NOTE: This essay was cross posted on the rabbinical blog of Temple Kol Ami.
Sitting in traffic on Highway 400, I decide that my six-year-old son has stared long enough at his iPod screen, so I try to make conversation:
“So, Yair, what are you looking forward to the most at camp?”
We are on our way, for the fourth summer in a row, to URJ Camp George, the regional Reform Jewish camp. I will serve as rabbinical faculty for the week, and he will be what is lovingly referred to as a “faculty brat” – shadowing the campers because he’s too young to be in a cabin.
Yair loves camp. He looks forward to it every summer. So I figure there are any number of possible answers to my question of what he is looking forward to most: sports; arts & crafts; swimming. His actual answer blows me away, and makes me laugh out loud.
“Well….” (He pauses to think.) “I think my favourite is…making challah.”
Making challah? Making CHALLAH?? Of all the things to do at camp, he chose braiding bread! This kid loves to run around; loves to swim and play… and his favourite thing is Jewish cooking! I love it!
And then it hits me. At age 6, he doesn’t differentiate between which activities are Jewish and which are not. He just knows that he loves all of the things he does at camp.
THAT is what Jewish camping is all about.
I am a product of Jewish camp also. I can trace my earliest and most formative Jewish experiences back to sweltering hot summers at Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, where we prayed in Hebrew with a southern drawl, dressed in all white on Shabbat, and sweated our way through Shabbat song session. I have seen first hand, from having spent many summers in in many different camp roles, just how influential camping is on Jewish identity. Kids who grow up attending Jewish camp feel like Judaism belongs to them. They use Hebrew words naturally; they feel comfortable with services and ritual; and they integrate Jewish thinking and values into the everyday – moving seamlessly from swimming to challah baking, from eating meals to chanting blessings.
The camps are often referred the as the “crown jewel” of Jewish education in North America. They are a veritable Jewish identity factory, a hothouse of creative ideas and new approaches. Much of what liberal Judaism looks like today was born in its camps. I have no doubt that the liberal Judaism of tomorrow is being incubated there right now. Maybe even in the mind of my 6 year old son.
So I press further: “Challah baking? That sounds like fun. Why is that your favourite?”
He answers: ” I don’t know. I just like it.”
That’s OK. He doesn’t have to know yet. We can leave the philosophizing for later. For now, let’s just get to camp.