Let my children go … to camp

Let my children go … to camp

Craig Scheff was raised in Rockland County; after practicing law in Boston for three years, he returned to New York to study for the rabbinate at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has been at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg since 1995. Rabbi Scheff has worked in various positions at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack for two decades and is an adjunct lecturer in professional skills at JTS.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” — Benjamin Franklin

Your grandmother passes down her recipe (in writing!) for her famous chicken soup. You follow it to a T. But if you are a vegetarian and don’t actually taste it, can you ever create a soup that replicates hers?

You can describe what it feels like to be loved. You can use every modifier known to human language. But can your audience truly relate, unless they also have experienced such love?

You can teach about Shabbat. You can try to relate the benefits of a day of unplugging and of being present to the people and world around you. But to your average listener, the description simply sounds like a series of do’s and don’ts. Unless you have fully lived Shabbat, will it ever find its fullest expression in your mind and heart?

Decades ago, Jewish life shifted from urban areas to the suburbs. As Jews settled in neighborhoods, tightly-knit Jewish communities dissipated into spread-out regions. Jewish identification, which had been facilitated by the smells, sights, sounds, rhythms, and culture that permeated daily life, suddenly became something that had to be sought out.

Over a relatively short period of time, Jewish identity became an extracurricular pursuit unless you lived in a day school world, and the synagogue became the place to find it.

But as wonderful as the synagogue and its community might be, as long as Jewish identification was a choice as opposed to a way of life, the Judaism of your average Jewish household would have to be scheduled — usually against athletics, the arts, school, and leisure time. And the competition has only gotten stiffer over the last decades.

Enter Jewish camping.

This summer, I visited six different Jewish camps, five of them in the Ramah network, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism. Each camp had its own culture, its own particular appeal, and camper demographic. What the camps shared, however, was a commitment to building Jewish identity and community rooted in Jewish values. These camps have moved far past Friday night prayer and kosher food as the defining features of their Jewishness. They have created models of education that infuse Jewish values and Jewish living into the campers’ daily activities. Values like community, pride, and joy are reinforced on the climbing wall, on the basketball court, and in the art room. At these camps, Judaism is alive, relevant, and informative. And Jewish community is the all-encompassing context of daily life.

From my perspective, the greatest magic of Ramah camps is the way in which their staff members live and grow. Especially given how concerned we are about life on college campuses, it is refreshing and heartening to see teens seriously engaged in Jewish living and learning, wrestling with one another and with rabbis and teachers over issues of theology, observance, and the centrality of Israel as parts of Jewish identity. Again, it is one thing to engage in these discussions in an intellectual fashion from the outside looking in; it is quite another to do so from within the framework of Jewish community. Campers are the fortunate beneficiaries of role models who are serving as far more than chaperones; their counselors are teachers in training, passing along the values that they themselves are striving to internalize.

After a week of volunteering at the fledgling Ramah Sports Academy in Fairfield, Connecticut, and an afternoon of revisiting my childhood at Camp Ramah in New England (where I learned to read Torah, to lead daily davening, and to sing a full Birkat Hamazon that forever transformed our traditional family Passover seders), I am more convinced than ever that Benjamin Franklin had it right. Even the best teachers will not transform the lives of their students unless the teachers create the moments and contexts in which students can participate in and live out the lessons learned.

Ramah Day Camp in Nyack is a particularly powerful and unique case in point of what is possible. Campers arrive at 9 a.m. and depart at 3:45 p.m.; the staff, made up of entering 12th graders through college graduates and seasoned educators, dozens of Israeli emissaries and Jews from across the spectrum of observance, however, sleep in camp. Together, they comprise a community that plays and learns every day and night of the week. The Shabbat community they establish is one that many will spend their lives trying to recreate.

Unfortunately, much of the magic is lost when the staff returns home. The memory of the summer community quickly becomes the stuff of nostalgia. It is simply too difficult to recreate the immersive nature of the Ramah Nyack community model. And it isn’t about the setting; it is about the people connecting in committed community.

Our greatest challenge, therefore, is to develop more opportunities for our children to experience the richness, intensity, and all-encompassing nature of living in Jewish community. Until, that is, there are enough veterans of the experience who can create these communities for themselves.

In the year ahead, we as a synagogue community are dedicating ourselves to creating Jewish living experiences for our children. We are excited about the “campy” program we have created. But it will take more for our efforts to be successful; it will take commitment and resources to support experiences beyond the synagogue walls. It will take parents who encourage their children to attend immersive experiences like Ramah camps and like eight days of USY Encampment at the end of the summer. It will take donors to make Jewish camping more affordable to families who prioritize Jewish identity-building. And it will take parents who recognize that a summer job as a Jewish camp counselor is as — if not more —important to Jewish community and continuity than a career-boosting internship.

Like you, I want our children and grandchildren to have it all, including the richness of our Jewish tradition. When I visit a Ramah camp, I am reminded of how our dreams might be.

Rabbi Craig Scheff of the Orangetown Jewish Center was raised in Rockland County. After practicing law in Boston for three years, he returned to New York to study for the rabbinate at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has been at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg since 1995. Rabbi Scheff has worked in various positions at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack for two decades and is an adjunct lecturer in professional skills at JTS.

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