What Jewish summer camp can offer this traumatic summer

What Jewish summer camp can offer this traumatic summer

Michael Schlank

Michael Schlank is a Jewish communal professional who has been the CEO of NJY Camps since 2020. He is a former president of Midway Jewish Center in Syosset and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Mercaz Academy in Plainview.

Very shortly after my father, Paul Schlank — Peretz Nahum Ben Shlomo — z’l, passed away, a good friend and I were talking about how she had experienced a similar trauma. Debbie is enormously insightful, and she talked me through her experiences and how she thought I might experience life. Her most interesting observation was what she called BD (before death) and AD (after death). All time would be marked by coming before and after the death of my father, she said. She told me that two days after my father’s passing, and it remains one of the more important frameworks in my life, 5½ years later.

On October 7, Israel and global Jewry experienced a horrifying traumatic event.  But unlike the death of a loved one, October 7 and the ensuing  war are ongoing for the Jewish people. The carnage and destruction wrought that day are unique in our modern history and are so evil that it defies description. It may take some time for Israel and the Jewish people at large to develop a sufficient vocabulary and culture to memorialize and mark that day.

Rachel Goldberg-Polin, the mother of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, recently was interviewed on Dan Senor’s Call Me Back podcast. Ms. Goldberg-Polin said that her life now is like being run over by a truck — but instead of the truck moving on, it was sitting right on her, and she was afraid if she moved the wrong way, she would die. She called it non-normative trauma.

We as a people have experienced a collective non-normative trauma. We wear all manner of pins and necklaces and pieces of tape to mark the number of days that hostages have been in Gaza. We display lawn signs and posters in our windows to declare our unity as a people. Our social media feeds are filled with messages of hope and prayer for peace.

Or we do none of these things. We remove our Jewish stars, take off anything that would mark us as Jewish, and change our names on Uber to not identify ourselves publicly. While antisemitism certainly had accelerated before October 7, since then Jew-hatred has become a feature, not a bug, of our day-to-day experience.

Our college campuses have become hotbeds of Jew-hatred and Hamas and Hezbollah support. We watch as a combination of useful idiots and evil actors proudly support intifada and praise terror groups whose stated mission is the creation of a worldwide Islamic caliphate. It is a failure of epic proportions by our educational system and our culture at large.  This is also an ongoing and non-normative trauma stemming from October 7.

The current unrest on campus comes as classes wind down and Pesach came and went. Now, Pesach dishes have returned to their year-round place in the closets, the days have grown noticeably longer, and that brings thoughts of the summer. October 7 is certain to cast its long shadow on these upcoming sun-soaked days; this is likely to be the summer OF October 7, not the summer AFTER it.

Within weeks, tens of thousands of Jewish children and large numbers of staff of all ages will join peers from Israel and across the globe for Jewish summer camp experiences.  This summer, those experiences will include large swaths of the camp population living with some level of non-normative trauma, some more acutely than others.

So, what to do? How do we bask in the long summer days? How do we plan to celebrate Israel and Israelis when there is still so much pain and uncertainty? How can we mark milestones of longevity or achievement when so many will never mark another milestone again? How do we do joyous Judaism when there is so much despair? And on the flip side, how can we be respectful without being morose all summer?

These questions that not theoretical or hypothetical. I have heard them in boardrooms, in conference rooms, and in living rooms, both here and in Israel.

These questions are vexing, because unlike Debbie’s formulation of Before and After, the calendar has changed, but in real ways our community, like the sukkot that never were taken down on the kibbutzim on the Gaza border, is in some way frozen in time. Camps will be charged with moving forward and looking back at the same time. This mandate is daunting, but it might be that no communal institution is more perfectly suited for the challenge.

This summer, in Jewish summer camps across the country, Jewish adults and young people will come together in community and connection. They will laugh and learn, and some certainly will cry. They will do so in an environment that is infused with love and caring, supported by a culture steeped in ideals, values, and rituals that are treasured and timeless. Jewish summer camp will be an opportunity for our young people and staff to connect with other Jews and renew and deepen their connection to Am Yisrael — the Jewish people.

Undoubtedly, this will be a transformative summer for many of our staff and children. It will allow them to scream and shout and dance with abandon in kehilot kedoshot — holy communities. We know that the healing power of peers and the pool are powerful.

This summer we will be engaged in real-time experiential learning, about how not simply to survive but to thrive during these times of non-normative trauma. My prayer for the staff, campers, and families is that this summer marks the beginning of the long process of healing. There may not be a clear Before and After. But, God willing, when we look back at this summer, it will mark a time when we had an opportunity to play, laugh, dance, pray, and live in a way that was filled more with joy than with angst and anxiety.

For more than a century, the Jewish community has supported the institution of Jewish camp. The community looks to summer camp as an engine of continuity and connection and to infuse the joy of Judaism and love of Israel across denominations and affiliations.  This year, Jewish summer camp has an opportunity to embrace that mission to its fullest extent. And may our gift to the Jewish people be a model of how to go forward with ahavat Yisrael — love of Israel — and a deep pride in shayacut — belonging — to Am Yisrael.

Michael Schlank is the CEO of NJY Camps, the umbrella organization for seven cross-denominational residential summer camp programs and the NJY Retreat Center. He frequently speaks and writes on issues around leadership, Israel, and American Jewry.

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