Ode To Jewish Camping

February 6, 2014

simone_ellin_squareI was not a happy camper. And let’s face it, some of us aren’t overly fond of the great outdoors, with its summertime mosquitoes, oppressive heat, freezing-cold pools and lakes and overnight campouts.

Although I whined about most camp activities, I suspect I would have put those objections aside (and even learned to love many of those things) had I not been so shy and homesick. It might have helped if I had started overnight camp when I was younger, maybe 6 or 7. In my first and last summer at camp I was already 15, and the social scene was by then relatively impenetrable. By the end of my month-long stay, I had begun to make friends and even have some fun, but I never went back.

As an adult, I was puzzled when friends rhapsodized about their days at Jewish summer camps. It wasn’t until I became a member of the curatorial team for the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s Cabin Fever Exhibition [see interview with Deborah Cardin on page 42] that I came to understand why camp had played such a pivotal role in the lives of my friends and colleagues.

As part of our exhibition research, I had the opportunity to visit numerous Jewish summer camps and was privy to countless interviews with former campers who viewed their camp experiences as some of the happiest and most meaningful parts of their childhoods.

That’s when I became envious. I told myself I would do anything to make sure my own children became happy campers.

Discussing the history of Jewish camps Rabbi Joel Seltzer, director at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, says, “Jewish camping is the single most important contribution to modern Jewish education in America.”

While Jewish campers, their parents and camp professionals have long suspected that Jewish summer camp is one of the strongest predictors of Jewish continuity, there wasn’t always such irrefutable data. In 2011, however, we got proof in the form of a study commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp and led by sociologist Steven M. Cohen. The study, Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp, looked at 26 Jewish community population studies and found that adult Jews who had attended Jewish summer camp were more engaged in a range of Jewish activities as adults. Among other things, the study showed Jews with summer camp backgrounds were more likely to marry other Jews, belong to a synagogue and support Jewish charities.

This month’s iNSIDER includes a report on a similar study conducted by Habonim Dror and Camp Moshava with similar conclusions to the national study.

This summer, my daughter will be a camp counselor and my son will start his fourth summer as a camper. The friends they have made, the independence they have gained and the experiences they have had are irreplaceable. It does make me feel a bit remorseful of my missed opportunities at camp. But I’ve got to hand it to my kids. It’s certainly a pleasure to live vicariously through them.

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