernardino Mountains -- with a lake.

Mankoff said such camps offer something unique, "learning about Judaism in a cool way."

I thought of my son's postcard -- how prayer and Havdalah fused with the thrill of an actual campfire.

"It's that heartfelt excitement about Judaism kids can feel with their peers," Mankoff said.

It was that excitement I read on my son's face and heard in his stories.

That morning we picked Adi up, he and his friends decided to take us on a hike around Brandeis. We ended up climbing a hill claimed by the junior counselors-in-trainings. "This is the J-CIT hill, that one is the CITs," said one of them, pointing across the landscape like Gen. Tommy Franks on reconnaissance.

They had their own language, had formed their own tribe with its own stories. We scrambled past a garden where the kids learned about the (old) kibbutz life, and up a steep path that a month earlier we couldn't have begged these boys to climb.

On the way down we heard an ear-jolting thrum. Two feet in front of us, a large rattlesnake shot across our trail and slipped under a toyon bush. Its body was thick as a man's wrist, but all I noticed were its pointy eyes facing us down, and its furious rattle.

These boys, raised in the wilds of Rancho Park, Carthay Circle, Hancock Park Adjacent and West Los Angeles, slipped sideways around the snake and continued their march down the hill. The we-came-this-close-to-a-rattlesnake story joined the other stories and jokes and experiences they would pass down about Alonim 2004, as their little tribe happily merges into the larger one, the one to which we all belong.

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