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Why Jewish Camp makes me cry and the ancestors cheer

We just returned home from a quick trip to URJ Camp Kalsman in Arlington, Washington. Seth and I both had campers up at our local Reform camp this summer and we wanted to say hello. Kol Ami has 12 campers this session which is HUGE for our little congregation.

Usually, over the past 16 years since the camp opened, we spend at least a week at camp working as faculty. But the past few summers we were not able to make it work. Next summer-I am making it work come hell or high water. Let me tell you why.

My heart grows larger at camp. And I feel on the verge of tears often. Because it is beautiful to see Jewish children living so freely, so naturally, so unappologetically Jewish. No screens, no youth sport commitments, no pull of the secular, non-Jewish culture. Just Judaism. In its fullness. Israelis and Jews from around the world populate the staff. Hebrew is heard all over camp. Jewish symbols and Jewish values permiate every square inch of this vast landscape of mountains, cabins, a lake, climbing towers and outdoor prayer and dance spaces.

Living in America has been a mostly positive experience for American Jews. We have been able to assimilate and enter every realm of this society. And we should be proud.

But we also lost something. We lost a sense of our own civilization. Our own ways of doing things, the ways of our ancestors--we traded in our ancient ways of living for acceptance and the cover of perceived whitenes. For those of us who pass as white. Not all of us are white and this is also very visible at Camp. Our diversity as a people.

Camp is a pathway back, a way to restore our civilization. Becuase our children get to see and feel what it is like when we all live together. Connected morning, noon and night to our people.

Every meal.

Every game.

Every craft.

Everything is Jewish.

And our kids need this in their life.

A place where they are not asked to compromise their identities and where they can fully embrace their heritage.

Watching Jewish children touch thier ancestoral heritage through the prayers of gratitude they offer before eating, before bedtime, every evening at the community prayer is my dream. Because my own body, mind and soul is sustained by Judaism. I know the power of this lifeline from those who came before us. It sustains. It uplifts.

The honor of watching these young people, to whom we are leaving such a ravaged world, grow and root themselves in the love and wisdom of those who came before them. It brings me great joy.

They are fed by something far more powerful than social media or secular education or even the prividlges of wealth and health. They are fed spiritually. Yes. Children are spiritual beings. They thrive in the context of ritual, meaning, gratitude. They thrive!

The children at camp are fed by the ancient strength of the generations of people who survived so that we, they, can thrive.

Jewish children need Judaism now more than ever in this American society. Our culture and ancestoral wisdom nourishes. Secular culture does not. It entertains. It delights. It can feed us.

But it is not enough. Our communal strength and resilience serves as a beacon for children who are plagued by: depression, anxiety, suicidality, hopelessness.

No amount of perception drugs, therapy, parental tracking of every movement can replace the enormous power that is: BELONGING. The power that is being rooted spiritually and culturally.

I cry, tears of sorrow, for our youth. Too many are taking their own lives and harming their own bodies. We have a crisis of youth mental health. And the things many parents thought were good for kids--pressure to succeed in sports, academics, get into a good college, get a good job and make money--are actually terrible for our children. This dream of "success" is leading to terrible outcomes. The pressure to succeed in our secular world is killing our Jewish children.

But smiles. Laugher. Dancing. Group hugs. These experiences of closeness and belonging to a tribe? This is what fuels hearts and minds towards health. Not good SAT scores. Not competition. Not climbing the capitalist ladder.

Not every child loves camp. But every child deserves what camp offers to the body, mind and spirit. Camp is not the only pathway to infuse your child's life with the powerful life affirming force that is Judaism.

Shabbat joy can be found in the home.

Jewish values can be folded into every aspect of life.

Jewish ritual is available to us every day.

What camp offers Jewish children is not just fun. It is what is most necessary in this world today: a vision of a better way to live and be in this world. A sustainable life. A life that sustains our planet.




Living in sync with the earth and her cycles.

Honoring the inherent beauty of each soul as a reflection of Divine light.

Camp makes me cry. Both year of joy and sorrow. Tears for what is lost and what is possible. Tears of hope.

And I know when the campers are dancing every day to the words of Micha Mocha, our song of freedom and liberation, that our ancestors are cheering them on.

And dancing with them too from realms far beyond our human understanding.

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Zoe Crowe
Zoe Crowe
Aug 08, 2023

Wonderful post. I feel so privileged that you use that photo of the kitty tallit <3

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