By Rabbi Paul Steinberg
There are some things that certain Jewish educational institutions do better than others. After all, they have different expressed missions and goals, and have hired, budgeted, and organized around those goals differently. Synagogues do B’nei Mitzvah and ritual better than other organizations. They’re built for them. Day Schools integrate Jewish and secular learning and achievement better than other institutions. That’s what they’re meant to do. Camps create a sense of Jewish communal living and expression better than other institutions. Yep, you guessed it – that’s what they are supposed to do.
Now, I’m sure anyone could critique, parse, and improve upon the way I laid out what each of those organizations do best, and that’s fine. But you get the main point. Each institution has its role to play in the larger Jewish educational portrait of life for Jews in America. From the widest perspective, each institution should be mutually supportive of the other’s role and mutually encouraging of one another so that they both deepen and broaden the educational experiences for children and their families throughout the whole community. (Of course, there are other institutions, organizations, and experiences that are important too, such as youth groups, Hillel, and Israel experiences, but I want to focus on the synagogue, Day School and camp for this summer world of Corona).
Sometimes, however, each educational institution can run into competition with another. There is no getting away from the fact that politics is a part of life and a part of Jewish life. And by politics, I mean that there is inherent power struggle over a limited amount of resources (financial, human, etc.) within any particular Jewish community. That’s normal competition and politics. But there is also unnecessary competition regarding the primary goal and role of an institution, and most Jewish communal leaders and professionals, have seen a version of it at some point. If, for example, camps or Day Schools were to start using their access and platform to offer B’nei Mitzvah or High Holiday services, they would be directly infringing upon and threatening the place of synagogues. That’s just unnecessary and nobody wants that because synagogues are the only Jewish institution that holds space of the Jewish family from cradle to grave, both over the course of time and in the moment, maintaining mindfulness the entirety of a family’s web from child, to parent, to grandparent, and all extensions. Or, if synagogues were to be disparaging of camps and Day Schools, refusing to support them, in order to only promote their own programming. This would also be unnecessary and unhelpful to the community; why would a synagogue truly interested in a family deprive them of such opportunities.
But Coronavirus has added a new wrinkle with the cancellation of Jewish summer camps. In fact, it has offered us an opportunity for collaboration that we have not yet seen. Moreover, if we don’t take this opportunity to collaborate, I fear more unnecessary competition will follow.
On May 8, Professor Sarah Benor published her article “Camp is Not Cancelled; It Has Moved Online.” I read this with great interest, not as a camp professional, but as a synagogue rabbi and educator. In fact, as I was anticipating camps to cancel, I myself have been considering an online camp-style program for our congregation’s children. I’ve been considering this because I am worried both about what our kids will be doing to stay Jewishly connected over the summer and because I’m hoping that it will create a runway to enrollment into our Hebrew School for next fall (and I’m really worried about that!).
My immediate thought was that I didn’t want to create such an online summer program because I didn’t want to compete with our camp. But what if, I thought, camps, synagogues and Day Schools collaborated in building summer programs together this year in order to serve the needs of all of the community’s children. Each has critical resources to offer, which could help make it successful. Day Schools will most likely have the technological wherewithal and synagogues and camps certainly can offer staffing and informal educational programming. Funding will likely be much easier. Plus, collaborating tends to evoke the highest levels of creativity.
Each community would obviously look a little different according to how each community and institution is led and structured. Yet, there seems to be a wonderful opportunity for each institution to be mutually supportive of one another for the higher principle of ensuring Jewish connections for our kids and families throughout the summer. This is not the time, however, for one institution to take the opportunist approach and swallow up all of the Jewish educational space. That could be detrimental to other institutions and is not in the best interest of the whole community.
What I fear is that rather than collaborating, each of these institutions will instead work separately on their own online summer programming in direct competition with one another. Because there is no difference in geography or physical setting, as we’re all just doing this from our homes no matter where we live – camp will not get the benefit of its grounds and facility this year – many of us will literally be working on the same programming.
Moreover, if camp does this online programming alone over the summer, and is concerned about surviving in the year to come, what’s to stop them from continuing all year long with an online program? Why not stay in the online Hebrew School business.? That would be terrible for synagogues as Hebrew School is a primary pipeline to how young families become members, educate children and prepare them for B’nei Mitzvah (again, synagogues are the only institutional embodiment of the lifespan of a family).
The Jewish people have survived worse than Coronavirus. No one could imagine worse than what we have survived. But now, this summer, COVID-19 is calling us to survive by collaborating rather than competing, by communicating rather than isolating, by erasing the boundaries of territorialism in order to align our vision of Jewish educational welfare for all the children and families in our communities. Large, affluent synagogues and Day Schools are likely to be okay through Corona, but smaller synagogues, schools and certainly camps will not emerge unscathed. We can mitigate those costs by collaborating rather than independently scampering about in survival mode.
I pray that next year, this is a non-issue and we can all go back to what we do best. In the meantime, however, I believe that the only way we’ll do our best is if we share it with each other. I’m reaching out and I’m hoping to hear back from folks – it is not too late. Let’s do this together because, after all, we all are basically doing the same job: helping Jewish families to live meaningful, joyful lives through shared wisdom, practices, values, history, and destiny of the Jewish people and tradition.
Paul Steinberg is a rabbi and educator at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, CA. educator. He previously served as a principal of a Jewish day school in Dallas, Texas, the Senior Educator at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, and the Community Rabbi of Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles. He has published many articles on Jewish thought and education, as well as six books including, the three-volume series Celebrating the Jewish Year (JPS, 2009) which earned the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Spiritual Growth: A Contemporary Jewish Approach(TerraNova, 2019).