Jewish identity camping

by | Mar 21, 2014 | Torah Thought

By the time this article goes to press, spring will have arrived. Does that mean there will be no more snow? This year, who knows! Does it mean that many of our young people will be already looking ahead to summer camp? Without a doubt! Many of our children “live for camp” all year.

That is why I am devoting this column to summer camp, particularly to a genre of overnight camping that has been so important to our Jewish community. I am talking about “Jewish identity camps.” These include those identified with the different movements of Judaism (Camp Ramah for the Conservative, 15 URJ camps for the Reform, and a whole network of Orthodox camps), and there is also Capital Camps, which has a close relationship with our Simon Family JCC and others such as Camps Louise and Airy.

All of our Jewish identity camps have this in common—when our children go, they have fun in a Jewish environment; they come back with wonderful memories and enriched by the experience. For me, Jewish identity camping is a passion and a personal cause. It was, is and will be “in my blood.”

My first job after rabbinic ordination was as the director of a Ramah camp in Pennsylvania. It was a special time for me. Then, as a congregational rabbi, I was proud to help provide a Jewish identity camp experience for many of our local children. And, to think, I was dragged “kicking and screaming” to my first summer as a camper. Allow me to share the story.

My rabbi growing up took me aside in Hebrew school one day and offered me a scholarship to go to Camp Ramah in the Poconos. In a moment of weakness or maybe shyness, I said “yes.” My parents were keen on the idea; they thought it would be good for me to go away to camp. I said to them, “okay, I’ll go; but on one condition—that you will buy me a TV for my room. That was the 1960s—getting a television in your room was a very big deal! To me it sounded great. Put up with two months away and get a TV for the rest of the year. My parents took the bait and agreed. The week before camp, thinking about going away was immediate, and coming home, even for a television, seemed very far away, and I got “cold feet.”

“Please don’t make me go,” I begged my parents. That is when my mother pulled off one of the best parenting moves of all time. “Okay,” she said, “I won’t make you, but you have to call the Rabbi yourself and tell him you’re not going.”

Yetta Ruberg must have known that for me going to sleep-away camp would be easier than calling the rabbi and disappointing him. So off I went for my first summer at Camp Ramah. When my parents came up on visiting day, I had just one question for them, “Did you get the TV yet?” The answer was “no, but if you make it through the whole summer, it will be there when you get home,” and indeed it was.

What took me a while to realize was that I got a lot more than a television that summer. I came back with new friends; I came back knowing counselors I could stay in touch with, and I came back with an experience of being Jewish that was fun, engaging, and positive. Up until that time, I looked at being Jewish mostly through the prism of a Hebrew School student or having to wear a starched uncomfortable shirt when I went to synagogue services and a few holidays a year at home. Ramah changed that. It deepened it. Camp meant playing basketball, friends and a Judaism that felt natural. No wonder I went back the next year. The following summer I went to Israel with my camp friends. What an amazing experience that was! Then it was on to serving on staff, and eventually after 15 years, to the position of camp director, where I could help give other children the special experience I had myself.

This year there has been much talk about the Pew Study, which put in print something most of us already knew—how hard it is to pass Jewish involvement from one generation to the next. But studies also show that the most successful way of doing that is giving a Jewish identity camp experience to your children.

And so I end with this. Consider providing one of the sleep-away Jewish identify camp experiences for your children or grandchildren. Or if you are an older teenager or young adult, think about going as a staff member. All of the local rabbis and Sunday School educators will be more than happy to provide you with information, videos, personal testimony, and maybe even a scholarship. You can also see the JCC professionals. One final thought—that TV was great. I had it for five years until I left for college; but the influence of camp will be a part of me for the rest of my life.

—Rabbi Arthur Ruberg is rabbi emeritus at Congregation Beth El.