Summer camp is the new black

In the 1990s, it was day schools.

In the 2000s, it was the Israel experience.

In the 2010s, SUMMER CAMP is the new black.  And here’s the infographic to prove it.

(Read the full Foundation for Jewish Camp report later.)

I have big love for summer camp.  I never went as a kid but worked at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as staff and LOVED IT.

I want my kids to go to summer camp too.  All three of them.  For as much as there is summer.  And more.

But “CAMP WORKS”?  Well, if one bases one’s judgment on it “working” based on the criteria set out, then hells bells, it does work.

But is being a Jew solely based on…

  • marrying in?
  • feeling that being Jewish is important?
  • lighting candles on Shabbat?
  • being emotionally attached to Israel?
  • donating to a Jewish charity?
  • joining a synagogue?
  • donate to the Federation?
  • attending synagogue more than once a month?


In-marriage?  It might start one off on more solid ground vis-a-vis “Jewish continuity”, but it guarantees nothing vis-a-vis Jewish identification going forward.  

Feeling that being Jewish is important?  Feeling that Israel is important?  Like the previously alluded-to buzzword “Jewish continuity”, it sounds good to feel Jewish or to be emotionally connected to Israel but how does that translates into concrete action?  (Hint: It’s coming…)

[Concrete Action #1]  Lighting candles on Shabbat!  Ah the great bellwether of Jewish identification… In my house, we light five candles each week, one for each person in the house… so, if I light my five three times a month, and you light two four times a month, do I win?

And of concrete actions #2-5, how many involve money?  If you guessed three, you would be correct.  Three of the measured concrete actions (joining a shul, giving money to a Jewish charity and giving money to the Federation) involve the concrete action of putting your hand in your pocket and giving it to a Jewish organization.  Hmm.  Is this what being a Jew involves in the 21st century?  I hope not.

And last, shul attendance.  I am also a big fan of shul attendance.  But I am lucky.  My shul is great and anchors a wonderful community of deeply committed, egalitarian progressive Jews.   Some shuls suck.  And y’all know what I am talking about…

However, despite the questionable sociology (and its underlying assumptions about Jewishness) behind the meaty section of the infographic, what really drove the point home about summer camp WORKING was the data in the second row.

Jewish summer camp is a hothouse for future Jewish leadership in North America.  

These stats support what I know to be true from my own experience in the field, having met passionate rabbis, communal leaders and educators who point to summer camp as a formative Jewish experience (not to mention a formative sexual experience too…).

So good on you, URJ camps and Ramah and Shomria and Gesher and all the other camps out there who are providing an unadulterated Jewish experience that Jews can love, be nostalgic about and carry forward across the seasons and generations.

But it begs a HUGE question: If Jewish camp works this well, shouldn’t summer camp be every North American Jew’s birthright?  

I’m just saying…



Birthright NEXT’s next kvetch

Yet another piece from a Birthright NEXT person decrying the bad rap “establishment Judaism” is getting, this time, from the folks over at #JewishFutures Conference who named a whole bunch of institutional idols that needed to be smashed Josiah-style… (You can read an unscientifically assembled list over at Esther K’s blog…)

As I fired off in an earlier FB status update, all this kvetching from Birthright strikes me as a bit lame…  as if Walmart, after driving all the local Main Street mom-and-pops out of business, is crying that consumers are a mighty fickle bunch…

Birthright = (sort of) the crack cocaine of Jewish engagement

How Birthright is like crack cocaine:

It plays on and heightens the most base, visceral urges, especially sex. (If you do not believe me, click here or here…)  Momo Lifschitz (who either split from Birthright in 2009 or was pushed out… depends whom you ask…), coiner of the term “Sexual Zionism”, urged the many Oranim trip participants under his tutelage to “make Jewish babies”.  (How many Jewish babies, one wonders, were conceived on a Birthright trip?)  Also, add to this the sleeplessness and alcohol and you have brewed yourself a mighty potent cocktail…

It is expensive.   But Birthright is free, no?  As David Bryfman argued, it’s free for you.  Someone else is paying for it.  And that someone else is probably Sheldon Adelson… in conjunction with the (predominantly secular) Israeli taxpayer.

It sucks resources from other places and programs to feed the habit.  Many a good Israel program that provides context, concrete learning and community building before and after the trip continues to face decline in participation and funding not as a result of Israel’s volatile political situation – but as a result of Birthright.  Many a Jewish parent, already buckling under the burden of day school tuitions and/or camp fees, etc., can say “NO” sans-guilt to requests for Grade 8 or high school trips because there will always be Birthright – and it’s free!   Ta da!

There are other similarities that I could emphasize here, but let’s move on to the critical difference:

How Birthright is NOT like crack cocaine:

It does not seem to be habit forming.  This is what many researchers (here, here, here) have discovered, and what Emily Comisar, Birthright NEXTer, is calling for (yet again) by shifting the discussion from Birth-right to Birth-responsibility.

Comisar writes:

Let’s stop working so hard to be event planners and start being relationship builders. Maybe we can build a stronger community if, instead of counting heads, we tap into the entire person, figure out which of their talents and skills are necessary to make things happen, and let them know that they are the only ones who can do it.

And take your shepherd's staff with you, and use it to perform the miraculous signs...

This shift (or, shall we say, priority) might have been possible when the concept of Birthright was first pitched to North American Jews at the turn of the millenium, but once you set up the expectation of free, of a 10 day engagement (and that’s it), it will be VERY hard to move the discourse away from feeding the lizard brain to the hard, often unglamorous, unsexy work of building a viable Jewish future.

Perhaps each Birthright trip might begin with Debbie Allen walking out on stage the opening event to deliver the following speech:

You’ve got big dreams. You want Jewish continuity?  Well, Jewish continuity costs. And right here is where you start paying — with short-term debauchery and highly-orchestrated touristic experiences fueled by sleeplessness, alcohol and hormones as a gateway drug into long-term engagement with establishment institutions like federations, synagogues and day schools, Jewish in-marriage, having matrilineally-descended Jewish children to exceed replacement levels and a revenue stream for future donations!

This might help.

Did Shmuely Boteach read my last post?

Insert *other* icky baby joke here.

In a nutshell, here are four ways in which Rabbi Shmuely Boteach proposes to improve Birthright.  To rebirth it, as it were… [Insert icky baby joke here.]

NUMBER ONE:  Instead of threatening the potential carousers Birthrightiputians, give them a rousing speech instead!  Here’s a sample…

Please understand that unlike the Bahamas, Israel is surrounded by those who believe Jewish people should have no home. It is protected by a nation of humble men and women who serve their country for three years in their teens and watch as loved ones sometimes never come back from war. What we’re saying is, you’re in a sacred place. Please allow your conduct at all times to reflect the dignity of this magical country whose democracy was carved out in the harshest of neighborhoods.

First of all, last time I peeped the CIA Factbook, the Bahamas were also located in a pretty rough area.  Hasn’t Rabbi Shmuely ever heard President Bush talk about Cuba?

Second of all, not all the humble men and women Birthrighticans will meet will have served their country for three years.  Some will be fashion models or ultra-Orthodox or Palestinian and would not have had the opportunity to don IDF greens…

NUMBER TWO:  More VALUES!  More VALUESy discussions!  Here’s another choice quote…

You’re at Yad Vashem. Six million Jews dead, murdered. Question, anyone here believe in vengeance? Hands go up. OK, what about forgiveness. Can we forgive something this gruesome? Jesus said love your enemies? Is that something we Jews ought to embrace?

NO COMMENT.  Moving on.

NUMBER THREE:  Did you take?  Now give back!

Okay, this is the one idea I actually liked… if you go on the trip and get ten days on the Jewish people’s dime, you have to give back three days.  Vacuum synagogue floors!  Serve as camp counselors!  Work in a local hospital!  Conduct emergency tracheotomies!

NUMBER FOUR:  Establish Cults of Personality Learning Circles

This last one read like an attempt to revive Sabbateanism … but seriously folks, the thought of rustling up thirty charismatic Jews, hooking them up with thirty TYPE-A-organizational-type Jews and suddenly all those ex-Birthers, ehmm Birthrighters will have something Jewishy to do and reconnect with the community…

Couldn’t we plow that potential cash into something less blingy… ?  (Note how the weekly class and discussion was last on Rabbi Shmuely’s list of high profile events…  Sigh.)

You can read his whole pitch here.

It seems that Leonard Saxe never heard of Birthright…

In a piece about educational funding priorities, Leonard Saxe wrote:

[I]n Jewish education, we focus our attention on those who are most highly motivated. Both resources and opportunities are directed to the children of the most highly engaged families, and we provide relatively few resources to those who need Jewish education the most.

I suppose some folks might argue that Taglit Birthright is technically not Jewish education but, like Kleenex or Band-Aids, it has crossed over into the realm of generic trademarks.  (The other night at Seven Numbers I heard someone at the next table say: “This penne all’arrabiata is the Birthright of pasta dishes!”)   It has also snagged a lot of money.  (Just this year, the Israeli government allotted over $100 million USD to Taglit.)

And why not?  Taglit is successful!  It is blingy!  It is sexy!  It leads to more Jewish babies!

However, it would not be a shocking revelation to anyone if I stated that money, like time, is one of those annoyingly finite resources that, spent on one thing, cannot be re-spent on something else.  The $100 million USD Netanyahu’s government spent on Taglit cannot be spent on, say, affordable housing.  The millions donated by the Adelsons to Birthright will not go to support other longer-term Jewish educational initiatives.

Yes, day school education commands a lot of Jewish Federation money, but from the rising costs of tuition and fees which far outpaces inflation, it seems that despite Saxe’s call for funding re-jiggering, not enough of Jewish money is being funnelled into supporting this endeavour.   (If you do not believe me, you can check my account balance here to see just how far tuition outpaces inflation…)

There are other Birthrighty programs that are geared toward folks who need “Jewish education the most.”  Like Top Bunk.  (Unless Jewish camping is not Jewish education either…)  This program, too, disqualifies kids who attend day schools.  Those kids, the more engaged ones, were going to go anyway, right?

And you know, I get why Top Bunk or Taglit targets who it does…

However, much in the same way that we should not dumb down Jewish tradition to fit in a tweet, I wonder if we should be incentivizing Jewish engagement with groupons.   Communities are not constructed out of convenience.  They are forged out of mutual obligation and commitment.

Torah is not a limited time offer and did not come at a discount.

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