For many kids growing up in Baltimore’s large Jewish community, summer camp is a time to get away from home and have fun with friends. For those growing up in places with little to no real Jewish population, camp can offer much more.
“It’s tremendous,” said Phran Edelman, Camp Shoresh’s director of operations. “For some of these kids, these are the only affiliations they have.”
With 2013’s Pew Report on American Jewish life came an increased effort to use camp to create lasting interest in Judaism and Jewish life among younger generations. Camps were quickly painted as the solution to the problem of disengagement, especially among those outside the traditional Jewish community.
Based in Frederick, Camp Shoresh attracts campers from all over Western Maryland and nearby regions. In addition to kids from areas such as Silver Spring and Olney, the camp caters to children from areas such as Ashburn, Leesburg and even Roanoke, Va. — areas with few synagogues and very small Jewish communities.
“It exposes them to other kids from other communities, so if they’re alone they get a different aspect of Judaism than they would have in their own community,” said Edelman. Jewish camp lets kids “see kids from all different walks of life and all different levels of religiosity.”
In fact, Edelman pointed out, the camp’s location has ensured that it has been serving kids from relatively non-Jewish areas since its opening.
“When it started with 19 kids in just Frederick, my in-laws started it in their backyards because their kids went to public school where there were like four Jewish kids in the class, so they didn’t have that social aspect while they were in school, and the camp options didn’t exist for a day camp in Frederick. You would have to go to the YMCA camp or whatever not-Jewish camp,” said Edelman. “So that’s really why the camp started, for those kids who didn’t have those other Jewish camp opportunities.”
Camp Shoresh stresses what Edelman calls “positive Judaism.” Staff mix Jewish values into fun activities and show kids how living Jewishly can be fun. In addition to the chance to experience Jewish life, Edelman added, the relationships campers develop among each other help to solidify their connection to Judaism.
At Capital Camps, CEO Jonah Geller said his staff is making a conscious effort to reach kids living outside the fold of Jewish communal life.
“It’s those kids who benefit from a Jewish camping experience the most,” said Geller, who added that there are a growing number of incentives and financial aid available to attract kids from outlying areas to try Jewish camp for the first time.
“The beauty of Jewish camp is that each camper and each staff member each summer is going to take away something different from that experience and what they choose to make of their own life, and how they choose to incorporate their own Judaism and Jewish pride is really up to them,” he said. While the attention recently has been on engaging the previously unengaged, the value of camp is high for all children.
Said Geller: “For the camper who goes to Jewish day school, who goes to Jewish camp and a camper who only goes to Jewish camp, it’s the only thing in that camper’s whole entire year that’s Jewish related, [it] can have the same type of meaningful impact.”