Bringing the Joy of Jewish Camp to my Synagogue Community

By Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

The minute my older brother signed up for Jewish sleepaway camp, I turned to my parents and begged them to send me as well. There I was, as an eight-year-old, attending my first summer at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah. Camp introduced me to joyful Jewish experiences and taught me that Judaism isn’t just studied, ritualized, or “practiced.” Judaism is meant to be lived out in everything we do, be it the values system that guides how we treat each other, or the blessings we say in new and sacred moments. My summers at camp shaped my love for Judaism and for Jewish community. My love for camp continued. As a teenager, I worked at Camp Ramah in Nyack. I loved it so much that I returned to work there while in rabbinical school.

As a congregational rabbi, it’s not surprising to me that, as adults, Jewish summer camp alumni are nearly 50% more likely to affiliate with a synagogue.[1] As an adult, I yearn for those meaningful camp moments, for the magic of Jewish experience that happens in the utopian communities that we build during the summer months. And I am not alone. In my own community, Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey[2], we were trying to figure out how to bring those camps moments back to a community like ours, to bring back the community building and spiritual growth that Jewish camping provides. We were interested in bringing the joy of Jewish camp to Beth El. Our answer was to bring Beth El to camp.

Almost twenty-five years after my last summer at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah, I returned. Thanks to our dedicated volunteers who made up our retreat committee, over 250 enthusiastic members of our synagogue community joined us over Memorial Day Weekend at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah for our first congregational retreat.

This retreat was an incredible opportunity to build community, to disconnect from the outside world (and our devices and screens that often consume so much of our time), to be with loved ones, to make new friends, to strengthen existing friendships, to connect with God as Creator in the beauty of nature, to try new things, to have fun, and to appreciate the sanctity of Shabbat. The melodies and singing of prayers and Hebrew songs brought Judaism to life. Shabbat services outdoors in the amphitheater and weekday minyan by the lake allowed us to experience the Presence of God all around us. Our meals allowed us to break bread with new friends, building intergenerational connections around the tables of the dining hall. And friendly competition – congregational-wide softball, kickball, and ultimate frisbee games – accomplished more than any teambuilding exercise could have.

On Saturday night, as we saw three stars glistening in the sky, we gathered by the lake for Havdallah. I was immediately transported back to my youth, remembering standing back at that same lakefront twenty-five years prior, mesmerized by the flickering flames of the havdallah candle, and how it was symbolic of the spark of Jewish experience and expression that spread inside each of us during Shabbat at camp. Earlier, each child had made their own Havdallah candle, and slowly as the light of one candle extended to another, and the flickering flames of over 100 candles illuminated our circle, we experienced the true light of community. Singing, swaying, and saying goodbye to Shabbat transitioned into a late-night bonfire with s’mores and karaoke.

We each returned home on Sunday afternoon with a new friendship bracelet to wear, reminiscent of the new relationships we had built. But there were no tearful goodbyes or bus notes to write. We weren’t saying goodbye to a community or to a home away from home. Rather, we were bringing the joy of camp back home with us, as a community. The ruach of that experience will carry with us in so much that we do. And so many sparks were ignited that weekend, with each child asking their parents when they could spend a whole summer at camp. If all of this was achieved during a single weekend at camp, just imagine what a summer can do!

Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky is rabbi and spiritual leader at Congregation Beth El is South Orange, New Jersey. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @JMOlitzky. He frequently writes on his own personal blog:

This piece is a part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s summer blog series “Because of Jewish Camp.” Each week, we will be featuring personal reflections from camp parents, staff, and alumni exemplifying the ways that Jewish camp impacted their lives. Follow along all summer long, and share how Jewish camp impacted your life! Tell us your story in the comments, on Facebook, or tweet @JewishCamp using the hashtag #JewishCamp.