Why Camp Works: Explanations Later

by Daniel Greyber

Jewish camp season is about to begin. We know it works. Research[1] shows camp attendance makes adults 30% more likely to donate to a Jewish charity, 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles, 45% more likely to attend synagogue monthly or more; and 55% more likely to be very emotionally attached to Israel. But why does camp work? One reason may be that explanations about Judaism take a backseat.

At camp, kids encounter Jewish practice first and primarily without explanations or descriptions. Jewish life is a given with which campers (and staff) must struggle and reconcile, and to which they can ultimately contribute. Before they even get off the bus, campers begin to draw conclusions about the nature of Jewish community. Were the bus counselors nice to me? Did they take care of me? Once at camp, kids ask, “Was the food good?” “Do I like the people?” Answers to these questions reflect a camper’s experience not only with a particular camp but with Judaism and the Jewish people. Jewish life at camp is lived, first. It happens. As a camp director for nine summers, I explained the meaning of birkat hamazon, the ideas behind putting on tefillin and other such things. My explanations made sense because I was teaching about something that was part of their camp experience. Explanations came after; they were secondary to the primary educational moment, doing.

Jewish ideas make no sense in a vacuum. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about how we only learn the meaning of words in the context of life. “One can imagine seeing human life in a film, or being allowed only to meditate about life without taking part in it, but anyone who does that will understand human life as we understand the life of a fish, or even a plant. We cannot speak of the happiness or sadness … of a fish.”[2] Just as language is acquired through interaction with a living culture – and is largely unintelligible without it – the language of Jewish life will remain unintelligible without a community of people engaged in Jewish life.

The late professor of Jewish Education, Michael Rosenack, once wrote that a “second-order description of how religion functions cannot create more than a second-order relationship to tradition. All the … diverse study units in the Diaspora designed to make Judaism more relevant are, at best, instruction about Judaism, clarification of existential issues through a Jewish cultural medium. It is hoped that these programs make religious education interesting; they do not make religious belief, practice, or fellowship normative.” The challenge is not just that second-order descriptions of Jewish life are not normative; absent living communities, they are literally unintelligible. Concepts such as prayer and Shabbat cannot be understood without communities in which they are enacted. Yehuda Ben-Dor writes, “Sporadic and superficial interactions with traditional life do not possess the strength to load traditional language with its meanings … Success in acquiring the language of tradition is bound up with the creation of a web of practices woven tightly enough so that these will create a way of life capable of load languages with meaning.”[3] Judaism is not an intellectual exercise, so it cannot be learned through the mind only.

Camps offer a powerful reminder that Judaism cannot be transmitted through classes and scholarship alone, or even primarily. There is no substitute for doing. Textbooks cannot substitute for text communities – communities that enact our text traditions. In an age when few families are living full Jewish lives at home, too many of our educational initiatives ignore the critical nature of creating communities – ongoing and temporary – in which kids can encounter Jewish life in action. Without a tightly woven web of practices, our words will slip away; we will be teaching a language doomed to unintelligibility. The real crisis of Jewish life is not a lack of ideas, but the vacuum of practicing communities in which those ideas can be understood. It is great that camp season is beginning. But after summer ends, what then?

1 http://www.jewishcamp.org/sites/default/files/u5/NEW%20Camp_Works_for_Web.pdf
2 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Philosophy of Psychology, Volume II, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), 29.
3 Yehuda Ben Dor, “Education for Traditionalism in the Modern World: Reading Wittgenstein’s Late Philosophy,” in Modes of Educational Translation, edited by Jonathan Cohen & Elie Holzer, (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2008), 51-2.

Daniel Greyber is rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC. He spent the 2010/11 academic year as a Mandel Jerusalem Fellow and was the Executive Director of Camp Ramah in California from 2002 to 2010. He is the author of Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle with Grief and God (faithunravels.com) and will serve as USA Team Rabbi at the 2013 World Maccabiah Games. For more information, visit rabbigreyber.com.