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Arnold M. Eisen

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Finding the Joys of Jewish Community at Camp Ramah

Posted: 08/26/2011 7:33 am

Hundreds of thousands of American kids have returned home from overnight camp in the past few weeks, among them about 40,000 campers and counselors coming back from Jewish summer camps, which seek to combine sports and crafts with serious educational purpose and identity building.

As the head of The Jewish Theological Seminary, which supervises the Ramah network of eight overnight and four day camps from coast to coast, I get to spend time each summer talking to kids, counselors and heads of program about their experiences. Something is happening at Camp Ramah and similar camps, I can report, that bears watching by our society as a whole. It can be summed up in three words: community still matters.

I freely admit, as a baby boomer in good standing, that these are the words I most want to hear from my own kids (now 20-something camp alumni) and the post-millennials still in the midst of summer growing pains. My generation was raised on academic titles like "The Quest for Community" and "The Joyful Community" that captured and validated our yearning for group friendships. We nourished the hope (sung lustily and loud) of getting by with a little help from our friends, and vowed not to embrace the kind of individualism pictured on Marlboro Man billboards every bit as much as we vowed to avoid or give up smoking. Figuring out how to balance personal plans and ambition with membership in strong and lasting face-to-face communities -- keeping my options open and still making ties that bind -- has been one of the defining dilemmas of my life.

My generation has done only a passable job, I think, of finding time for friends and family despite longer and longer hours spent working. Seeing close friends who are scattered around the country and the world on a regular basis is not easy. Big Chill−style reunions are still harder to manage. So many schedules need juggling, and every schedule is painfully tight. Like many thousands of Jewish baby boomers, I have spent countless hours over the years helping to form and maintain Jewish prayer groups and study groups,motivated as much by the desire for community as by the drive (or obligation) to study or pray. If you have had the pleasure of singing traditional melodies around a Sabbath table, or excitedly sharing insights with other adults grown giddy over the meaning of a text -- or have found equivalents to these deeply satisfying group activities -- you know what I mean when I speak about the pleasures of community. Much of my scholarship has charted efforts by American Jews to create and revitalize religious and cultural communities. Ramah has been a leading case in point.

That's why it is so reassuring, when I visit a Ramah camp, to find that the generations to whom the 21st century belongs still care so much about community. One might have thought they did not, given how much of their time (and of the nation's economy) is devoted to satisfying the desire for entertainment taken alone. On subways and buses there's not a lot of conversation, it seems, while numerous feet tap to rhythms transmitted through personal headphones. Anyone who's come close to a teenager in the last decade knows about video games and nonstop, multi-tasked computer and smartphone action behind closed doors. We don't hear as much about youthful communities these days, except for gangs.

It turns out that the reason for this has as much or more to do with our failure to see what is happening as it has with the culture of Bowling Alone. Christian and Jewish youth groups abound. Summer camps are enjoying a period of revival despite the weak economy. And if you ask campers or counselors what they most enjoy about being at camp, it doesn't take long for them to tell you that the key is individual friendships and groups of friends: community. Eating with the kids in your bunk. Sharing adventures. Singing at the top of your lungs. Line dancing. Flirting. Pushing yourself hard, knowing others have your back. Concentrating on the game or the craft, and being aware, even without looking around, that your friends beside you are doing the same. Dressing up in white for the Sabbath, something you would have scoffed at if your parents had asked you to do it. Allowing yourself to be serious or to confess weakness or longing. Participating in prayer services, liking them and admitting you like them.

College-age counselors and even senior camp administrators have equivalent pleasures -- and the added satisfaction of responsibility, as individuals and part of a group, for making sure campers are safe, having a good time and growing well. Leadership too is fostered in community. One can be a grown-up, it turns out, without succumbing to aloneness. A lot of what campers enjoy most about their summer draws counselors back year after year as well.

That is why, for Jews -- a minority in America at less than 2 percent of the general population, and so a group that finds it difficult to transmit identity and commitment from one generation to the next -- camping has taken on huge importance in recent years. For once in these kids' lives, Jewishness is not something they are or do off to the side of life, in Hebrew school or synagogue. It is not a subject for debate but simply there, taken for granted, a part of what happens 24/7. The sociologists, using language made famous by Peter Berger, would say that at camps like Ramah the "social reality" is Jewish. Softball and swimming take place inside a Jewish frame. Painting and wilderness treks bear lessons -- carefully planned, but readily absorbed -- about why it is good to be a Jewish human being. Ramah graduates grow to like prayer services at camp so much they sometimes find it difficult to adjust to synagogues that, in their formality and lack of context, lack what they treasured at camp.

Jews of my persuasion do not want to live in isolation from the larger society, just as we do not want to live in isolation from friends or communities. The point of a camp experience like Ramah is not to separate from gentiles but to learn to feel good being who and what you are -- always one of the most important pieces of growing up. Day after day, naturally, without effort on their part, campers become as proud of what makes them distinctive as individuals and as a group as they are of what binds them in wider and wider circles of belonging. It is the same with other communities, religious or ethnic. A faculty colleague from the Caribbean once told me that his extended family brings their kids to the islands every summer for an experience of cultural immersion. Lessons learned tend to stick when the process of acquiring them is so much fun and the role models are teens and high school- or college-age counselors. Cultural pluralism depends on cultures that know how to maintain themselves and respect others who do the same.

Camp is serious business and serious fun commingled to great effect. Indeed, programs like Elderhostel and the Chautauqua Institution provide a very similar experience for adults wishing to stretch themselves, exercise their minds, in a framework that fosters community. The more adulthood pulls us part, the more many of us yearn to be together. The more politicians sing the virtues of individualism, the more I value the countermelody of community. A little more of the camp experience would not hurt any of us, or our society, one bit.