The Need for American Style Jewish Camping in Israel
by Beth Steinberg
American parents plan their kid’s summers sometime in November. Junior, who’s had a fabulous time at camp the summer before, comes home and after a few sad-eyed weeks at home bemoaning his loss of independence, his bunk buddies, and even the singing of Birkat Ha’mazon, Grace after meals, after every meal, is signed up by happy parents who look forward to their summer freedom almost as much as the aforementioned kid. The fact that camp can also be a place of important Jewish values is one that many parents increasingly take into consideration when choosing a camp and as studies bear out, the results in adulthood are compelling; synagogue affiliation, attachment to Israel and even lighting Shabbat candles. All this from 8-weeks together at camp; Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox camps.
In Israel, where 8-week, overnight camp is still a novelty, parents begin to think about the summer sometime after Pesach, as they sweep away the matzah crumbs and the successively warmer spring days remind one of the approaching ‘chofesh ha’gadol’ or ‘big vacation’ as it’s called in Hebrew. Most families choose some sort of ‘kaytana’ or day camp, too often not much more than fancy babysitting, staffed as it is by inexperienced and insufficiently trained teens who shepherd their 20 or so kids from place to place and activity to activity, with measured enjoyment over the course of a long and hot, summer day. Religious considerations are rarely taken into consideration except to insure that the program matches your family’s observance which almost always means separate girls and boys programs in Orthodox circles.
By the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, most kids say ‘enough,’ choosing to stay at home with the TV and the computer. Parents give in – it’s cheaper in any case, or so it seems until your kid is old enough to manage a solo voyage with friends to the mall and movie theater. There are specialty camps and short-term programs that may interest your child and be a worthy educational addition to your your child’s development but many of them are expensive or not available in every area and often out of the reach of the average Israeli wage-earner. Israelis, who are focused on keeping their children happy, healthy and somewhat spoiled because of looming army induction at age 18 and the inherent parental fears, aren’t thinking about camp and what it can do for their kids.
They’re certainly not thinking about the notion of camp as a place where lifelong friendships are made – where one’s spiritual and emotional self are encouraged to mature and one’s development as a caring young Jewish leader of a greater community is nurtured and encouraged. And that’s really too bad.
Israelis do value volunteerism and youth movements, not so dissimilar to camp, right? In theory, yes but in practice, not. Kids have a choice of youth movements with which to affiliate but many of them suffer from not enough adult mentorship. Teens run elements of the program almost entirely on their own – they learn by doing. In the abstract, a noble concept. In reality, local branches are disorganized and given the yearly aging in and out of leadership roles, programming tends to be underwhelming. Kids have fun and feel a sense of belonging but it could be so much better. Maybe the model needs some rethinking.
The camp experience is one of extreme community building for a short and intense period. While an overnight camp offers a focused approach, day camp isn’t such a terrible option, especially if it’s what the locals would like and can afford. In 2007, I co-founded, Shutaf, an inclusion camp and year-round program in Jerusalem. Our aim is manifold, from offering a well-planned, fun and educational experience to an under served population – kids and teens with special needs – to creating a robust and powerful atmosphere of togetherness and Jewish community caring for all our participants – with and without special needs.
Sure it would be nice to have a Shabbat together or even an overnight for the older kids but our budget doesn’t allow for such niceties and even more so, more than 65% of our parent body can’t afford the modest tuition of nis500 or about $150 for a week of day camp which includes busing. Our mantra is ‘return to the fundamentals.’ That is, design a great but ultimately simple program; arts and crafts, music, drama, sports; train and prepare our staff, mostly post-army students in their 20’s, and steep the program in Jewish values of inclusion and acceptance, so that every kid, from every walk of Jewish life and observance – we have religious and secular kids at camp – walks away with a new sense of what it means to care about each other.
Initiatives such as Shutaf need support. Israeli kids live pressured lives in over-crowded and often violent classrooms – both in secular and religious schools. Summer time means 8-10 long, unstructured weeks – a disaster for the whole family, especially those with greater risk factors such as poverty and disability. American Jewish camping innovated something very special for generations of young American Jews. How could the model be adapted for Israel and thoughtfully used as a departure point for helping develop the next generation of caring Israelis, united together despite religious, socioeconomic and cultural differences? It’s an Israel that might well be that beacon we’ve all been yearning for.
Beth Steinberg, is the co-founder of Shutaf, inclusive, year-round programs for kids and teens with special needs in Israel. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to the Shutaf blog, Conversation about Inclusion, and share your thoughts.