Summer Camp Isn’t a Break from the Real World … It’s Preparation for It

By Rabbi Isaac Saposnik

Over the weeks leading up to election day here in the United States, and especially in these last days since the heartbreaking shooting in Pittsburgh, I’ve found myself thinking more-and-more about the increasingly divisive climate in this country. And I’ve been thinking about the role all of us – including those of us on the progressive end of the spectrum – play in creating that climate.

I run immersive summer experiences where we’re deeply committed to kids being their full selves. We have kids of color, kids from interfaith families, kids with one parent, kids who are adopted, kids with ADD, kids who are transgender, kids whose parents barely make ends meet, and kids who live in houses with white picket fences. The list could go on and on, but at the core they’re all just kids who want to have an amazing experience in a Jewish community where they’re more than welcomed – they’re celebrated.

Over the last couple of years, though, we’ve found that we’re not always so good at celebrating the kids who, whether personally or in their family, may not share the same progressive viewpoints or experiences as many of our campers … at least not on the surface. This might be the kid who lives in a small rural town with only nine other Jewish kids, all of whom are white. Or maybe it’s the kid who immigrated from another country and found us because our website says how welcoming we are, even though their family would have preferred something more socially and politically conservative. (And this doesn’t even touch on different views around Israel / Palestine … but that’s a topic for another time!) When these kids get to camp and say something that seemingly doesn’t fit within the progressive paradigm – something like “Well, you’re not really Jewish” or “What do you mean you have two dads?” or “My parents say that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas” or “You’re so ghetto” – the other campers are ready to pounce. They’re ready to stand by their friends. They’re ready to stand up for what they believe is right.

And they’re also ready to banish that child. They want him to be kicked out of camp. They want her to be moved to another cabin. They want them to be shunned for what they said or how they acted. But here’s the problem: that’s not actually living out our commitment to being welcoming and diverse. It puts up a wall – it doesn’t tear it down. It presumes that “our” worldview is right and “theirs” is wrong, and it keeps us from engaging in the real work of community building. Maybe that kid has never had a meaningful conversation with a person of color. Maybe she disagrees with her parents’ politics but feels the need to defend them because, well, they’re her parents. Maybe they’ve heard slurs at school or on TV and don’t understand just how hurtful they are. Maybe he’s away at summer camp because his parents want him to be with people who think differently and have different experiences. And maybe, as is the case with so many of our kids, they’re trying to figure out who they are and what they believe – and this is their opportunity, however bumpy it may be along the way, to begin that process.

Kids don’t end up in our camps accidentally – families search us out because they’re looking for a particular experience, and community, for their children. So if the kid who makes the comment is pushed away, we can’t invite them into the important and meaningful conversations. We miss the chance to explore how to honor your parents while also disagreeing with them. We skip the learning about how words can hurt us just as much as – if not more than – sticks and stones. We let down her family who so badly want the community’s help in raising their child. And we miss out on the opportunity to show a kid that they are loved for all they are, for all their wonder and complications, even if (or, perhaps, precisely because) we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe there are things that shouldn’t be said. And even in camps like ours, that are leaders in creating incredibly diverse and accepting communities, one of those things can shockingly fly out of a kid’s mouth. When it does, we should (and do) respond swiftly, both to the incident itself and to the undeniably painful feelings that can follow. We spend a lot of time training our summer staff on this, in part, because we believe the skills will serve them well in college and beyond.

But responding and banishing – literally or, perhaps more importantly in the world of kids, socially – are very different things. We can’t (and shouldn’t) pretend that the hurt didn’t happen or assume that it will go away. But if we keep that child close, we help them – and all of our kids – learn how to interact with others who don’t always fit our personal paradigms. We give them a view of what it looks like to live in intentional community and we show them that our words and actions have lasting impact … but that doesn’t mean they have to follow us forever. (God knows we all said things as kids that we wish nobody would remember!) And we help them figure out how to respond when someone speaks or acts in a way that doesn’t match their ideals; how to engage in debate l’shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven) – not for the sake of winning; how to be kind even in the face of deep challenge; and how to live a principled life in a world where not everyone shares the same values. Put simply: we teach them how to live in the real world.

We often say that, no matter who they are, our campers are both celebrated and challenged in ways that help them grow into amazing human beings. This isn’t easy work. It’s messy and confusing and, at times, heartbreaking … and sometimes we miss the mark. Other times we get it just right, and it’s exhilarating. In each of these moments, we remind ourselves of what the late Senator John McCain called “the power of our ideals … to be the great force for change they have always been.” Even when it’s hard, let’s return to this ideal: the most accepting and dynamic communities thrive because each one of us brings something special and unique to the table. If we can begin tearing down the walls that keep us from celebrating others and challenging ourselves, imagine the change we can make in the world – not only for our kids but for us adults, too.

Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is executive director of Havaya Summer Programs – Camp Havaya, Havaya Arts, and Havaya Israel. He is a graduate of Tufts University, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Executive Leadership Institute. A long-time camper and youth worker, he is passionate about creating engaging, meaningful, and innovative Jewish experiences that celebrate kids in all of their diversity and wonder.