06/29/2011 02:46 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2011

The Good Thing About Jewish Summer Camp Indoctrination

The blogosphere is buzzing with meditations on Diaspora identity, specifically on how much Jewish and Zionist indoctrination is a good thing. None of this is surprising, since it's the beginning of summer, which means the season of camp: the ultimate vehicle for transmitting collective identity to young Jews.

Usually around this time of year, I pine for my own childhood camp experiences at Camp Massad in Manitoba. I find myself brainstorming tunes for cabin songs I'll never again write, and thinking up names of Maccabiah teams I'll never again lead.

I have found myself hanging around my synagogue's shabbat kiddush begging Camp Ramah-bound campers to take me in their suitcase, promising to bring with me a month's worth of Lick-M-aid.

This summer, I will bring my daughter to visit camp, hoping she will buy into summer 2012 as the best form of Jewish identity-building around. That afternoon I will try to focus on my daughter's experience through the fog of my incurable nostalgia.

Which is why this month I have been thinking a lot about Allison Benedikt's pledge to "never, ever" send her kids to the Zionist camp she grew up attending.

I understand Benedikt's frustration. No intelligent, thinking parent wants to throw her kids into a lion's den of brainwashing, where they are subtly (and not so subtly) taught to run in lockstep with mainstream community attitudes and to blindly support any and all Israeli policies.

But I can't help thinking that these very critical faculties coupled with the ability to put together an impassioned plea -- precisely what Benedikt demonstrates in her eminently readable essay -- owe something to that kind of indoctrination, or at least to the kind of intensive cultural, cognitive and emotional immersion that Benedikt rails against.

If we want our kids to grow up offering antidotes for what they see as ailing what's around them, they need to possess the cultural grammar of their communities. If we want them to be part of the conversation (even if and when they push back against the received wisdom), they need to have imbibed Jewish values, sung Jewish folk songs, spoken the language of their people and -- dare I say it -- fallen in love with Israel.

Who are some of the most passionate defenders of Jewish values, values that often seem at odds with much of Israel's current policies? I'm thinking of the leaders of groups like J Street, Ameinu, Peace Now and the New Israel Fund, all of whom ask Israel tough questions for the sake of peace, democracy, equality and social justice. These leaders are independent, critical thinkers who often have to defend themselves against charges of being "outside the tent." But they wouldn't be fighting tirelessly for their vision of change had they not felt an eternal connection to Israel to begin with.

When I was at camp, we sang Sharm el-Sheikh, the ode to the Red Sea town captured by Israel in the 1967 war. We sang it while Israel still occupied the Sinai, and we sang it after Israel had given it back. As a 10-year-old, I was oblivious to the politics. But having that song etched in my head enabled me to "get" today's settler longing just as I resent it in the name of Israel's Jewish and democratic future. And it allows me to see how the identity of those same settlers might be fulfilled on the other side of the Green Line. The ability to change hearts and minds first starts with understanding them.

All this said, the question remains when that childhood cultural immersion can shift to a more critical stance. For me it happened in high school, as the first Intifada erupted, and I first learned what a Palestinian was. Soon after, my dad and I started to engage on the topic of Israel in a way we hadn't before. One winter, we coincidentally bought each other the very same Tikkun anthology, a collection of voices struggling to expand the Jewish and Zionist vocabulary. More years of talking, reading and thinking, followed by living, studying and working in Israel helped me gain the Jewish and universalist view I so desire for my kids.

My kids have been to Israel. They have heard of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have a vague idea that I teach and research it as my career. I will be there to talk to them about the Zionist dream and the pioneering spirit as well as the Nakba, and help them reason a way forward out of the mess that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But first they need to live and breathe a sense of Jewish peoplehood and Zionist longing -- the kind made from dipping your toes into a Canadian lake and singing Rad Hayom by moonlight.

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