Summertime is for Joyous Judaism

Shabbat at URJ Camp Eisner

By Laurie Lichtenstein

It was never a question for me that I would send my kids to a specialty camp. Not sports, not performing arts, but a Jewish camp.

“Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Friends will ask. “Aren’t all camps Jewish?”

No. The summer I went camp shopping I focused my search on camps that were run by Jewish organizations, where Jewish values, Jewish learning, and yes, Jewish ritual took center stage.

Admittedly, when I first looked, almost a decade ago, I was surprised by the amount of tefillah. I understood the motzi, and benching after meals, but would my secular Jewish kids resent a service every day? Would they feel “Limud,” the Jewish learning period built into each day was too much like Hebrew School? On my tour of the camp we ultimately chose – the URJ’s Camp Eisner, I asked my then eight-year-old neighbor, a veteran of the camp, how he felt about daily tefillah. He looked at me strangely and when I recounted the story to his mother she quipped, “He doesn’t even know it’s tefillah, it’s so much fun.” My thirteen-year-old son recently confirmed this as he said that each day they would learn a new tune for a particular prayer they were studying, and it was “pretty cool.” Cool? Fun? Prayer? Sometime between eight and thirteen they come to understand that they are praying and they still want to return!

Joyous Judaism. Yes, I want my kids to unplug, gain independence, and learn to swim but I really want them to spend their summers tending to a love that will root itself in their consciousness, and grow each summer, nurturing a lifelong relationship with their faith. I am certain that this begins at Jewish camp where the values of the Jewish people are celebrated: Menschlicheit, eretz Yisrael, kavod, kehillah and tzedakah. Certainly a tall order and one best done away from the distractions of daily life, in a kind of bubble, which is exactly what Eisner calls itself.

It is a delicate dance- the tango of whether to be an American Jew or a Jewish American. We live in a secular world, and my husband and I decided to live somewhere relatively diverse and send our kids to public school. I value the real world, and want them to understand that as Jews, we are a minority. So when my daughter asked why there was a wreath on the front door of her elementary school, I took it as an opportunity to explain to her that we are actually a minute percentage of the population, and as such often get lost, especially in December. While Christmas decorations are innocuous, two of my three kids have had anti-semitic remarks uttered in their presence. I tend to not get riled up when they report these; instead, I see it as a chance to engage them in dialogue about some of the more difficult aspects of being Jewish. And here is where the delicate dance of being Jews in a secular world led me to consider Jewish camp, even while making the conscious decision to limit music lessons in favor of a three day a week Hebrew school, something felt missing. When it comes to summer I want them to hang with their Jewish homies. Jewish homies whose Jewish parents also want their kids hanging with their Jewish homies.

Jewish values permeate the entire culture of camp. Meaness. Not tolerated. I didn’t say it didn’t happen, just that it wasn’t tolerated. When a couple of girls had unkind words toward my 12-year-old son last summer, he received a heartfelt apology from each of them, written without adults looking over their shoulder. Kavod. Thinking outside oneself.

Kehillah and tzedakah. The summer before 7th grade, campers research a tzedakah and present it in a fair, where they go around and learn about each other’s chosen organization. From this experience, my son chose his mitzvah project- a fundraiser for Keshet- the LGBTQ Jewish organization. An interesting choice for a heterosexual thirteen-year-old boy, but not one who spends an hour of his summer afternoon under a tree with a small group of his peers and a Rabbi discussing kehillah and tzedakah.

And there is no other place where my children can exclusively live and play and sleep among other Jews. My daughter once asked her counselor why all the counselors who live in the bunk have to be Jewish.

“In case you wake up in the middle of the night with a burning Jewish question,” was the answer she received. I’m doubtful that this is true, but the experience of being nurtured by young Jewish adults is incredibly valuable. Living with young adults who embrace and celebrate their religion provides excellent role modeling. Most years my kids have a counselor from Israel- whose presence reminds them of their connection to the land of milk and honey. In addition to Israel, there have been Jewish counselors from England and Uganda. I am reminded of the Rabbi Larry Milder’s song,

Wherever you go,
there’s always someone Jewish,
you’re never alone, when you say you’re a Jew…

How can you not be proud when in every nook and cranny of the world there are people just like you? Like so many youngsters, camp is, for my three children their happy place. The four short summer weeks my kids spend in the Berkshires go much too quickly. Being unabashedly Jewish. Waking up as Jews and singing modeh ani, eating communally as Jews, singing and swimming and celebrating Shabbat as Jews, and sleeping as Jews as their counselors bid them good night with a lila tov.

My youngest went for the first time this year, and I held my breath as I awaited the first letter from my most anxious child. I tried to think about how I would build his Jewish identity should he not like camp. The first letter reported that all was well, but after eight years with kids at camp I knew to expect the “please come get me” letter any minute. It never did arrive, but what did arrive, a week into camp was the best three lines I have read in a long time.

Dear Mom,
I will never experience a Shabbat like the one at Eisner.
It made me realize how proud I am to be Jewish.
All the singing, and dancing- it was quite enjoyable.”

Next summer can’t get here fast enough.

Laurie Lichtenstein is the Jewish mother of three Jewish children. She teaches English and studies in Westchester County New York and she enjoys writing when she is not busy with work or shuttling her children to and from Hebrew School. You can see her most recent work in Motherwell, and Middleweb.