21st Century Synthesis : On Jewish Life, Camp, and Purim
By Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow
Despite being erroneously attributed to Hegel, it was actually Johann Gottlieb Fichte, an 18th century German philosopher, who originated the idea of thesis–antithesis–synthesis. This idea takes an intellectual proposition, reacts to this by negating it, and then solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths and forming a new thesis, which in turn starts the process over. In its most elementary way, Fichte’s idea can be used to describe the story of Esther we will read on Purim.
In the Megillah it seems that the thesis is best described by Haman when he says to the king:
“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it does not profit the king to suffer them.” (Esther 3:8)
As an orphaned child of these refugees, Esther is presented at the extreme margins of society. It seems that the pendulum swings to the other extreme for Esther when she ascends to the Persian throne. But is there a synthesis? Mordechai pleads for Esther to speak to the king to save her people from Haman’s plot. On a simple level he asks her if she will remain comfortable in the king’s house or risk death and approach the king. On another level Mordechai is asking her to synthesize her Persian and Jewish identities.
I was thinking about this process these last few days at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly. At this conference we hosted over 750 people committed to vibrant Jewish future through high quality, meaningful Jewish summer experiences. Together we celebrated the genuine maturation of the field of Jewish camp and 18 years of the FJC. It is interesting to think about the history of Jewish summer camp in North America in the context of Fichte/Esther’s process.
At the inception of Jewish summer camps at the start of the 20th century, the goal was to bring inner-city children of Eastern European immigrants out to the country to “Americanize” them. This thesis to acculturate our children was met by the antithesis in the emergent trend to use camp to indoctrinate a generation intentionally in Jewish culture, education, and religious and Zionist ideologies (e.g. Cejwin Camps, and denominational camps). The most recent phase has emerged in the last decade of specialty camps. After listening to visionary camp owner and director Scott Brody at our Leaders Assembly, I realize that this specialization is actually part of a larger synthesis.
Scott is the former national vice president of the American Camp Association and currently serves on FJC’s board. He recently expanded his camp business into China, where affluent parents are looking to give their children an edge in a competitive economy. At our conference, he eloquently spoke about the movement to use camp to strengthen 21st century skills in the next generation (see recent article). Jewish parents, like their Chinese counterparts, are increasingly looking for experiences that give their children an advantage, add value, prepare them for college and position them to succeed in their careers. Last year, Brody said:
“When you look at the entrepreneurial and innovation skill set, a lot of what you need are the qualities that people get to practice at camp – creativity, communication, collaboration, and building your own sense of resilience … All of these themes are interwoven with the American dream. And the opportunity to practice these skills is the critical novelty of the camp environment.” (Yale Globalist)
At camp we foster leadership, grit, tenacity and resilience in the next generation. Away from our watchful eyes, our campers and staff increase their independence, friendship, confidence, responsibility, and teamwork. At a Jewish camp, the next generation have a profound feeling of connectedness to the Jewish people, gain a deeper understanding of Jewish values, and explore their heritage of wisdom and spirituality. We need to help the next generation synthesize their identities.
We understand how we all want to see “Esther” pursue her interests in all facets of life – whether that is getting into a certain college, establishing herself in her career of choice, and empowering her to compete in the global marketplace. Like Mordecai, we want Esther to do well and to do good and to be fully self-actualized. We need to better articulate how our Jewish engagement efforts help do all of these things and at the same time create mensches who make the world a better place. With Jewish camp, parents do not have to choose between their children’s future and our heritage. The right synthesis will ensure a bright future all.
To continue a conversation about synthesizing 21st Century Skills with Jewish Education reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Avi Orlow is the Director of Jewish Education at Foundation for Jewish Camp.