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Jewish Summer Camps in America

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Jewish summer camps in America have a great deal to offer Jewish children, Jewish parents and American Jewry.

Jewish Children

Many children, especially those who do not attend Jewish Day Schools or live in a strong Jewish community, get at Jewish summer camp their first real experience of living a fully Jewish life where there is no separation between their Jewish life and their surrounding secular life.

The same activities that used to differentiate them from their friends at home become the activities that unite them with their friends at camp. Campers can wear a yarmulke, sing birkat hamazon (grace after meals), attend Friday night prayers, and feel completely a part of the world around them.

As Ramah camper Sam Berkowitz wrote, "At camp, there is no disconnection between my Jewish self and my secular self.... Ramah has encouraged me as I try to find my way Jewishly in a non-Jewish world."

For all Jewish children, even those who attend Jewish Day Schools and live in strong Jewish communities, Jewish camping can provide the opportunity to experience Jewish living in a world that is without parents and daily pressures and that is with peers and a supportive environment.

In an article called Israel in Jewish Summer Camps, David Zisenwine and David Friedman describe the power of Jewish camps:

Camp has always offered campers an extended peer group experience that is mostly free from the pressures of the adult community. This sense of freedom in an accepting peer community is an extremely powerful aspect of all summer camping. The absence of the daily pressures common to the lives of children today allows the camper to weigh, select, and act on those aspects of the program that appeal to him/her exclusively. Removing the adult world and its expectations opens up possibilities of educational variety and experimentation that are not thinkable outside of camp.

Further, the presence of role models who are also frequently seeking to answer the same questions as the campers provides an enormously supportive network for Jewish exploration. Campers can live Shabbat, participate in prayer services, learn Hebrew, and reflect on "Jewish" responses to the troubles of society. They can identify with the triumphs and struggles of the Jews of Israel through a special program or Israel Day, using Hebrew words and expressions and gathering under the Israeli flag. They can experiment with each of these areas without concern about how they will "look." In a free and unencumbered environment, they are not different; they are mainstream, the only stream, for a month or two of the year. This freedom to test and try Jewish and personal life styles and options is at the core of an informal Jewish education that is truly open.

Jewish Parents

Given this "power" of Jewish camping as described above, it follows that Jewish parents can benefit from the ability of Jewish camps to affect their children in ways that are beyond the parents's abilities. More specifically, Jewish parents can benefit by the positive reinforcement a camp can give to their child's developing Jewish identity.

One Ramah Berkshires camper wrote: So much of who I am comes from what I have learned from camp that I cannot even guess who I'd be if Ramah had not been a part of my life. As I get older and am forced to think about the summers that I won't be able to spend at Ramah, I find there is a large part of the camp that exists for me outside of its walls. A community is not a geographical location or even a group of people, but the feeling that comes from both of those things and stay within a person forever. Ramah is such a community for me–it will always be a part of whoever I become. Not only do Jewish summer camps positively affect a child's general Jewish identity, but they also can reinforce more specific ideas and beliefs. Synagogue movements (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox), Federations, Jewish Community Centers, and Zionist movements (Young Judaea, Habonim Dror, Hashomeir Hatzair, B'nei Akiva) sponsor Jewish summer camps. Thus, Jewish summer camps can help parents to provide their children with knowledge of and a connection to a particular denomination of Judaism and/or orientation to Israel.

American Jewry

Jewish assimilation has been cited as the greatest danger to the future of American Jewry.

Overnight Jewish summer camps, along with Jewish day schools and trips to Israel, have been ranked high on the list of effective anecdotes to this threat. These experiences succeed because they give children a postive Jewish experience as well as strong, life-long Jewish connections.

According to the Jewish Camping Foundation:

A growing body of research shows that experience in a quality Jewish camp is associated with:
  • Increased Jewish Identity
  • Increased Jewish Affiliation
  • Increased Jewish Practice
  • Increased Jewish Professional Careers
  • Decreased Intermarriage
According to the Jewish Camping Foundation, there are 110 not-for-profit Jewish sleep-away camps in the United States and Canada that serve an estimated 50,000 young people, less than 7% of the 750,000 Jewish children believed to be of camp age.

Given the long-term, positive affects of Jewish summer camps on Jewish children, Jewish parents and American Jewry, Jewish summer camps should be actively promoted and supported. Jewish summer camps should be a priority for American Jewry.
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