Rite of Passage

How Jewish Camps Can Help Forge Our “Jewish-ness”

    There’s a first crush. A care package (with one of those popcorn tins). A friendship bracelet and pact. These are just some of the things I still remember from my camp experience.
    Summers at overnight camps are packed with a wide range of fun activities and something for everyone—whether it’s aquatics, arts and crafts, basketball and soccer, dance, music, cooking, archery, drama, or the great outdoors. Jewish camp weaves Jewish values, culture, and traditions into the fabric of camp, helping campers to connect to their own identity and the larger Jewish community. My camp counselors were the coolest in my mind, spirited and dynamic using their experiential learning to reveal what makes Jewish religion and culture so unique in today’s world. At camp, Jewish and Israeli culture is celebrated through song, food, art, and dance. Whether kids are telling stories in their bunks, learning about the environment, or playing tennis, campers explore what Judaism means to them in a safe, nurturing, and fun environment.
    The impact of Jewish camp is immediate—campers return home connected to a community and friends that will last them a lifetime. And it doesn’t stop there. Children with pivotal Jewish camp experiences are more likely to become adults who value their Jewish heritage, support Jewish causes, and take on leadership roles in their communities.
    A recent study on the long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp concludes that those who have attended camp are more Jewishly engaged as adults, according to 13 key variables, than those who did not go to camp. “We finally have a tool that proves Jewish camp works, that it helps create a more vibrant Jewish future,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which advocates for more than 155 Jewish non-profit camps in North America and sponsored the study. “Camp Works: The long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp” used data from 26 national studies of adult Jewish engagement, including the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, to produce the first statistical look at the effect of Jewish camping on individual as well as communal Jewish identity.
The report shows the most pronounced increase in Jewish engagement in four areas not typically associated with non-Orthodox Jewish behavior. Three of them have to do with Jewish communal identity: Camp alumni are 55 percent more likely than Jewish adults who did not attend camp to say they are “very emotionally attached to Israel”; they are 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month; and 30 percent more of them donate to Jewish federations.
    This is significant, says lead researcher Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, because those three behaviors indicate a certain level of Jewish communal commitment, and it is precisely that communal identification that many Jewish experts fear is most at risk. “Where camp has had its strongest effect has to do with its creation of an intense, temporary Jewish community,” said Cohen. That communal experience imprints on the individual, he surmised, leading to a greater propensity to view one’s self within a larger Jewish social network in adulthood.
    I’ve been thinking a lot about childhood and “play” and how important it is to have that kind of fun when you’re young and how formative those carefree days really were. The friendships the inside jokes with bunkmates. The mentors and counselors. I look back on it all so fondly. I think it’s safe to say that whatever camp you decide to put your kid in, they will make memories that will last a lifetime.

Tanya Fein is a contributing writer to Kiddish magazine.


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