By Rabbi Eddie Shostak
[This is the sixth article in our “effective collaboration” series, written by alumni of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The Davidson School recently launched the Leadership Commons, which is a project of The Davidson School dedicated to building educational leadership that works together to create a vibrant Jewish future.]
This past summer, my family and I were Shabbat guests at Camp Moshava Ennismore. Just as the stars were coming out, we marched down to the synagogue, escorting out the Shabbat Queen together with the chanichim (campers) and tzevet (staff). All of a sudden, my soon-to-be six-year old son turned to me and uttered in the sweetest and most innocent of ways: “Abba, I wish it was Shabbos every day.”
With those unforgettable words ringing in my ears, I was left wondering, what is the essence of camp and how can we bring a little of that magic back to the city?
I grew up in camp. From city and sports day programs to 11 years as a sleepaway camper and staff member, camp offered the fondest of memories, experiences that helped shape my identity, and relationships that went deeper and beyond that “bridge to summer.” Back home, my friends and I obsessively reminisced about the previous summer during the first five months of the school year, and we devoted the next five months to enthusiastic anticipation of the next summer. Camp was exciting; camp was magical. In tribute to the iconic film Field of Dreams, in camp one can picture asking: “Is this Heaven?” “No, it’s [insert random country town here].”
After conducting hundreds of interviews of campers and former campers, psychologist Dr. Michael Thompson concludes in his book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow that “many young people do not really know how strong they are, how competent they are or even who they are until they get away from their parents and test themselves in a new and challenging environment.” Thompson writes that many children told him the best thing about camp was, “I can really be myself here.”
As a city educator, I have often felt envious of camp educators. It’s not enough for me that our students look forward and backward to that special camp feeling. I want them to have that feeling now and in the summer.
Summer camps are incubators for Jewish life. No matter what the activity, from baseball and boating to crafts and campfires, camp is a 24/7 immersion in Jewishness. This is the great limitation of city life. With all the distractions and pressures, how can we compete?
So, I set out to speak to the director of that same camp where I spent Shabbat, to see what we could learn from her and import into our school life. To my amazement, as I opened the conversation, she, who had been joining our high school minyan for several weeks reciting kaddish for her late father, commented that she was impressed with the decorum, rhythm, and engagement of our middle and high school students during tefillah, while at the same time she observed similar challenges in instilling inspiration during tefillah at camp. She was interested in putting our minds together on the issue of improving tefillah and perhaps other areas.
I was shocked. I was primed to import some of that camp magic into the city. Meanwhile, she wanted the same in the other direction. This was the first step toward partnership and mutual learning.
And why not? Why should I be shocked? We’ve worked hard to build strong tefillah habits, moving toward more creative, educationally sound approaches for girls in an Orthodox setting. We are working toward more innovative, 21st century Judaic classrooms. We are helping to develop a growth mindset in our teachers, staff, and students. We work toward good habits of order, decorum, and limits. Why shouldn’t camp benefit from these things? Why shouldn’t we develop a common language?
We need to build educational bridges from camp to the city and from the city to camp and to create seamless transitions from one to the other, with each maintaining its uniqueness.
Over the last few years we have seen examples of summer camp successfully invading the city. Examples such as Moshava Ba’ir Toronto and Camp Ilan (Montreal) bring into the city a taste of the summer camp atmosphere and are educationally aligned as well. My children attended both camps this summer, and it was amazing to see them sharing in the joy of unique camp cheers and dances with their cousins who attended Camp Moshava Ennismore. Our synagogue has taken this one step further by creating Camp Ilan @ TBDJ, where there is an overlap of counselors and youth leaders, as well as educational programming.
More “invasion” is needed. Schools, shuls, and community organizations could partner with camps to staff school Shabbatonim, programming, and trips with camp-trained and -branded educators. This bridge would contribute to activating a fluid expansion of camp energy and spirit into the city.
And it goes the other way as well. The best and most current educational practices can be transposed to camp. Setting clear learning goals, creatively assessing their effectiveness, and addressing differentiated learning methodologies could have tremendous benefit to camps. Inviting city educators more often to contribute to the camp in different ways would go a long way toward building that bridge.
Ultimately, the key to building that bridge is to ensure that our goals are aligned. Are we creating institutions where our students can fully be themselves? Are we creating supportive environments and opportunities where our students can discover who they are, Jewishly? Are we allowing them to explore their interests, to experience Jewish life, placing less emphasis on skills and more on kavanah?
Our schools could pay closer attention to the core strengths of camp, including, according to Dr. Thompson, the cultivation of imagination and creativity, elimination of judgment and unnecessary pressure, intentional character development, meaningful daily rituals, fostering of independence, self-esteem, and identity, building a social community, connecting with nature, mentoring, and leadership training.
And our camps can pay closer attention to the core strengths of our schools, including empowering the campers to develop their learning experience, building a social learning community that is committed to the betterment of the wider society, and participating in Jewish learning that is engaging and relevant – not only tomorrow but today.
We can certainly take these core focuses and intentionally transplant them from one to the other.
Good camps and good schools are authentic, spirited, meaningful, and fun. They are orderly, educationally innovative, and socially and emotionally supportive. Creating strong educational partnerships can allow each to be stronger.
As that Shabbat in camp ended, my son told me he didn’t want to ever leave. I so wanted to grant him his wish of Shabbos every day. I look forward to fruitful conversations with our camp director, and I believe together we can work toward making that happen.
Rabbi Eddie Shostak serves as Judaic Studies Department Head and Dean of Jewish Life at the Hebrew Academy Montreal High School, and as Director of Education at Congregation TBDJ. He is a graduate of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) of the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.