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By lunchtime on Friday, the atmosphere feels different. The schedule changes, making time and space to prepare. We get ready, pulling out what is probably our last set of clean clothes. We grab cameras, anticipating lots of pictures since everyone will be looking their best. We’re excited. We are, for once, ready when it’s time to go. We walk. We sing. We join hands, gathering more friends as we go. Literally or figuratively, we ascend. We welcome Shabbat.
I am a Reform Movement camp veteran: a camper at URJ Camp Harlam in the 1990s, a unit head at URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) during rabbinical school, and currently a faculty member at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI). In addition, I have contacts and connections in dozens of URJ member synagogues. In all these places, the same question gets asked with some frequency: For all those who love it so – kids, teens, and adults – how can we make synagogue more like camp?
The short answer is that we can’t. There is no substitute for the completely immersive, parent-free, unequivocally Jewish camp environment – for the campers or for the staff.
The longer answer is that we must look deeper, and we must keep trying.
It’s true that parents aren’t at camp, but rather than focusing on their absence, we should notice instead the way camp involves every person who is there. Camp is not about excluding parents; it’s about including everyone. For instance, every person campers interact with on a given day is also at Shabbat services on Friday night. Every counselor they encounter during Shabbat is someone they will see throughout the coming week. It’s likely that they’ll run into the Shabbat morning service leaders in the dining hall, on the soccer field, or on the way to the shower. Campers don’t only spend long days together; they participate in a totally immersive experience.
What’s more, camp makes all experiences Jewish experiences.
Campers may not remember what they learned on a specific morning in limmud or shuir (Jewish learning), but they will remember being surrounded by friends, giggling and learning Torah. Similarly, not every counselor will become a professional Jewish educator, but every one of them knows camp offers opportunities to teach Jewish traditions and values to the next generation.
For faculty, camp certainly can be a relaxing time away, but they know it also involves some of the most profound work they’ll do all year: visiting sick kids who are away from home – and away from their bunks, cabins, or tents; stepping back from leading a service to allow the song leaders to step up; showing up for evening programs that have no intentional Jewish content, because it is camp; and playing impromptu, silly games with kids on the way to the dining hall for dinner.
It’s all part of what makes Jewish camp what it is.
Whether they are daily, a few times a week, or just on Shabbat, nothing makes Jewish summer camp more Jewish than services. Once back home, many people try to create “camp-like” services with a guitar, lots of singing, and a story instead of a sermon from the rabbi. Although it’s true that those things happen at most camp services, like baking challah without love, there’s still something missing.
For one thing, campers usually lead the services and the song leaders playing guitar up front are not clergy either – they are rock stars. For another, camp services are laboratories – they are different every time, always a learning experience, and seldom exactly as envisioned. Sometimes, campers read Hebrew – or English – in front of a group for the first time, song leaders try new melodies, counselors try new rituals, and campers try to understand prayers in new and unusual ways.
What’s more, because everyone comes from places with diverse traditions, people stand and sit at various times, they bow and close their eyes and wear different ritual items, all of which inspires conversation and experimentation. Camp services are fun, participatory, and musical, and those are the things we try to replicate. But camp services also are experimental, safe, terrifying, and supportive – and those are the things that give them their essence. Indeed, those are the things we need to bring home.
No, we can’t make our year-round programs or services into summer camp. But we can learn from the essence of summer camp.
Camp is about relationships and it’s those relationships that make the experience immersive and distinct. It’s the relationships that make services supportive, spiritual, and so uniquely Jewish. It’s the relationships that separate camp from the rest of the year; everything else flows from those connections.