By Bradley Solmsen
Jeffrey is ten years old. He lives in Westchester, NY and returned to Jewish camp this past June for his third summer. He and his family did not affiliate with a congregation when he first started camp, yet at the end of last summer, Jeffrey asked, “Where can I find other kids like the ones I’ve met at camp during the rest of the year?”
Susie, also ten, lives in New Jersey and also returned to camp this summer. At the end of last year she asked, “How can I do more of what I’m doing at camp at my synagogue? They feel like two different worlds.”
In the Book of Genesis, God says to Abram, “You shall go forth from your land, from your people, from your father’s home, to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation and will bless you and make your name great and you will be a blessing.”
Over and again, our texts urge us to discover ourselves, to grow and connect with one another by leaving home. So many of our ancestors have a journey as a common experience, usually a defining one that encompasses self-discovery and affirmation of beliefs. When we venture forth to dwell in unfamiliar places and among unfamiliar people, we are forced to articulate what we hold dear.
Yet, too often Jewish institutions and leaders fail to see the importance of encouraging such odysseys. We do not work together to embrace this critical core message – that venturing out into the world will only strengthen our young people, our home communities, and our communal future. Instead we present a Judaism that exists only within the building, within the congregation, during camp or within the movement. Let’s correct that failure with a challenge to the leaders of our communities: embrace this essential Jewish value of encountering the, “other” – people and places that are different from ourselves and do everything that you can to support it.
What if every synagogue and Jewish community required some form of immersive Jewish journey for young people as a core part of its educational framework?
What if every Jewish community had a comprehensive living and learning partnership with a wide range of immersive Jewish summer programs that complemented its own living and learning experiences?
As a Jewish educator, parent and now executive director of a Jewish summer camp, I stand ready to partner more extensively with the leaders of our congregations and Jewish communities to ensure that more of our young people have the experience of better knowing themselves and their Judaism through encounters on journeys. I know fellow camp leaders share my enthusiasm and commitment.
Leaving home can be scary, it entails different kinds of preparation and presents an unprecedented opportunity to encounter difference and build independence and confidence. During Jeffrey’s second summer, he became close with a camper from Poland. As they got to know one another, his new friend asked questions about Jeffrey’s Jewish practice. With each conversation, Jeffrey discovered more about himself and his faith.
As our children get older, we know from research that they are influenced more and more by their peers and by non-parental adults. As parents one of the most important things we can do is help our children find nurturing settings for our children to encounter other peers and wonderful adult role models to help them continue to grow and discover the world.
It is out in the world when young people have the chance to apply what they have learned at home and in their home congregations. They get to better understand that Jewish values including “love your neighbor as yourself,” “be kind to the stranger,” and even the value of resting one day a week, on Shabbat, are meant to be lived not just studied. In leaving home, young people become co-creators of their identities. Yet right now only a small fraction – less than 30% – of our youth attend Jewish summer camp. Together, we must aim higher.
When Abraham left what was familiar he was called Abram. Shortly after setting out, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means father of many. The text does not explain the reason for the change, but it’s safe to say that Abraham literally became himself through his travels.
If we want to fully share the blessings of what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be an involved member of a community, what it means to be civically engaged, our children must have nurturing, age-appropriate experiences away from home. If we deprive them of that, we prevent our children from becoming their best selves.
I look forward to the day, in the near future, when the organized Jewish community will place the needs of our young people before the needs of individual organizations. When we all realize that activism, participation and leadership are cultivated and nurtured not just at home but away from it.
May we seek out journeys for ourselves and our young people. May we follow in Abraham’s path. And also, in Jeffrey and Susie’s.