My husband and I just packed up our son for sleep-away camp and delivered him to Massachusetts for four weeks filled with fun, friends and frolicking. The preparation for camp can be a little intense as you try to check off all the items on the packing list. Summer clothes must be dug out of storage, new items must be purchased and names tags must be put onto everything. And our family needs to prepare one more thing. Kosher meat.
Believe it or not, my son goes to a Jewish camp. However, the camp's kitchen is "kosher style." In the Jewish world that term is code for a particular level of keeping kosher (kashrut). It boils down to a modified, more liberal form of kashrut. That means they use non-kosher meat, but only from animals which are described as kosher in the Torah. Therefore, they serve meat from animals which have hooves and chew their cud. So, beef and chicken, but not pork, are on the menu. "Kosher style" also excludes non-kosher fish, like crustaceans, and the mixing of milk and meat. So, no shrimp or cheese burgers. Strangely enough, Massachusetts apparently has a law which says that milk must be made available to kids in camps during meals. So, when the camp serves meat meals, they do not serve milk on the tables like during dairy-oriented meals, but rather have a glass refrigerator case on the side of the dining hall that is unlocked, making milk available. Our son reports that sometimes kids do help themselves to a milk during a meat meal. Nobody stops them even though it violates the "kosher style" dietary code. Maybe a reader can explain this state law and how it interacts with religious freedom, kashrut in this case.
So why do we pack kosher meat? Even though we belong to the Reform Movement and the camp our son attends is affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, we keep a stricter level of kashrut, one which calls for meat being ritually slaughtered according to Jewish law. Our son attends a pluralistic, yet Conservative, day school, so eating at school is never an issue. In fact, the school's level of kashrut is stricter than ours. When we were picking a sleep-away camp, we did think about choosing one which held a similar or stricter kashrut to our family's. However, it was more important to us that our son have the exposure to the Reform movement. While I am a Reform rabbi and we attend Reform synagogue, our son's daily religious experience is shaped by his school.
When we visited his camp, the director addressed our concerns about the food by suggesting we, like a handful of other families, bring packages of pre-cooked meat for him. I should mention that this camp, like most URJ camps, does provide kosher chicken for Friday night Shabbat dinner and kosher hotdogs for cookouts. Three years ago when our child started camp, my husband and I felt that at age 10 our son did not have the palate or maturity to make vegetarian food choices which would provide four weeks of healthy nutrition. Camps, in general, are notorious for endless carbs and cheese vegetarian diets. He certainly eats more meat at camp than during the year in our meat minimalist, mostly vegetarian home.
Some of our friends and families have suggested that I use my influence to lobby the camp and, in fact, all URJ camps to become fully kosher. While I believe Jewish camps should uphold some level of kashrut, I do not think this particular camp needs to amend its dietary practice for my kid. Food is a powerful extension of religious practice. Keeping kosher at camp, even when it is 'kosher style," helps define why going to Jewish camp is different from other camps. Jewish dietary practice supports community and identity. Most of the children who attend these URJ camps go to regular secular schools and live in mixed communities. Jewish camp should feel unique as it models and teaches living Judaism, even the parts to which liberal Jewish children get infrequent exposure. However, for the child who keeps kosher and attends Jewish day school the life lesson can be different.
From the time he was little, our son knew that our family eats a certain way. Our non-Jewish friends and family eat differently; some of our Jewish friends eat differently. For the latter group, especially, we would say to him, "Different Jews, different ways to be Jewish," because we never wanted to communicate that our way was better. And so, we schlep kosher meat to camp happily.