A Jewish summer camp burns


GLEN ELLEN, CA - OCTOBER 09: The remains of fire damaged homes after an out of control wildfire moved through the area on October 9, 2017 in Glen Ellen, California. Tens of thousands of acres and dozens of homes and businesses have burned in widespread wildfires that are burning in Napa and Sonoma counties. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Enough already.

Hurricanes in Texas, the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean.

An earthquake in Mexico.

A mass shooting in Las Vegas.

And now, a series of devastating fires in northern California.

As one of my (normally rational) colleagues texted me: “I think that we are living in the End of Days.” We can certainly excuse him — or anyone — for imagining that.

The loss of property and life in northern California has been terrible. The fires have had an impact on a kosher winery.

But, here is a particularly poignant casualty: Camp Newman, one of the summer camps operated by the Union for Reform Judaism.

Camp Newman has enriched the lives of so many Jewish young people, their parents, and staff members.

In that sense, it is an American Jewish holy place. Like other holy places, it exists not only in a physical sense, but with its own emotional and spiritual footprint as well.

This is hardly a eulogy for that camp. I am confident that the buildings will be restored, and come next summer, Camp Newman will continue to transform lives.

No — rather than a eulogy, let me take this opportunity to sing the praises of Jewish summer camps.

Because, if it were not for a Jewish summer camp, I would not be the rabbi, the Jew, and the person that I am today.

On a Sunday morning in January, 1969, my father drove my brother and me up to Great Barrington, Massachusetts to visit the Eisner Camp (one of the Reform movement’s camps) to see if we wanted to go there.

It had snowed the night before. We could not find the camp. We were about to ditch the entire mission and head back to Long Island.

Finally, my father stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. A gas station attendant pointed down the road. We followed his directions, and found the road. We had passed that road several times. It turned out that the freshly-fallen snow had obscured the sign that pointed towards the camp.

I have always believed that the anonymous gas station attendant was Elijah the prophet — sent by God to perform that one mitzvah on that snowy January morning.

The rest is history — my history and my family’s history. I attended Eisner, fell in love with Judaism, became active in the Reform youth movement, and went on to become a rabbi. My sons would ultimately go there and would work there. Many of my closest friends emerged from the Eisner experience.

Had it not been for Eisner, my Jewish life would have been very different — if it had existed at all.  And I know that I speak for countless thousands of American Jews.

Please note: Jewish summer camps are not summer camps where the preponderance of campers is Jewish. (That would be true of most summer camps).

Jewish summer camps are camps with a mission to create and model Judaism. There is a wonderful foundation that supports the holy work that happens under the trees – Foundation for Jewish Camp. 

What can Jewish summer camps do that almost nothing else in the American Jewish world can achieve?

  1. Jewish summer camps create Jewish community. We talk a lot about sacred community in the Jewish world today. It is rare. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that the contemporary synagogue suffers from a severe cold. The Jewish summer camp is the antidote to the cold. It becomes the kehillah, the community of our dreams.
  2. Jewish summer camps provide a Jewish community. Ask Jewish kids, especially in the deep South, who grow up with almost no other Jewish kids. They thrive on Jewish summer camps. It provides them with what they so desperately miss the other ten months of the year.
  3. Jewish summer camps provide a 24/7 Jewish experience. Sadly, this happens nowhere else in American non-Orthodoxy. That’s because modern Jews have bifurcated their “Jewish” selves and their “secular” selves. You would have to travel to Israel (which is, of course, indispensable) to get that kind of 24/7 Jewish experience.
  4. Worship comes alive. Kids are engaged in camp services. Usually, they write them themselves. Those services have their own aesthetic sense (mostly musical, but a sense of informality) which has influenced American synagogue life.
  5. Jewish camps let kids to see rabbis, educators and cantors as real human beings. My life was profoundly influenced by (then) young rabbis, etc. who spent time at camp. They were my role models.
  6. Jewish summer camps create leadership. Kids learn how to dream, plan, and create. When they grow up to work at camp, they learn teamwork, time management, and how to work with people. Ask Sheryl Sandberg; she’s an alumna of URJ Camp Coleman in Georgia.
  7. Jewish summer camps create lasting friendships. Jewish summer camp friendships create webs of relationships that in some cases have helped transform the Jewish world.
  8. American Jewish kids meet Jews from other countries. Jewish summer camps routinely recruit foreign staff members. (And please: may that continue). Many are Jewish. Many more, of course, are Israeli. I am still close to my fellow Israeli staff members from Eisner. That experience shapes Jewish peoplehood.

Jewish summer camps not only transformed American Judaism; they actually helped create American Judaism. They create American Jews — in some ways, far more effectively than any other American Jewish institution.

One last thing about what has been going on these last few weeks.

In the Bible, the prophet Elijah, fled to the wilderness of Horeb. He came to Mount Sinai, the site of God’s revelation to Moses and the Jewish people (I Kings 19: 11ff.)

And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound.

  • We have lived through “great and mighty winds” — hurricanes.
  • We have lived through an earthquake in Mexico.
  • Our friends in California have been living through the fire.

God was not to be found in any of those experiences.

No. God was to be found in kol d’mamah dakah — translated here as “a soft murmuring sound,” but sometimes “a still, small voice.” An inner voice.

Jewish summer camps teach kids how to hear that voice.

That is a good thing.