The Multiplicity of Jewish Expression

by Abby Knopp

We are living in a time when American Jewry is more openly and deliberately diverse than it has been since a small group of Jews first arrived here in 1654. Yet, when looked at collectively, and with very few exceptions, our formal research rarely takes note of this new reality. Now is the time to make a serious attempt to understand how this changing reality plays out in the religious or cultural sphere.

I have read with interest the diverse opinions and reactions to Pew’s recently released study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” and I agree unreservedly with Ari Kelman’s commentary that we, as a community, must become far more adept at describing the variety of ways that North American Jews are beginning to articulate their versions and visions of Jewish culture. There was something else connected to Kelman’s response that needs to be touched upon to move us forward: the need for an exploration of ethnic or racial background and the multiplicity of Jewish cultural and religious expressions that are their consequence.

From my seat at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, I have learned that Jewish camps offer multiple microcosms of what exists – or could exist – in the larger Jewish community. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that the Jewish camping world includes camps that cater to the cultural needs of different ethnic or racial groups and that there are audiences for these camps – children and families who have not found what they are looking for in more mainstream experiences and who seek different Jewish worlds in which to immerse themselves. These families have had wonderful Jewish experiences at camps such as Camp Be’chol Lashon, Camp B’Yachad, Havurah, and J. Academy Camp.

And there are camps, of course, not necessarily serving the unique audiences mentioned above which, nonetheless, have created vibrant Jewish cultures of their own. These camp worlds are steeped in Jewish values and operate within Jewish time and space whether or not they are religiously oriented. They offer deeply rooted modes of Jewish daily “living” that must be examined if we are to understand if and how certain elements may be transferrable outside of camp. (One example among others is Camp Alonim, which is building a vibrant Jewish community based on Jewish and Israeli dance).

To a large degree, Jewish communities at camp are built from within – without fanfare and without the attention of sociologists measuring levels and different definitions of Jewish identity. Amy Sales et al in Limmud by the Lake Revisited (2008), wrote, “…camps are organic systems in which culture, community, personnel, and program fit together into a coherent whole. The result is that every camp must create Jewish life and learning that authentically suits itself.” Here the Brandeis researchers focused on camps as educational organizations. Perhaps it is time to look at Jewish camps in a new way and with the goal of finding the nuanced articulations of Jewish culture and visions that will help us understand the changing landscape of Jewish identity. In looking at camp culture in this new way, we may also be able to find new and precise language for measuring Jewish identity outside of the denominational and religious framework.

Abby Knopp is Vice President, Program and Strategy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp.