Jewish World Review / August 9, 1998 / 18 Menachem-Av, 5758

Making Jewish summers count

By Susan R. Weintrob

THE DAY FINALLY ARRIVED. My son was returning home from camp at the same unreasonably early hour that he had left. Three cups of coffee hardly helped me keep my eyes open as I drove nearly 2 hours to the airport.

My adrenaline picked up after we found the arrival gate. Who was this young man who emerged in an army camouflage shirt, boot camp-length hair and a more mature way of walking? Had only a month passed?

"I got a haircut at camp. Gad (his counselor) gave me one --- then most all the guys did it," he told me, after seeing my eyes on his shorn hair. I had to admit, he looked good. Even his sister nodded approvingly. My son beamed.

His luggage seemed suspiciously lighter than when he had left, but all my son would admit to was a dozen socks he considered too dirty to bring home. We might never know. His conversation on the way home was filled with camp stories. I didn't need coffee any longer to keep me awake.

"Our aidah [group] was so cool. We had great madrichim [counselors], especially the ones in my serif [cabin]." My son prattled on about his group's overnight tiyu [trip], their hatsagah, [drama production], the fun in the cheder ochel [dining room], and so on. Every few words was a Hebrew one. I was pleased.

"Did you learn much Hebrew?" I asked him.

"Nah, we just had fun."

After we arrived home, we hauled his large duffles into the house.

"Right to the laundry room," I directed. "Is there anything that doesn't need washing?"

My son shook his head.

I fixed a large brunch (Was it still only 10:30 in the morning?) We talked and heard more camp stories. Then my son stretched out on the couch for a snooze.

SO WHAT DISTINGUISHED this camp from the host of other summer camps? This camp was a Jewish one. All the counselors and staff were Jewish. Many were Israeli and most of the Americans had been to Israel. Hebrew words were used for the buildings and activities. All the food was kosher. Shabbes was observed. Tefillah (services) began each day and birkas hamazon ( grace) completed each meal.

Obviously, a month of Jewish summer camp does not make or keep a person Jewish.

That is what daily home life is for. However, there is nothing like the intense Jewish living that camp provides. I still remember my own Jewish camp experiences about 30 (uh, well maybe a few more!) years ago.

These camp experiences are especially important for those who live away from large Jewish populations. During my teenage years, I had Jewish friends and relatives and a Jewish youth group nearby --- my children do not. Camp is the only place they have ever seen more than a few Jewish kids their own age in one place. In places like Muncie, Indianna, the Jewish community is almost indistinguishable from the Christian one.

In these times of rampant assimilation, the reasons for sending our children to Jewish summer camp should be apparent. Yet, how do we choose a camp? Camps that blend Jewish education into the day's activities are preferable.

Without even knowing it, my son had learned Hebrew, history, and so on.

I remember a conversation a number of years ago with a father whose children were a few years older than mine. "Why would you want to send your kids to a Jewish camp?" he asked me. "Don't you want your kids to get along with everyone?"

This was a person who wanted his children to remain Jewish. He sent them to Sunday School and was openly proud of being Jewish. But the consequences of his attitude became evident later. When one of his children was in college, he complained that his son couldn't get involved Jewishly.

"No one has reached out to him," he complained to me. So, I put in a few phone calls to his school almost 1000 miles away. The Hillel director promised to contact him. An outreach group promised to contact him. The Jewish student union promised to contact him. Later on, the father told me his son still was uninvolved.

I pressed further. "I know there's a kosher dining hall. Has he been to it?"

His father nodded. "He felt so out of place. When he went in there during Passover, he saw so many of the boys wearing yarmulkes --- he just knew he couldn't fit in."

I was saddened that this young man felt awkward with his fellow Jews and obviously felt more at ease with those who weren't Jewish. I knew then that he had been contacted by all the above-mentioned Jewish groups, but he couldn't bring himself to join.

I thought back to the father's remark of several years ago. "Don't you want your kids to fit in with everybody?" His son had gotten the message, from early on, that being with other Jews, especially in exclusively Jewish groups, was somehow wrong or not needed. Seeing several people in yarmulkes -- all in one place -- was more than he could manage.

My husband read somewhere that our children rarely do what we tell them, but they almost always imitate our behavior. Here was a situation that proved this point. Home-life which encourages assimilation will rarely be overcome by an enthusiastic youth director. Worse still, is the attitude that being around Jews is in some way limiting, that it doesn*t allow us to learn to get along in our world.

A Jewish camp experience is a way of learning how to fit into a Jewish world.

Sending our children to camp, Israel or day schools will not insure that they will be good Jews. Continuing tha assimilationist trends of the day, however, will help insure that they will not.

JWR contributor Susan Rubin Weintrob is based at the National Jewish Post and Opinion and is a faculty member of Ball State University's English Department.


7/98: Claiming Life's keys
4/98: The 'Your Belief' syndrome
2/98 : Why I wear a hat
1/10/98: Orthodox Jews not welcomed -- by other Jews
12/10/98 : The "greening" of American Jewry

© 1998, Susan R. Weintrob