A Jewish camp designed specifically for Jewish campers: who would have thought that, in 2015, the very idea of such a camp would spark any discussion?
Certainly not the founders of Camp Solelim, who established it 50 years ago to provide Jewish teenagers aged 14 and 15 with a summer experience that would instil pride in their Jewish heritage and in Israel – the Jewish State that, back then, was only a teenager itself.
In our Canadian multicultural society, we have always had, among other things, Catholic school boards, profession-based associations, faith-based clubs, girls-only organizations such as the Girl Guides, and many boys-only schools.
At Camp Solelim, it has always been about equipping our Jewish youth from across Canada with leadership skills that will benefit the larger Jewish community from coast to coast.
Over the years, thousands of campers have “roughed it” in Solelim’s tents on Clearwater Lake, outside of Sudbury, Ont. Recently, many former campers have written to tell me how much being a camper at Solelim meant to them and what a huge impact it had on their lives – and, more specifically, on their lives as Jews.
As Solelim’s camp director for 13 years, I have personally witnessed the positive effects that this camp has on these Jewish kids. By the end of each summer, they are charged up – excited – about being Jews and Zionists. There is a certain Jewish spirit – “ruach” – that follows Solelim campers when they return home and remains with them for the rest of their lives. It’s that spirit that has prompted many former campers to send their own children to the camp – because they wanted their own kids to have the Solelim experience and feel the camp’s inimitable “ruach” as well.
Our legacy affirms that the Solelim experience not only impacts our campers as they mature into adults – many of whom take their place as Canadian Jewish leaders – but that they pass that legacy down into the next generation of Jewish children. This is a heritage we continue to nurture.
That is why we are so disappointed to see Camp Solelim in the spotlight, not because of our achievements, but because of a decision we made to deny the application of a non-Jewish camper based on our guiding principles that have served us well for 50 years and inform everything we do. At our core are programs that provide Jewish teens with the opportunity to learn about, question, examine and explore their Judaism, with a view to developing their own Jewish identity.
Guided by the Jewish tenet of tikkun olam, we appreciate and embrace outreach to other faith communities and contribute to the Canadian society at large. We have programs that support and raise awareness for numerous causes in the wider community, such as Pencils for Kids in Africa, the Sudbury Food Bank, and the Christmas toy drive. We pride ourselves on our ability to build and sustain relationships with other faiths and people of non-Jewish backgrounds.
Based on our 50-year mandate, the direction we took with this specific application was appropriate. We discussed our position with the family and we understand the child’s disappointment. We are sympathetic to his situation, but there are many options for him in the Jewish family of camps. Some have reached out to the family directly.
In such a diverse Jewish community, there is room for different kinds of Jewish camps, and the mandates and policies of each should be respected. These diverse models must continue to coexist, as our laws provide.
I am proud of what Camp Solelim has achieved and look forward to the positive impact it will continue to have on Jewish children in the years ahead.
Risa Epstein is director of Camp Solelim