How much can a few weeks at summer camp change someone?
More specifically, how much can some time at a Jewish summer camp influence a camper’s Jewish identity?
It has become an article of faith that a positive camping experience can strengthen a young Jew’s religious commitment more than such factors as formal education and youth groups. This became more obvious last summer, when many camps were cancelled and most campers attended camp virtually or not at all.
I learned the power of such informal education in the Hungarian countryside three decades ago.
Assigned to spend ten days in the country that had recently emerged from the darkness of Communism, I heard about Szarvas. That’s the town in rural Hungary, two hours from Budapest, where a summer camp has welcomed the Jewish youth of the region for three decades. The grounds, purchased by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (“the Joint”), have served as the site for remedial Jewish education for some 20,000 young Jewish men and women who grew up when open Jewish education was forbidden.
I was determined to see Szarvas (pronounced SARvash), as the camp is known in Jewish circles. I wanted to witness what the kids were learning. I wanted to document how that camp was changing them.
If I wanted to see chinuch in action, that meant Shabbat. I would have to spend one Shabbat there.
No problem, said the folks at the Joint in New York who helped arrange my itinerary.
Big problem, said the Joint folks in Budapest, who had the final say; we don’t care what they told you in New York; we never let outsiders spend Shabbat there. Ever. Even big contributors.
Okay, I said. “If I hire a cab to take me there and I get to the camp ten minutes before candle-lighting, will you make me sleep outside in the field?” Which I would have done.
I won. “You can go for Shabbat.” The Joint arranged for a cab ride to Szarvas.
For about twenty-eight hours I watched teens and college-age Jews from Hungary and its neighboring ex-Communist lands celebrate a proper Shabbat, many for the first time. They were dressed in Shabbat-appropriate garb, women in white blouses and dark skirts, men in white shirts and dark pants and kippot. They made Kiddush and sang Hebrew niggunim, led by young Orthodox volunteers from Israel and the States. They davened in the traditional manner. They said Shema. And after Shabbat they made Havdalah.
They told me what they did at Szarvas during the week, learning about Jewish history and customs, taught in informal sessions by the volunteers who shared personal stories and their love for leading Jewish lives.
The campers’ own Jewish lives would not end at Szarvas; enthused, they planned to go back to their home countries, to their often-small Jewish communities that were emerging into the light of religious freedom, devoid of state-sponsored anti-Semitism.
They kept their words.
On trips to Eastern Europe I made in the following years, I visited several Jewish communities and met many of the young Jewish leaders who were replacing the once-Communist functionaries who had held leadership positions during the decades of atheistic rule. Most of the young leaders had roots at Szarvas.
I’ve also done my share of reporting at Jewish summer camps in the States. I see why camps play such an important role in shaping young Jews for years to come. Camps offer painless lessons—no report cards or homework; friendships are fused and Judaism is infused.
NCSY International Director Rabbi Micah Greenland says that Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, was a great proponent of summer camp. He believes the following quote is attributable to him: “A good camp counselor can accomplish more in eight weeks of the summer than the best rebbe can accomplish in an entire year.”
The reason camp can be so transformative, says Rabbi Greenland, is due to two primary reasons. First: the role models. “As a general rule, the counselors and camp staff are more relatable to the campers than the teachers they interact with during the school year. This fosters a closeness that leads campers to emulate these role models in ways that they would not with authority figures during the rest of the year.” Secondly, he says, is the environment. “Camp is a chance to do something different, with different people, in a different way. This can lead to a kind of reflection that can be transformative,” says Rabbi Greenland.
“[In camp, there’s] less stress, less pressure . . . no competition. I grew up in this setting,” says Rabbi Derek Gormin, director of West Coast NCSY, who has witnessed this phenomenon. “Kids are choosing to be there.” The rabbi tells of several people whose Yiddishkeit he saw strengthened by a few months, even a few weeks in a summer setting. “It started with camp.”
Campers in the US probably take Jewish camp, and the alternatives for formal Jewish education elsewhere, for granted. The kids I met at Szarvas didn’t; it was largely Szarvas or nothing.
This became clear to me about a decade later, when I led a youth seder in Belgrade, the Serbian capital; the community rabbi had the adults at his Seder downstairs in the synagogue; I had the teens and college-aged community members upstairs.
After the meal, we were about to begin Birkat HaMazon.
“What about Shir haMa’alot?” which traditionally precedes bentching, several people at the tables shouted out. People in places where there is minimal Jewish background usually don’t know from Shir haMa’alot.
I had a hunch.
“How many of you were at Szarvas?” I asked.
Every hand went up.
Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.