By Rabbi Alex Freedman
I don’t have to sell anyone in our community on the power of summer camps. When I ask Beth El parents what their kids are doing over the summer, it seems nearly everyone is going to different day/overnight camps. I smile because I too spent my childhood summers at camp, which became the highlight of the year; the school year was merely the long shlep back to camp. Any overnight camp is beneficial socially and emotionally, especially this pandemic year. Camp friends often become friends for life. And living independently of parents is valuable for self-growth.
Jewish summer camps offer all the pluses of overnight camp plus an amazingly positive religious education. I spent my summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and the wonderful experiences I had there are shared by many Ramahniks. I also know that other camps offer robust Jewish experiences too, which is fantastic.
The morning prayer Ahavah Rabbah asks G-d to allow us “to understand, to learn, to teach, to perform and uphold all the words of Your Torah with love.” Camp Ramah excels at this because camp is an immersive experience (I speak primarily of Ramah since I know it personally and it is part of the Conservative Movement). Kids learn how to pray because their counselors model it for them and it’s a daily experience. Kids learn Hebrew because the buildings are referred to by Hebrew names. Kids learn to love Shabbat as a day of rest because all of camp slows down. Kids form a personal connection with Israel because they have personal relationships with some Israeli counselors. There’s a palpable Avirah, atmosphere, that can’t be found in any other place because everyone is together for the summer.
Of course NSSBE shares these values, and we do our best to teach them. But, from an educational, structural perspective, camp can do so much more because kids learn better by doing than by sitting in a classroom. Or on Zoom.
Although this summer I cannot visit Beth El kids at camp, I look forward to doing so in the future.
If you are considering a Jewish summer camp for your child next summer, I welcome the conversation. I’m happy to find a Jewish camp that is a best fit for him or her.
We can say about Jewish summer camps what the Torah famously says about the Israelite desert camp: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”