"Hi, Jacob. How are you doing today?"
"Is this your first summer at Camp Coleman?"
"No, I came last year, too."
"Why did you decide to come back?"
"'Cause it's fun."
That's a conversation I had over and over as I talked to the ten kids from Temple Beit HaYam who are at Camp Coleman this summer. Yesterday, I visited the camp in northern Georgia, which is operated by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).
It makes you think…what other Jewish experience do we give our kids that makes them absolutely beg their parents for the chance to do it again? I can't think of even one.
Any serious conversation about creating joyful Judaism has to include Jewish summer camps. We take kids from congregations across the continent, and in four-week sessions, we show them that being Jewish can be exciting, energizing, spiritual, community-building, friendship-creating, and, most of all, fun. There is no better message to send to the people we hope to build the future of the Jewish people.
There are lots of statistics (if you're into that kind of thing) that make the same point. Compared to kids who do not attend Jewish summer camps, the kids who do grow up to be
Parents can expect kids to come home from Jewish summer camp with a bit of a let down. Returning to the "real world" can be a disappointment after a summer of high-wire Jewish excitement. I always suggest to parents that they give their kids a chance to bring some of their camp Judaism back home with them. Let your child teach you how to celebrate Shabbat the way they did at camp. Take them to Temple services that feature the melodies they learned at camp. Make Judaism something that you do together as a family, the way that Judaism was part of your child's "camp family."
Not only has Jewish camping changed Jewish kids, it has changed Judaism. The next time you attend a service that features singable melodies delivered in a folk-song style, know that it would not exist without the influence of Jewish camping. The next time your rabbi talks about the spirituality of nature and outdoor experiences, know that he or she has been influenced by Jewish environmentalism that was nurtured in our camps. Whenever you see services that emphasize participation, intimacy, informality and joyful energy, you are witnessing the influence of Jewish summer camps on today's Jewish leaders—more than 70% of whom attended Jewish overnight camps as children.
Summer camps are helping North American Jews discover a new Judaism. Unlike the Judaism of my parents' and grandparents' generation, it is not a Judaism that focusses first on rote memorization, a response to antisemitism, or lamenting our people's past sorrows. Rather, it is a Judaism that is, first and foremost, about joy, spirituality, creativity, love, friendships, meaning, and—as Jacob would say—fun.