Be more! The Jewish Camping Experience

Camp is that fantastic, special place we go each summer, where we make friends, try new things, push ourselves to be better, and make memories that last us a lifetime. Camp is life at its best for so many children (and for many of us adults, too!)

Choosing a camp is always an important decision, and right here in New Jersey, we have so many choices it’s a bit daunting to try and find the right one. I thought I would share some thoughts on my own journey, and why Jewish camping is, in my mind, such a rewarding choice.

I went to camp for the first time in preschool, at the JCC in Indianapolis. As I got a little bit older, I started attending a URJ camp in Indiana for day camp, and then spent a month there each summer for the next 4 years. When I was too old to be a camper, I went to the JCC to begin my long career as a camp employee. Jewish camping is in my blood. It’s what I’ve always done, and it’s what has defined who I am today. My Jewish identity began to develop most strongly while I spent my summers at camp, as I connected to my Judaism both informally and formally. I began to understand the concept of Kehillah, or community, in a way that reflected both the human need for community, and also the Jewish value of connecting to your community. We learn about facts or ideas as an individual, but we learn about life as a community. Camp is, to me, the best definition of community, and a really great camp experience can be truly transformative for campers of all ages.

All good camps should promote ways to live healthy lifestyles, build lasting relationships, and become the best person you can be by living your life with moral values. What makes Jewish camping an even stronger experience is its ability to connect these values, which are universal to being human, to Judaism and then teach campers how living our lives through a Jewish lens fulfills a greater purpose. I would like to focus on a few of the Jewish values that I find most rewarding in Jewish camps, and are universal to being an honorable mensch, a stand up member of our community.

In the Mishnah, Jewish oral law, the concept of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, was to create social policy legislation for the purpose of providing extra protection for those who were potentially at a disadvantage. At camp, we spend our summers outside, enjoying G-d’s creations. But it’s more than simply enjoying nature; it’s interacting with the world in a profound way. We might play under the shade of an oak tree, and use the gallnuts – the hard, round seed-like growths that fall beneath the trees by the hundreds –to toss to each other as a game or play marbles with them. But the gallnuts also serve an interesting Judaic purpose. As explained to me by my friend Josh Lake, of Outdoor Jewish Adventures, the gallnut is ground up and mixed with several other ingredients to create the special ink used by scribes to write Torah scrolls. How cool is that? Judaism teaches us to appreciate the world around us, and the gallnuts are simply one Jewish reason why. We have a responsibility as humans and as Jews to care for the world and to protect the natural wonders we enjoy each day, and at JCC camps, we are proud to teach and share these values..

This leads me to another important value, Hoda’ah, or appreciation for G-d’s creations. The best way I know to explain this value is to describe what it looks like to simply look up at the sky through the branches of a tree. How beautiful is this that was created in the world? We see the miracle of wildlife in the leaves of a tree, each one uniquely formed and grown, just like each camper. Individually, the leaf and the child are beautiful, but when they are brought together as kehillah, the tree or the child is infinitely more special and beautiful. We share this value in camp as a way to thank and appreciate each other for what we bring to the world and to our camp group. Each of us is unique and makes important contributions. As a simple lesson at camp, we can appreciate that we have grass to play in, and sunshine to warm our skin, and trees to provide shade. We also appreciate our friends who care about us, and listen to our stories, and bring us laughter and joy.

Camp is also the perfect place to make new friends, as exhibited by the value of Hachnasat Orchim, or welcoming guests and hospitality. The Jewish forefather Abraham is commonly cited as the ultimate provider of hospitality by virtue of his warm welcoming of strangers with not only food to eat and a bed to sleep in, but by the gracious manner in which he greeted his guests. So many lifelong friendships are built in Jewish camps over the years, and each day we greet old friends, and welcome new ones to our group. Camp teaches us to be inclusive and inviting of strangers. Whether you attend one week or ten weeks, it is our responsibility to be hospitable and welcoming. Have you ever been the new one in a group? Of course you have! And your relationship to that group is strongly influenced by the hospitality you received when you were first met. At camp, we teach our staff to teach our campers to be welcoming of all guests, on their first day and every day. On a personal note, I am so thankful for the hachnasat orchim shown to me when I joined the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades community just a short 4 months ago. I was welcomed and treated as part of the family from the very first day. Being welcomed in a new situation is so important for both our emotional and spiritual health.

This brings me to my final value of Shmirat Haguf, or caring for the body. The concept of Shmirat Haguf connects with the belief that our body is the vessel through which our eternal soul will live. As we were created in G-d’s image, we have a responsibility to G-d to protect and care for our bodies. Teaching healthy lifestyles is truly a Jewish value, and one that camp embraces so strongly. From eating healthy and balanced meals and snacks, to balancing our active and passive activities, to taking time to practice hoda’ah (gratitude or thanks), camp embodies shmirat haguf. Today, children experience a great deal of passive activities in their lives. While technological advances are truly impressive, we often fall into a trap of comfort and look to fulfill almost all of our needs virtually. We can get our news, our shopping, our education, and even our relationships online, and many children quickly accept and adapt to a more passive lifestyle. And while I am not suggesting that we eliminate electronics altogether at home, when children are in camp, we have them turn off their electronic devices so they can fully experience the world through their senses. We learn new games to play outside and in nature, and experience our senses all day long. No virtual activity can replace the sense of joy and accomplishment that comes from completing a ropes course challenge with friends! And while our kids can sit on the couch and eat pizza and text their buddies at home, at camp, they sit outside in nature, and share a healthy meal, laughing with 12 of their best friends. What’s better than that?!

Camp truly is kehillah, community and Jewish camps offer a warm and close family feeling at a JCC, you have the additional benefit of being part of a Jewish community all year long. So while camp sets the foundation for so many important Jewish lessons and experiences, the JCC reinforces these values all year. These universal values are carried with us throughout our lives so that we can have a more meaningful personal and/or Jewish experience as adults. Living these values create memories that last a lifetime, pushing us to be the best person we can be, and shaping who we become.

Happy camping!

Written by Aaron Atlas, MSW
Director, Youth and Camping Engagement at the JCC

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