What Do the Olympics Share with Jewish Summer Camp?

by David Ackerman

Millions of children around the world will watch the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics this weekend, dreaming that one day they too might be the fastest, highest, and strongest. Those watching from Jewish summer camps would be surprised to learn the shared heritage of these two institutions.

The modern Olympics and summer camp were creations of the late Victorian age, and each was designed to combat, at least in part, the negative effect of industrialization and urbanization on western society. Both Pierre de Coubertin, who organized the first modern Olympic games in 1896 in Athens, Greece, and Ernest Balch, who created the first summer camp in 1881 at Squam Lake, New Hampshire, were particularly concerned with issues of masculinity and virility (the modern Olympics and summer camps were initially male-only enterprises), and both identified physical exertion as a key element in promoting those ideals.

More important for our time is the shared ethos of amateurism, originally fundamental to the soul of the modern Olympics, and a pervasive characteristic of summer camp to this day. Today, the word “amateur” is often used pejoratively, connoting a lesser ability or seriousness. But the word derives from the Latin “amator,” meaning someone who pursues an activity for the love of it. Amateurs were held in high esteem during the Victorian era and many important contributions in the arts, letters, and sciences were made by highly skilled amateurs, who held day jobs to pay the bills. The modern Olympic movement promoted the nobility and purity of amateur competition untainted by monetary considerations.

While the modern Olympics have long since succumbed to commercialism and professionalism, summer camp continues to rely upon amateurs – committed, enthusiastic, sophisticated, and skilled practitioners – to teach horseback riding, swimming, drama, art, music, ropes, canoe tripping, to be counselors and generally to make camp … camp. They are critical role models, embodying the value of learning for its own sake as they pursue their respective fields with passion and share their knowledge with their campers. Who knows which of today’s campers might become the next Shlomo Carlebach or Debbie Friedman because of a song leader at a Jewish camp?

So, tonight, when the fanfares and drumbeats of Spyridon Samaras’ Olympic Theme accompany the athletes into London’s Olympic Stadium, remember the goal of Jewish summer camp is to inspire campers to be amateurs in the best sense of the word: to develop an abiding interest in Jewish life and to maintain a life-long practice of increasing their understanding of and enhancing their engagement with Jewish life – simply for the joy and love of it.

David Ackerman is director, JCC Association Mandel Center of Jewish Education.