By Jaime Benheim
It’s Friday night at camp. Services and dinner are over, but nearly 450 campers, dressed in white and ranging in age from eight to 17, are now singing together for a weekly Friday night song session. The songs include everything from Debbie Friedman to sections of Pirkei Avot to camp originals, nothing that would be considered “cool” or “in style” by these kids’ peers; and yet the same kids who struggle to stay awake through a Hebrew school lesson are here shouting out the words to the songs they know by heart.
Everyone knows that sleepaway camps provide incredible opportunities for children to learn basic independent living skills like responsibility, respect or how to live with a roommate (or 15). They get to try new activities and step out of their comfort zones and learn that yes, they can survive for a month without Facebook and Instagram.
What makes Jewish camp in particular so amazing is that in addition to everything that makes an ordinary summer camp great, Jewish summer camp also has a way of making kids excited to be Jewish. Any outside observer will notice that Judaism is infused into the very fabric of camp. Years from now, these campers will remember raising the flags each morning and saying the Pledge of Allegiance, but they will also remember singing Modeh Ani and Hatikvah. They will remember cheering on their team for color war and having a Fourth of July carnival, but they will also remember discussing bullying and sinat hinam (baseless hatred) as part of a Tisha B’Av program and dressing up in blue and white for Israel Day.
A fundamental part of camp programming is dedicated to enhancing each camper’s Jewish experience. But the most important aspect of summer camp by far is the lifelong friendships that these campers make. Campers come from extremely diverse backgrounds – both socially and geographically – and in some cases the only unifying feature of a group of children is that they are all Jewish.
Watching these children form a support network and grow up together each summer is one of the most fulfilling parts of being a counselor. Even though we are no longer campers ourselves, my friends and I still reminisce about our experiences at camp together. When these current campers grow up, I have no doubt that they will consider their time at camp to be a major influence in the creation of their Jewish identities precisely because of the community that camp provides them.
I have spent ten summers (more than half my life) at Capital Camps, and yet each Friday night continues to inspire me. These laughing, screaming children who have so much energy and passion for Judaism are going to become key players in their religious communities in college and beyond. I could not be more grateful to have the privilege of watching it all happen.
Check out http://www.jewishbaltimore.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/the-gift-of-jewish-camp/ about the value of Jewish camp.
To learn more about Jewish camp, contact Janna Zuckerman firstname.lastname@example.org.