By Rabbi Miriam Burg, Jeremy J. Fingerman and Eric M. Robbins
It was a Jewish trifecta when three passionate advocates for Jewish camp met on the shores of Lake Waloon this August to visit Michigania, the 56-year-old family camp for alumni of University of Michigan. We were excited to see this legendary camp, explicitly designed and staffed for families, and considered the gold standard for family camp programing.
Michigania isn’t fancy, yet it is deeply beloved. The cabins are basic, and all meals are held in a communal dining hall. A mix of traditional sports, arts, fitness, and discussion forums keep adults and kids of all ages busy all day – or not! You can opt out of events and just relax. We met families who’ve been attending for 30 years or more. We saw cars in the parking lot bearing Michigania 5 bumper stickers – which in Michigania-speak means, “We’re a Week 5 Family” in Michigania’s 11-week summer season. And we never saw a cell phone – only one building on campus has Wi-Fi.
While the three of us have different personal camp experiences, we’re absolutely on the same page about the immersive benefits of Jewish overnight camp. We know there is tremendous power in stepping away from daily life and returning year after year to the same place at the same time. So, we’ve informally joined forces to be advocates and evangelists for a new model of Jewish community-building and a serious communal investment in creating weeklong Jewish family camps.
Rabbi Miriam Burg, whose family has attended Michigania for 37 consecutive summers, is an educator and a long-time advocate for Jewish family camp. She co-created the Capital Camps Institute for Leadership and Learning to skill-up Jewish camp counselors. Her current priority is building and expanding Kibbutz Camp, as a new model for Jewish family camp.
Jeremy Fingerman is CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). He spent formative summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and for the last ten years of his professional life has expanded opportunities across North America for more kids to experience Jewish camp – both day and overnight – including new specialty camps. FJC has identified family camp as an important growth element of its strategic plan.
Eric Robbins is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of Jewish Atlanta and the former director of Camp Twin Lakes, a camp for children with serious illnesses and life challenges. Eric was shaped by his own 18 years as a camper and staff member at Camp Barney Medintz and is a founder of Limmud Atlanta, which adopts a multi-generational family camp model.
We all agree that family life in America is overscheduled and isolating. Digital devices distract and distance us. Epic traffic and long commutes chip away at family time. Moms, dads, kids, teens and grandparents desperately need to carve out more down-time and rediscover each other. A joyful, immersive Jewish family camp can be a restorative island of sacred time where we put our devices away, talk face-to-face, and simply have fun together.
Fingerman notes that while a growing number of Jewish camps run family retreats before and after the summer season, opportunities to attract a broader range of families would result from offering “vacations” throughout the summer.
Burg adds that the idea of a dedicated Jewish overnight camp for families is “wholly different and impossible to create by simply adapting kids’ camps to serve the needs of families. Bunk beds and multi-stall bathrooms, for example, don’t really work for families,” she says “There’s a whole different pedagogy required different to train a college-age counselor to run tennis sessions with 80-year-olds than with a group of middle schoolers.
When Robbins, a former camp director, thinks about family camp he stresses that weekends don’t cut it the way a week does. “For every day away, the benefits are exponential,” he says. “Immersive, week-long opportunities for families are what we envision.”
Think about it – all that really ties Michigania families together is the University of Michigan. Now imagine the power of week-long retreats where connections are rooted in Jewish wisdom and rituals. Where food and language, holidays and songs, and traditions are the foundation for friendships. Where Shabbat is the highlight of the week. Imagine a place where your sense of belonging comes from being on “Team Judaism” and the wisdom of nearly 6,000 years of tradition. What a nourishing way for families to engage with one another and build community!
Who better to create new family camp than us? From Catskill bungalow colonies to early Settlement House camps, American Jews –more than any other group –have created, perfected and scaled the institution of overnight summer camp. No surprise to us that Michigania’s longtime director is Jewish, or that lots and lots of Jewish families attend year after year.
As advocates, our next step is to create a prototype of the Jewish family camp we want to see. We know we’ll have to train staff to meet the special requirements of family programming. We know we’ll need to find a beautiful and accessible site somewhere that will work for all ages. But we also know American Jewish families have never needed it more!
If you’re interested in paddling along with us, please get in touch.