Camp immerses Jewish youths in faith culture


Listen to Shira Berkowitz sing the songs she learned at a Jewish camp.

COLUMBIA — Summer camps are often a rite of passage, where the great outdoors is conquered, prank wars valiantly waged and life away from home explored.

But a growing summer camp movement seeks to teach and reinforce Jewish faith and culture.

"A summer camp socializes a child, but a Jewish summer camp adds to that by also giving them a stronger feeling of identity and religious ties," said Rachel Rubin, a sophomore at MU. Rubin is one of thousands of Jewish youth attending camps. She has served as both camper and counselor.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp reports that 65,000 youth attended more than 120 Jewish nonprofit camps in the U.S., according to a survey last year. The National Study of Youth and Religion found that 40 percent of teens with Jewish parents had attended at least one religious summer camp. While that percentage is below the percentage of Mormons or some Protestants attending religious camps, it is a recent and growing trend, the report says.

Summer Jewish camps are growing in the importance they play in the spiritual journeys of Jewish young adults. They help keep youth enthused and trained in a faith in which scholars estimate about half marry someone of another religion.

The U.S. Jewish community views camping as "perhaps the single most important, significant educational phenomenon to occur during the last half of the 20th century," said Gary Zola, an editor of the 2006 book "A Place of Our Own: The Beginnings of Reform Jewish Camping in America."

Unlike Christianity, Judaism has cultural and ethnic aspects that add significance to the religion's spirituality. A primary reason camping is important to Jewish youth is its role in building up young people's identities, Zola said.

Jews make up fewer than 2 percent of the U.S. adult population, with the number declining, according to the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. For Jewish youth, camp may be the only way to be immersed in Jewish culture.

Young adults begin to feel their place in preserving a historic faith by being in an environment in which everyone shares a common history and is learning the same lessons, Zola said.

Rubin is a Jewish camping success story.


While at MU, Rubin practiced her faith far from her family in Chicago; camp helped her learn to live away from home and to take responsibility for the decisions she makes apart from her parents.

Although some Jewish summer camps, like Christian camps, began in the late 1800s, their focus on teaching and experiencing Jewish life did not begin until later in the 1900s, Zola said. Over time, camping became a cornerstone of Jewish educational efforts.

Jewish camping also forges bonds as campers communicate shared experiences and discuss issues relevant to the Jewish community at large. Campers can talk about what their Jewish community back home is like or whether they've experienced anti-Semitism, said MU graduate student Alyssa Appelman.

Ties created through Jewish camp sometimes continue even after campers return home. Hickman High School student Maayan Feintuch, 16, has shared a cabin with the same girls for several years and they keep in touch through e-mails, letters and weekly phone calls, she said. Her close friends in Columbia know the names of her cabin mates because she talks about them so often, she added.

Although Rubin learned her faith's rituals at home, she said camp increased the desire to continue the practices once the summer ended. Keeping spiritual disciplines while at camp created a daily rhythm she became used to.

"I noticed that you take those morals and values that your family has instilled and it becomes a lifestyle," Rubin said of camp.

Much like their Christian counterparts, Jewish camps include overnight and day camps, as well as experiences beyond the traditional camp setting. The amount and focus of religious instruction varies from camp to camp as well.

Washington, D.C.-based BBYO, Inc. is among the largest groups with Jewish teen programs. BBYO, originally named the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, hosts more than 25,000 teens annually at summer and year-long programs aimed at ninth through 12th graders.

Jewish campers generally engage in the same mix of sports, games, theatrics, music and art as most other camps. But they also include a "holistic approach" that applies Jewish values to every activity, said Lisa David, associate director of camping for the Union of Reform Judaism.

"Sports instruction does not just include teaching new skills of a sport but also includes lessons on ‘rachmanas' — showing compassion for others — so that our campers are respectful when they are playing sports," David wrote in an e-mail.

Appelman recalled using Hebrew words for "safe" and "out" while playing baseball or others in place of English words while performing musicals.

Learning the language helps Jews understand and appreciate religious services, which usually include prayers, Scripture readings and songs in Hebrew. Jewish youth raised in secular Jewish homes, however, may never hear Hebraic phrases.

Mixing a typical camping experience with religious language and teachings can inspire new ways of engaging in Jewish practice. For Berkowitz, Jewish songs became a way to learn about her faith, an experience she now shares by serving as a song leader in various camps.

While Feintuch camped, she said she experienced the Jewish concept of "tikkun olam" or "mending the world," by helping to restore an abandoned and rundown park.

Rubin said her camp experience inspired her to become more religious. She transferred to the University of Illinois this fall to be closer to her Chicago home and is excited about being at a university with a larger Jewish community. She's even considered emigrating to become an Israeli citizen.

Feintuch said attending a Jewish summer camp made her faith grow, too. She's seeking colleges with significant Jewish populations as a result.