How Jewish is Jewish Camp?

(Photo courtesy of Capital Camps)

For most parents, it is important to consider what factors dictate the Jewish identity of a camp, since the camp experience can go a long way in helping a child form his or her Jewish identity.

For many, sleepaway camps provide the best option. Being away from parents can provide children with the opportunity to meet Jewish peers and form a personal connection to Judaism.

“There is something to be said for being away from home in an environment where you can focus entirely on Jewish life,” said Janna Zuckerman, program manager of the Center for Jewish Camping, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “Just from being surrounded by Jewish peers and mentors, you begin to look up to them — they are influencing you and showing you what a Jewish life looks like.”

Zuckerman cites her experience as a child at a Jewish sleepaway camp as having connected her to Judaism.

Marty Rochlin, director of Camp Airy, believes that putting positive Jewish role models in front of kids is one of the things that parents should look for in a camp.

Camp Airy (Photo courtesy of Camp Airy)

“If you ask campers why they’re coming, they might say the activities or the bunkmates or a memorable experience,” he said. “As they get older though, they begin to connect with older kids and staff members and want to emulate them. That is where the kids find the role models that the parents were aiming for from the beginning.”

Zuckerman’s job is to help families find a camp that is the best fit for both parents and campers. For example, some parents may want their child to attend a camp driven by a certain movement of Judaism, while another family might have a child who has never had a Jewish education, and they want their child to learn about the religion in a fun, comfortable atmosphere.

“I think the beauty of summer camp is that there is a different camp for every child,” she said. So, how does a camp determine how Jewish it will be?

Camp Shoresh is a day camp in Adamstown, Md., and is notably “very Jewish” according to Rabbi David Finkelstein, the camp’s director. It is the only camp around that has seven rabbis on the staff, and the rabbis are also aided by a number of Jewish teachers and counselors.

“When the camp was founded 38 years ago, certain standards were set at the beginning,” he said. “It is a Jewish day camp. The word ‘Jewish’ comes before ‘day camp,’ so the ‘Jewish’ had to really implicate some of the major components of Judaism — tefillah, d’var Torah and learning. We combine that with all of these fun things at the same time. When you bring in the Jewish component — not boring classroom-type learning, but exciting interactive back-and-forth — the kids understand that [Judaism] is really about body, mind and soul.”

To exemplify Shoresh’s goal of being a fun and exciting camp with a strong Jewish component, Finkelstein cited that the camp recently build a nine-hole, holiday-themed miniature golf course, with each hole portraying a different Jewish holiday.

Camp Shoresh (Photo by David Stuck)

Capital Camps in Waynesboro, Pa., is a sleepaway Jewish summer camp. Although it has always maintained a Jewish identity, the camp recently engaged in an 18-month process to come up with a Jewish life-vision statement by reaching out to educators, clergy and members of the Jewish community. It also surveyed current camp families, staff and alumni in an effort to determine what was going to be meaningful to the camp and how that would guide everything.

“Our statement centers around five key themes,” explained director Adam Broms. “They are curiosity, community, commitment, conversation and citizenship. The decisions we make Jewishly as a camp are guided by those five categories. We have designed the camp experience to further the vision of these different values.”

For example, in conjunction with these five themes, Capital Camps offers campers a series of “Shabboptions” on Saturday mornings, workshops or activities which aim to help campers explore these themes. A child might choose to engage his or her curiosity on a teva nature walk or to engage the community through lessons in Israeli dance.

One aspect to consider when looking into camps is the difference between sleepaway and day camps.

“I think that it is a different level of incorporating Judaism into 24 hours a day versus eight hours,” said Zuckerman. “Jewish life can still be infused into all activities [at a day camp], but something about an overnight camp environment, waking up to a boker tov (good morning) and going to sleep with Havdalah or a Jewish song, you don’t get to do that at day camp.”

The most important element in making a successful summer, according to Zuckerman, is finding the right camp environment for a child. “I always encourage parents to think about what would make their child most comfortable, especially when thinking about a range of camps that infuse Judaism in different ways.”

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