Just a few weeks from now, thousands of Canadian Jewish parents will send their kids off to Jewish summer camps. It’s an exciting time for young people, whether they are setting out as campers or staff, after the cold winter and a demanding school year. For parents, there is pride in the knowledge that their children are embarking on a rich, positive Jewish experience. In some cases, campers will play ball, sing Hebrew songs, establish enduring friendships, even initiate a summer romance, on the same grounds their parents once roamed (they might also discover their mom’s or dad’s undisclosed affinity for bunkroom graffiti). That sort of generational connection, combined with the relative affordability of summer camp (at least compared to day school tuition), is why Jewish camps are often considered to be the vanguard of Jewish education.
In many ways, the Jewish camp experience, from an educational perspective, hasn’t really changed much over the years. Campers can still expect to learn about the heroes of Judaism’s past and present, to be stirred to their very core while singing Israeli songs as the sun sets on Shabbat, to proudly stand to attention at mifkad (flag-raising) ceremonies. These are staples. They endure because they work so well. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
But a small group of Jewish camp counsellors believe the system is, in fact, broken, and they are intent on making changes. At a recent gathering in Boston, JTA reports, “about a dozen counsellors from eight Reform, Conservative and liberal Zionist camps” engaged in a training session on how to introduce Palestinian narratives and challenge Israeli actions at camp. The event was organized by IfNotNow (INN), which actively opposes what it terms “the American Jewish community’s support for occupation.” One attendee, a unit head this summer at one of the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah branches, said, “If the violence in Gaza continues throughout the summer, that’s something I want to address.” (In a related development, last week, alumni of camps run by the Union for Reform Judaism called on the movement to publicly display its opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza.)
Not surprisingly, the INN session ruffled some feathers. Ramah officials were quick to respond, saying in a statement, “As we have done for more than seven decades, Ramah will continue to create educational communities based on meaningful and lasting connections to Judaism and Israel.” (INN said it was “deeply disappointed” by Ramah’s response.) But if that puts the matter to rest when it comes to official camp programming, much of a summer’s learning, as any ex-camper can attest, comes about informally – during fireside chats or hazy afternoons lazing around the bunk.
As much as senior staff and concerned parents might reasonably demand transparency about a camp’s educational mandate, there is no way to police those casual interactions. After all, one of the prevailing attractions of camp for kids is that the adults don’t – and can’t – know everything that goes on, which leaves it up to campers to decide for themselves what’s right and wrong. As understandably concerning as it may be to some parents, isn’t that what summer camp is all about?