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When Jewish Camp Matters

Posted by: Audra Martin on Tuesday, April 5, 2016 at 12:00:00 am

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible” – Abraham Joshua Heschel

When Jewish camp matters

Our contemporary lives are busy. Our kids are surrounded by American culture. A Jewish camp experience immerses our kids in Jewish experiences and friends. While our kids are running, playing, swimming, traveling, busy with arts and science and all the camp fun, they are doing it surrounded by Jewish values and traditions.

What Jewish camp looks like

Art is Jewish? Sports are Jewish? Screaming, yelling and raucous fun are Jewish? Indeed, Judaism is infused in everything we do at camp. For children, the realization that our day-to-day activities can be – and are – Jewish, forever changes their relationship with being Jewish, making it a relevant part of their lives and their interests.

Jewish values are reflected throughout the camp in innumerable, tangible ways:

  • Hachnassat Orchim: welcoming our guests
    As our campers are dropped off, a bevy of counselors – often in festive costumes – dance and sing, welcoming each camper individually.
  • Ruach: spirit
    The JCC shakes from each morning with a rowdy “flag pole” morning session full of ruach and exuberance. The entire camp cheers, sings, plays, engages in fun competitions.
  • Kavod: honor and respect
    Honor and respect are taught to our campers frequently in the dealings with each other, as well as in cleaning their areas after each art/science/lunch session. Rewards, or “JCamps Big Bucks” are liberally shared with campers as they show kavod to other campers and staff.
  • Tikkun Olam: repairing the world
    Each camper is engaged in a service project, some onsite and off, learning about others not as fortunate as us.
  • Kehillah: community
    Camp connects kids to a global community of Jews, to our local OC Jewish community and to a smaller community of friends within their tight-knit camp groups.

Shlichim build bridges to Israel

Connecting kids to Israel is a critical piece of building Jewish identity, and an important part of the content in any Jewish camp. In an effort to surround our JCampers with Israeli experiences, shlichim join us every year to share their perspectives on Israeli life and to bring Israel lessons to life. Shaliach means “messenger” or “emissary” in Hebrew; the plural of the word is shlichim.  Our Israeli shlichim are Israeli citizens and usually, have just completed their military service. They  are eager to learn about American life and share Israeli culture with our children, tailoring camp curricula to forge connections, as well as increasing our campers Israel awareness, knowledge, and pride.

Shlichim join our camp staff as trained camp specialists, adding Israeli culture to every day’s programming, including Hebrew, Israeli arts, music, food and dance. They genuinely deepen the Jewish atmosphere throughout camp. 

Diversity adds depth to the Jewish camp experience

Whether our campers are all Jewish, barely Jewish, half-Jewish, or not at all, Jewish camp is uniquely welcoming to a diverse pluralistic community. Our JCamps are open to the entire community, creating advocates and allies through the involvement of our non-Jewish participants.

Through this diversity and various camp experiences, we demonstrate there is no “right” way to be Jewish. Furthermore, we teach all kids to value and respect differences, to celebrate – not fear – differences. Encountering different options, beliefs and practices, heightens the camp experience and promotes critical thinking and reflection.

In addition to strengthening Jewish identity, camp strengthens futures

Our children need 21st century skills including creativity, communication, and collaboration skills – all of these skills are nurtured at camp. Peg Smith, chief executive officer of the American Camp Association (ACA), recently expressed, “We all know where kids go to receive ‘academic’ equipment for life, but there is a special place each summer where they can go to receive critical social and emotional readiness equipment.” According to an ACA study, campers

  • Become more confident and increase their self-esteem
  • Develop more social skills that help them make friends
  • Become more independent and show more leadership qualities
  • Become more adventurous and willing to try new things
  • Realize spiritual growth (we call this building “Jewish identity” in Jewish speak)

The Merage JCC is proud to be an ACA accredited camp, complying with nearly 300 health, safety, and program quality standards.

As we see the demise of play, and more time spent with electronics, the camp experience may be one of the last oases left for young people to experience the rite of passage – childhood.

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