Jewish Summer Camp and Customer Service

This Shabbat we read the double Torah portion Mattot-Masei. Last year, I wrote a d’var Torah for this Shabbat extolling the virtues of Jewish summer camp. This year, Jewish summer camp is on my mind again.

On Wednesday night, Rabbi David Krishef, a Conservative rabbi in Grand Rapids, Michigan, did what any father would do. He advocated on behalf of his son. Rabbi Krishef published a long exposé on his blog that detailed what his family had endured over the past few days after being told that his 16-year-old son Solomon, who is blind, would not be able to spend the second part of the summer at camp. The reason the new camp director at Camp Ramah in Canada gave for this decision was that Solomon required more assistance from the camp’s staff members than the camp could adequately provide. The bottom line was that the camp could no longer effectively accommodate a camper like Solomon, even though he had spent several successful summers at the camp in previous years.

Photo on  Camp Ramah in Canada’s website of Solomon Krishef with a staff member

Rabbi Krishef’s blog post went viral. Well, at least in the Jewish community it did. Several people (myself included) posted a link to the blog post on Facebook and watched as dozens of people commented about this travesty and dozens more shared the link on their own Facebook pages. In the end, the camp director reversed his decision welcoming Solomon back to camp, although the 16-year-old blind teen weighed the decision and ultimately determined that after all the commotion he would not return for the remainder of the summer.

Of course there is probably much more to the story than what Rabbi Krishef blogged about. The camp director didn’t make his decision in a vacuum and it must have been a difficult decision to come to. But it raises several important issues about summer camp and keeping the publicity about camp positive.

The most important rule about summer camp is that the campers are safe and having fun. Solomon’s safety was not compromised. The camp director said the blind teen took too long at meals and in the shower and there wasn’t ample staff coverage to assist him. These problems can easily be remedied. Mistakes were clearly made and there was poor “customer service” coming from the camp.


I felt bad sharing Solomon’s plight when I posted the link to Rabbi Krishef’s blog on my Facebook page because I knew it would have negative consequences for this Ramah camp and the new director. [Full disclosure: In 2005 I served as Rabbi-in-Residence at Camp Ramah in Canada, and my friend was suddenly and unfairly released of his duties as director last year.]

The lesson in this is that every camp director needs to realize what it means to be in the customer service industry. Like any business, camps need to advance and be innovative. The leadership also must recognize the power of social media in the 21st century. Social media reigns king and that means that if a customer isn’t happy with their service at Best Buy or Starbucks, they will take their rant to the social networks where it will be “liked,” commented on and shared across other networks exponentially. As demonstrated by the angry father of a blind teen with a blog, this is also the case at Jewish summer camp.

Jewish summer camp means Jewish parents. While it may be fair to describe some of these parents as neurotic, the fact remains that all Jewish parents care deeply about the livelihood of their children. That means that they want their children to all feel special, safe and secure while at camp. No parents want to hear that the camp can’t accommodate their child for any reason.

Today is the first day of the new month of Av according to the Hebrew calendar. It is the beginning of a period of mourning for the Jewish people as we recall the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, this Hebrew month is often called “Menachem Av” because we desire comfort during this sad period. Camp Ramah in Canada will also require menachem as it deals with this matter internally and externally (a petition was signed by campers and staff appealing to the director to let Solomon stay). 

I’m glad that the camp director reversed his decision and apologized to Solomon and the Krishef family. That was a good resolution. But the lesson has to be learned. In the 21st century, it is not enough for a camp to have a program for special needs children and teens. It must seek to accommodate all children and help them feel safe and happy at camp. Camp directors must lead by example and always seek to do good and to make wise decisions. They must try to always accommodate.


It is often said that a parent is only as happy as his saddest child. So too it is for summer camp directors. Try to keep all your kids as “happy campers” and the camp will be a happy place too.

Shabbat Shalom.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Why Jewish Summer Camp Remains Hot Investment for Donors

Professor Arnold Eisen, a scholar of American Judaism and the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, proclaimed, “Nothing I do to build Jewish life, Jewish education, or the Jewish community is more important than getting more kids to Jewish camps.”

Those are strong words from the ivory tower and quite the endorsement of Jewish summer camp. But Eisen wasn’t the only head of a major Jewish academic institution who lauded Jewish summer camping at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly. He shared the stage with Richard Joel and Rabbi David Ellenson, the presidents of the Orthodox and Reform academies respectively, who both agreed that the answer to Jewish continuity can be found at summer camp.

All three academicians extolled the virtues of the summer camp experience for young Jewish children who seamlessly go from overnight hiking and canoe trips to Friday evening Shabbat services by the lake. The leaders of Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Hebrew Union College took turns standing in front of 400 Jewish camping leaders at the FJC gathering – from camp directors to donors – to explain how their denomination would help to grow the Jewish camping phenomenon in the coming years. These schools train Jewish educators – most of whom discovered or strengthened their Jewish identity at summer camp – and with a $45 million investment from the Jim Joseph Foundation (divided among the three institutions) they will be able to prepare more young people who wish to work in the informal Jewish educational field of Jewish camping.

With over $90 million of philanthropic contributions coming through the FJC since its founding 13 years ago to benefit Jewish camping, it is clear that this is where donors are investing the most capital in what has become known as “Jewish continuity.”

Approximately 72,000 Jewish children currently attend a Jewish summer camp. The statistics show that the Jewish summer camp experience has a tremendous effect on children and their Jewish identity. A recent study by the renowned sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that Jewish campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults. “The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Most Jewish summer camps are nonprofits and, historically, have not been able to compete with the lavish facilities and stellar sports programs at the privately owned for-profit camps. But that is changing. Over the past decade the hottest cause for major philanthropists in the Jewish community has been funding the growth of Jewish summer camps, which means seeding new camps and ensuring there are ample need-based scholarships to afford all young Jewish children the ability to experience the magic of camp.

Camp leaders have long recognized that a main reason more young people don’t make Jewish camping part of their annual summer experience has been because they choose to focus on one interest like drama or a particular sport and seek out camps that specialize in those activities. FJC has put its attention into funding such specialty camps that concentrate on one main interest category but also infuse the Jewish magic for which Jewish camps have been known. FJC was able to open five new camps in 2010 as a result of the first Specialty Camps Incubator – based on a business incubator model – and now the second wave of that program has been launched resulting from the $8.6 million investment by the AVI CHAI Foundation together with the Jim Joseph Foundation.

There seems to be something inherently Jewish about summer camp. Indeed, when Jewish adults gather the conversation inevitably turns to Jewish camp memories filled with nostalgia. When two adult Jews meet for the first time, the game of “Jewish Geography” ensues and “Which camp did you go to?” and “Did you know so-and-so who went to that camp?” are the unavoidable questions.

As Eisen has written about Jewish summer camp, “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.”

No matter what the activity – from baseball and boating to crafts and campfires – the social aspects of Jewish camp all play out in a constant Jewish milieu. The benefits of those summer experiences are reaped over the course of a lifetime for the Jewish individual, and in turn for the Jewish community as well. Spring is upon us and we are now focused on Passover, but thousands of young Jewish children are already counting the days until school vacation and their own exodus to the freedom of another memorable summer at Jewish camp.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Summer Camp and Helicopter Parents

Originally published on JTA.org

Parents find new benefit to Jewish camp: Freedom from themselves

When she took the stage recently before an audience of 400 Jewish camping enthusiasts, Lenore Skenazy wasted no time in addressing why she is known as “America’s Worst Mom.”

The author of a 2008 column in The New York Times describing how she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone just to see if he could do it, Skenazy has been the subject of sharp criticism for her parenting philosophy. But Skenazy is fighting back, waging war against what she describes as overzealous and anxiety-ridden helicopter parents who hover over their children rather than letting them be “free-range kids,” affording them the freedom to make mistakes.

She even wrote a book on the subject: “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.”

Lenore Skenazy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly

“Sending your kids to camp is a fantastic way to give kids back their freedom,” Skenazy said at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent Leaders Assembly in this central New Jersey city. “Homesickness is a good thing. It shows they appreciate their home. So, thank God for camp.”

Summer camp has emerged as one of the most promising tools in the struggle to ensure Jewish continuity in an era when Jews face more choice and fewer barriers to assimilation. A recent study by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults.

“The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Since its launch 13 years ago, the foundation has raised approximately $90 million to strengthen Jewish camps and, more recently, to encourage the growth of so-called Jewish specialty camps — those that focus on sports, art or outdoor adventures — in an attempt to siphon off some of the Jewish campers who might be drawn to non-Jewish camps focusing on specialty areas.

But the focus on identity building has obscured what some say is another, less-touted benefit of the camp experience that should also be a draw for Jewish parents: affording their kids a measure of freedom from intensive parenting.

“Kids go to camp and gain independence,” said Nancy Lublin, the founder of the nonprofits Dress for Success and DoSomething.org, and another speaker at the conference. “That’s why we need camp. It’s about the fun, tradition and independence. Go get dirty, get lice, sprain something. Parents will see that they don’t come home with their nose pierced, purple hair or worshiping the devil. It’s okay.”

Nancy Lublin of DoSomething.org addresses Jewish Summer Camp leaders

Helicopter parenting, a term used to refer to parents that hover over their children and pay exceedingly close attention to their every activity — sometimes to a degree that borders on smothering — is hardly a Jewish phenomenon. It has been the subject of numerous books and articles, and of late has sparked its own backlash. But Jewish parents, and particularly the much-maligned stereotypical Jewish mother, may be more susceptible to such impulses than most.

“We Jewish parents are definitely overprotective of our kids, and it’s tough to send them to overnight camp,” Lublin said. “But we all know it’s the right thing to do. It’s just what Jews do.”

For some parents, however, summer camp may not be a cure-all. Parents still call and write their kids and, with the proliferation of new communications technologies, they can remain involved to a degree that parents of a previous generation were not.

“Even when the children are away at camp, the parents will still be hovering,” said Michael Salamon, a psychologist in New York who has fingered overparenting as one of the reasons behind the so-called shidduch crisis, in which a glut of young unmarried adults — mainly in the Orthodox community — struggle to find suitable mates.

“I met with parents in a recent session who were so overprotective of their child that it was hindering the child’s ability to perform well in school,” Salamon said. “They told me they felt it was important to send their child to camp this summer to encourage independence, but really what I noticed is that they were looking for a vacation for themselves. They work so hard at parenting that they need a break.”

For parents like these, summer camp is a way to loosen the reins a little but in a way that still feels relatively safe.

Stephanie Steiner of Springfield, N.J., describes her own parenting style as “somewhat overprotective.” Still, every summer she ships off her kids to Camp Harlam, a Reform movement camp in Pennsylvania. They’ve demonstrated more independence as a result, which makes the experience — and the expense — worth it.

“We feel very comfortable with the camp and who is running it and how it is run, so it makes it easier,” Steiner said. “The camp’s motto is ‘Where friends become family,’ and we know our kids are so happy at their home away from home.”

Whatever the benefits of Jewish camping, there’s little sign that enthusiasm for it is on the wane. The Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation have put up $8.6 million in grant money to bring more Jewish children into the camping world by focusing on their specialized hobbies.

“Camp gives kids the permission to be themselves. Parents trust that camp is a positive place for building self-esteem and self-confidence,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Jewish camp brings that and an even stronger sense of community.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Devarim – The Importance of Hebrew

Hebrew, Hebrew, I Speak Hebrew

As a child, one of my favorite songs was a silly song that taught new Hebrew words using English puns (“Etz a nice tree! How do you say ‘tree’ in Hebrew? Etz!). The refrain is “Ivrit, Ivrit, Ivrit Daber Ivrit” (Hebrew, Hebrew, Speak Hebrew). This song was a staple at Family Camp during my youth and now my own children love to sing it too. I’ve taught this song on the bus during trips I’ve led through Israel because it’s a simple way for participants to return home having learned a few dozen Hebrew words. After all, one can’t travel to Israel without learning some Hebrew – the indispensible language of the Jewish people.

There are many Jews who are not comfortable with the Hebrew language. In this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, we read “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this teaching.” What does this mean? The commentator S’fat Emet wrote, “Moses interpreted the Torah in many languages, so that future generations of Jews in many lands would have access to the Torah in a language and in terms that they could understand.”

I want every Jew to be able to understand the Torah. Likewise, I want every Jew to understand what they are saying during their prayers. I want the vast library of rabbinic legend and lore, the midrash, and the great legal works of the Jewish people to be accessible to the entire global Jewish community. It is for that reason that I embrace the translations of the Torah and the Talmud, the prayer book and Hebrew literature, into so many languages. If an English translation means that one more Jew embraces the beauty and wonder of our sacred liturgy who otherwise would not have been able to because the Hebrew was a barrier, then it is a worthwhile tool.

However, I also believe that Hebrew is the indispensable language of the Jewish people and every Jew should make an effort to learn Hebrew, which is known as l’shon ha-kodesh “the holy language.” Resources exist in our community to learn Hebrew from the most basic level. While it is possible to study the Torah in English, it is no replacement for understanding our sacred Tradition in its original Hebrew.

In The Sacred Cluster, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch writes, “Hebrew is coterminous with that of the Jewish people and the many layers of the language mirror the cultures in which Jews perpetuated Judaism. It was never merely a vehicle of communication, but part of the fabric and texture of Judaism. Words vibrate with religious meaning, moral values, and literary associations. Torah and Hebrew are inseparable and Jewish education was always predicated on mastering Hebrew. Hebrew literacy is the key to Judaism, to joining the unending dialectic between sacred texts, between Jews of different ages, between God and Israel. To know Judaism only in translation is, to quote Bialik, akin to kissing the bride through the veil.”

There is nothing like being able to go to Israel and get directions in Hebrew or order a meal in Hebrew. Yehudah Amichai’s poetry in English is still marvelous, but it is not the language in which the poet expresses himself best. Studying Torah in the language in which it was originally written is a feeling that every Jew should experience.

God hears our prayers in any language. However, there is something beautiful about the Hebrew language. Something about it that connects us together as a people. As the Jewish new year is approaching, it is a great time to resolve to learn Hebrew or advance your Hebrew literacy. The Torah will come alive like never before.

Shabbat Shalom!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Masei – Jewish Summer Camp

This Shabbat, we read the final Torah portion from the book of Numbers, Parashat Masei. This section of the Torah begins with an extensive list of the places our ancestors traveled through on their way to the Promised Land. It details their stops and encampments as they walked through the desert wilderness eager to arrive in Canaan.

It’s appropriate that we read this section of the Torah during the summer as thousands of Jewish children and teens are experiencing their own journeys at summer camp. For so many Jewish youth, the summer camp they attend is their Promised Land. It is a place of refuge they look forward to each year.

In the Torah, there is precedent for Jewish camping. In Genesis, we learn that our patriarch Jacob must have attended sleep-away camp for it says: “Jacob slept at camp” (v’hu lan balilah hahu bamachaneh) (Gen. 32:22). And in Exodus, when the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, the Torah teaches that Moses returned to the camp (v’shav el hamachaneh) (Ex. 33:11). And then, in the book of Numbers, we are told that all of the Levites go to camp (v’halevi’im yachanu) (Num. 1:53). And finally, in Deuteronomy the Torah even tells us “the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp” (ki Adonai Eloheicha mithalech b’kerev machaneicha) (Deut. 23:15). So there is clearly a long-standing tradition of Jews and summer camp.

Today, thousands of Jewish children attend summer camps like Camp Hiawatha, Camp Tomahawk, Camp Tamakwa, Camp Tamarack, Camp Al-Gon-Quin, and the like. A comedian once noted the humor of all these Jewish kids going to camps with Indian-sounding names. He surmised that somewhere there are American-Indian children spending their summers at Camp Oy-Vey-Ismier.

The statistics show that the Jewish summer camp experience has tremendous effect on children. A Moment Magazine study suggests “that children who go to Jewish camps come home with a much stronger sense of their Jewish selves. Community based studies across the United States show that Jewish campers consistently marry Jews more often and belong to shuls in greater numbers than non campers. Most Jewish professionals — whether at the pulpit, in the classroom, or in the community-at-large — say they discovered or consolidated their Jewish identity at summer camp.”

Today, our non-profit Jewish camps need our support more than ever. The majority of Jewish camps are non-profits and they simply cannot compete with the lavish facilities and stellar sports programs at the privately owned, profitable camps. We want our children to experience everything our Jewish camps provide, but we also want our children to be comfortable and to have an abundance of resources. It should be a top goal to get our Jewish summer camps up to the same physical quality as the best secular, for-profit camps, offering specialized activities in the arts, sports, and outdoor adventure; and, with a spectacular professional staff that is second-to-none. It should be a top goal for scholarships to be made available to any family who needs assistance in sending their children to camp.

To Jewish educators like me, Jewish camps are the canvas on which we can create future leaders in the Jewish world. Summer camp may only be two months out of the year, but the experience is for a lifetime. No longer can we keep our eyes closed to the importance of Jewish summer camps. For the sake of the future of our Jewish communities, let us strengthen our camps so we can strengthen the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Summer Camp: A Father’s Reflection Upon His Son’s First Time at Sleepaway Camp

A few days before my oldest child ventured off to summer camp for the first time, I read a beautiful prayer by my colleague Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. On her “Ima On (and Off) the Bima” blog, she shared her prayer as her son embarked on his second summer away at camp. Titled “A Mama’s Prayer for Summer Camp,” she offered the following words:

May you find learning and growth of all kinds.
May you gain independence and feel comfort in your Jewish identity.
May the mosquitoes be guided away from you, and may the raindrops not fall into your tent (too much).
May the food be delicious and the pool the right temperature.
May you seek out new experiences and try new things (vegetables would be nice but I’m doubtful).
May you smile brilliantly for the camp photographer and show up daily in the online photo albums…

Rabbi Phyllis ended her beautiful prayer, “May you return home in one piece with all your belongings, and may you ever yearn to return to the land of summer camp.”

My son returns home from summer camp this morning. He was only gone for ten days, but these were the longest ten days of my life. I truly missed him like crazy. I had only been apart from him for this long twice before when I led trips to Israel, but at least then I knew he was safe at home with his mommy.

Like any father, I was worried about him. He wasn’t in a strange place because he essentially grew up at this Jewish summer camp. We spent the past several summers there as a family while I worked as the rabbi of the camping agency. But this was his first time away from home by himself so I was naturally concerned. Would he make new friends? Would he get enough sleep at night? Would he remember to put on sunscreen? Would he be homesick?

Inspired by Rabbi Phyllis’s prayer, I’ve constructed my own prayer for my son as he returns home to us this morning from his first summer at sleepaway camp:

Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us feeling energized by your first experience at camp.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us having forged lasting friendships.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us a little more mature and a little more independent.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us feeling pride in your Jewish identity.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us free of sunburn and too many mosquito bites.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us having missed us but without having been homesick.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us eager to share your camp memories with us.
Tashuv Eleinu… May you return to us ready to return to camp for many more magical summers to come.

As a father, I am so grateful for the powerful gift of Jewish summer camp and I am confident that my son’s experiences of the past week-and-a-half have ignited a Jewish summer camping spark in him.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Silly Bandz

It didn’t take long for me to notice that this summer’s fad was Silly Bandz, the colorful rubber bands in various shapes worn on kids’ wrists. Wherever I went, I saw campers and counselors at Camp Maas, Tamarack Camps‘ residential Jewish camp where I work as the agency’s rabbi, trading all sorts of rubber shapes, but sadly I didn’t see anything with a Jewish theme in the collections.

So I went to the Web to try to find the Jewish version of Silly Bandz and landed on Rabbi Moshe Rabin’s site, JewlyBandz.com. A Chabad rabbi in Florida who runs a girls’ seminary, Rabin tapped into the latest fad quickly. He’s not the only one who has created a Jewish version of Silly Bandz, but I like his educational approach to the product. I called Rabbi Rabin to let him know that I was glad he was using Silly Bandz for Jewish education. After speaking for a while, we realized that we each had many connections to Jewish youth who would enjoy adding Jewish Silly Bandz to their collection, but these connections didn’t overlap. I work predominantly with Jewish youth in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism, while Rabin is an Orthodox Jewish educator and Chabad Lubavitch emissary.

Jewly Bandz has produced a symbolic selection of Jewish Silly Bandz in the thematic shapes of the Jewish holidays with each holiday represented in elastic shapes kids everywhere will wear with pride and look forward to sharing and trading with their friends. Rabbi Rabin told me, “When I saw children so excited to collect the latest bands, I knew there was an opportunity here to teach Torah in a fun way.”

Judaism in the 21st century needs to keep pace with the current trends. If kids are crazy about collecting Silly Bandz bracelets, I want to see a shofar bracelet on every Jewish child’s wrist in the month before Rosh Hashanah.

Many organizations, like synagogues and temples, Jewish camps, JCCs, Federations, and Chabad Houses, are using Jewly Bandz for fundraising too. There is free shipping for Jewly Bandz orders over $25 and if you enter my special code (“Rabbi Jason”) you will receive 20% off if the order is placed on the Jewly Bandz website before August 31.

Monies raised selling Jewly Bandz™ will be used to fund educational scholarships for Jewish children. To purchase JewlyBandz, visit www.jewlybandz.com.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Planting Trees at Summer Camp

In addition to providing kosher supervision for Camp Mass, a Jewish residential summer camp in Michigan run by Tamarack Camps, I also run several informal educational programs. One of my favorite programs is planting trees with the campers and their counselors. I wrote the following article about the importance of trees for the camp’s online newsletter:

Planting Trees

Shimon bar Yochai taught that “if you are holding a tree in your hand, and someone says that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the tree and then go and greet the Messiah.”
(Avot D’Rabbi Natan 31b)

Tonight, as I watched the Second Night Show, my mind focused on the beauty of trees. The entire camp gathered at the Zaks Amphitheatre as each village staff took to the stage to showcase their talents and demonstrate what makes their village special.. I thought of the thousands of trees on our vast camp acreage and how each tree has its own personality just like each village. I thought of the unique gifts that each camper will share this summer at camp and how each tree shares its own gifts with us.

At Tamarack, our campers and staff live on 1,500 beautiful acres of land dotted with trees as far as the eye can see. The campers remind me how important those trees are to our camp on a daily basis. Each village has a chance to plant a tree in one of our lush fields as a way to give back to camp. Before the digging begins, I ask the campers what trees provide for us. Oxygen, paper, fruits, nuts, shelter, shade, and wood for fires are some of the common responses I hear. Some campers have reminded us that chewing gum, medicines, maple syrup, and chocolate also come from trees.

In past years, each camper and counselor has planted an individual tree. This summer, however, as a true sign of community each village will be planting a big pine tree to serve as an enduring reminder of the magic of the summer of 2010. God willing, in the future, the campers will return to Tamarack with their own children to visit the tree they planted this summer.

After the campers have planted their village tree we gather in a circle and listen to the personal dedications. Everyone in the village – campers and staff – share the names of the individuals for whom they planted their tree. Some dedicate it to their parents, siblings, friends or pets. Others have planted the tree in memory of a beloved grandparent. Many campers have dedicated the tree to their counselor or their bunkmates. One camper dedicated his village tree to everyone at Tamarack.

After each camper fills out a keepsake tree certificate, we join together in the Shehechiyanu blessing, acknowledging how grateful we are to partner with God in making our camp look even more beautiful. This is truly a wonderful way for us to give back to our camp. The website of the Jewish National Fund is listed on the tree certificate so families can plant a matching tree in Israel when their camper returns home at the end of the session.

Just as the trees throughout our camp grow and blossom, may our hundreds of campers grow and blossom this summer and may we reap the wonderful gifts they give.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Technology and Summer Camp

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Just about every summer camp today has policies in place regarding the use of technology by campers. Rules governing whether campers can bring their cell phones, iPods, digital readers, and smartphones to camp (and if so, when they can use them) have been part of ongoing discussions as new forms of technology are introduced into the marketplace.

The most important thing to remember about these rules is that they are being created by people (AKA, adults) who know far less about these gadgets than the young campers. And where there is a will to use these devices at summer camp, the campers will find a way to use them.

Marjorie Ingall, who wrote a wonderful parenting column in the Forward newspaper for many years under the pseudonym “The East Village Mamele,” argues for keeping kids unplugged at summer camp in Tablet Magazine. She writes:

The most significant difference between my kids and me, though, is that they can’t imagine being unwired. I showed them a picture of Gordon Gekko holding his then-super-futuristic cell phone in the movie Wall Street, and they asked if it was a giant walkie-talkie. Josie recently quizzed me about Superman: What was a phone booth, and how did he change clothes in it? When I tell her we had to stand up and walk over to the television to change the channel and that we only had telephones attached to walls, she stares at me as if I’m speaking Urdu. I showed her Atari’s Pong, the antiquated video game we played on my TV growing up; she thought I was playing a joke.

So, is today’s sleepaway camp—with its lake, trees, cabins, chadar ochel, and drama and crafts bungalows looking exactly as they did generations earlier—an artifact, an artificial construct belonging to an earlier time, like some New World version of a Roman Vishniac photo? Is it ridiculous to expect kids to give up their iPods, handheld computer games, Facebook, Twitter, IM? Can we really trap them in this historical setting, like bug-spray-scented, cell-phone-less flies in amber?

My answer: We not only can; we should. Kids need unplugging… [I]n the summer—the last vestige of carefree childhood in a high-pressure, high-connectivity world—kids should be forced to interact face-to-face with each other, with their counselors, and with a sylvan world. It’s one of the last great communal spaces for kids. Every camp has its own rules about the use of technology, of course. Some allow cell phones but let kids use them only right before Shabbat or right before bed. Others allow iPods in the bunk only. (In my day, at rest time, we were allowed our giant, awkward Walkmans that seemed the height of techie cool.) But whatever a camp’s written rules, compliance varies. One Jewish website is rife with whispered tales of texting in bathroom stalls.

A June 2008 article in TIME Magazine by Nancy Gibbs titled “The Meaning of Summer Camp” also lamented the use of cellphones in what is supposed to be a euphoric environment for children. She wrote, “So I applaud the effort of traditional camps to pull the plugs: the ACA found in a 2007 survey that at least 3 out of 4 camps make kids leave their gizmos at home. It probably tells us something that the resistance often comes not from the kids but from Mom and Dad. Parents have been known to pack off their children with two cell phones, so they can hand over one and still be able to sneak off and call. Camp expert Christopher Thurber reports that parents grill directors about why they can’t watch their kids’ activities from a webcam or reach them by BlackBerry. Services like CampMinder and Bunk1.com do let camps post news and pictures to ‘help our families to feel as if they are with us at camp,’ as a Texas camp owner puts it. But that just invites inquiry about why Johnny looks sad or how Jenny’s jeans got torn.”

The problem is that children today are already wired to be, well, wired. The know about connectivity. They own the latest, greatest gadgets. Asking them to be stripped of their iPods and cellphones before boarding the camp bus is like asking them to board the bus naked. And yet, there’s so much to be gained from experiencing a summer unplugged. A summer in which a child cannot text Mommy and Daddy after every skinned knee or breakup with the boy in Cabin 3.

There is a slippery slope in the question of just how unplugged campers should be at summer camp. After all, if campers of previous generations were allowed to pack their boom box, and then their Walkman cassette player, and then their portable CD players, shouldn’t it follow that today’s campers should be able to listen to their Apple iPod on their bed during rest hour?

And if they are allowed to bring an iPod, what about the Apple iTouch with WiFi capability? What if the iTouch is used to surf the Web and email the parents back home?

And if books are allowed at camp (and of course, they are!), what about an Amazon Kindle? Or how about the new Apple iPad? What if the iPad is used to text friends back home?

Of course, the children who go to a day camp can return home each night to plug into their technological universe, but they are missing out on so much that the overnight camping experience has to offer. While there is something quite cool about little kids living in tents and wood cabins in “the middle of nowhere” still being able to connect to those satellites floating in outer space in order to download the latest songs, it’s just not right.

Even if the technology is now available that allows campers to open their iPads and watch each pitch of the baseball game in real time while chatting with Dad, they should still have to do what I did — Listen to the late Ernie Harwell calling the game over the transistor radio that was buried under my pillow while I wrote my “old man” a letter the old fashioned way… with a pen and paper.

Because, well, that’s Summer Camp!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Yom HaShoah: From "The Camps" to "Camp"

On an early morning this past June, I stood in a synagogue parking lot taking temperatures of the Jewish children before they boarded the buses to take them off to summer camp. Along with every other staff member in the parking lot, I was wearing a brown shirt — the official staff shirt of the summer. It isn’t common practice to take each camper’s temperature before they board the bus, but in 2009’s summer of Swine Flu it was a necessary precaution. If a camper had a fever, they were not allowed on the bus until they saw a doctor who could provide them with a clean bill of health.

When I arrived at camp later that morning, I was approached by one of the camp doctors. He told me that as a child of Holocaust survivors, he was appalled at the color of the staff shirts. He explained how he thought his mother (a survivor) would perceive of having people in “brown shirts” telling the Jewish children to board the buses to go to the camp only after checking to see who was healthy enough to go to the camp and who would be turned away.

For this child of Holocaust survivors, the Holocaust imagery was front and center. I immediately framed it in a different light for him. How amazing is it that some six decades after the Holocaust when Jewish children are sent to camp, it is to experience the time of their lives engaged in fun programs and Jewish activities, I asked him. Contrast that to what their great-grandparents’ generation experienced in Eastern Europe.

Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, has just passed. In the last two days I found myself immersed in the commemoration of the Holocaust. Sunday began with a speech by a Holocaust survivor, Aron Zoldan, and then later in the afternoon at the Jewish Community Center I opened the “Unto Every Person There is a Name” project by reciting the special Mourner’s Kaddish that incorporates the names of the camps into the kaddish prayer. That night, my wife and I viewed the new Anne Frank film on PBS. Last night, I facilitated a brief Holocaust commemoration and candle-lighting for Jewish teens, in which two rabbis — one the son of survivors and the other the grandson of survivors — recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.

On Sunday, as I read the names of dozens of young Jewish people from Czechoslovakia and France who perished in the Holocaust, my attention shifted to this generation’s Jewish youth. Think about the many opportunities Jewish youth have today. Watching the Anne Frank film, I again directed my thoughts to how free Jewish teenagers are today. Anne and her sister Margot lost the freedom of their teenage years while hiding in the annex.

Today, Jewish teens fly to Poland on the “March of the Living” program and march into the death camps. The difference, of course, is that after seeing the burial grounds of millions of people these teens then march out of the camps. The teens then travel to Israel to experience the modern Jewish homeland, a nation many argue was built on the ashes of the Nazi Holocaust.

In much the same way that camp doctor was troubled by the Holocaust connection of “brown shirts” determining which Jewish children were healthy enough to be sent to camp, an Israeli man was surprised to see the Hebrew term “machanot” used as a translation of summer camps. Last summer, an Israeli counselor at my Jewish summer camp posted a photo on Facebook of a sign hanging in our dining hall that included the Hebrew word “machanot,” meaning camps. A fellow Israeli commented on her photo that he was troubled by the term since it refers to the camps during the Holocaust.

For so many, the Holocaust imagery and terminology cannot be escaped. The human tragedy of the Holocaust is so much a part of Jewish identity, both person and communal, that nary a day goes by that Jewish people do not consider the six million murdered by the Nazis.

The fact that “the camps” means something so starkly different than “camp” is powerful. An 80-year-old Jewish man might ask a contemporary, “Which camp did you go to?” And that question means something so different than when a 30-year-old Jewish man asks his contemporary, “Which camp did you go to?”

Walking down the main road of my camp, it is difficult to miss the beautiful Irv Berg sculptures that honor those who were murdered by the Nazis. And on the summer fast day of Tisha B’Av, we remember the victims of the Holocaust in words and art and music. The hundreds of smiles seen each summer day on the faces of the Jewish children at camp is a wonderful tribute to the millions of our people who perished in the Holocaust. The Jewish people have indeed endured and thrived in the decades since World War II.

Thankfully, our generation’s “camp” is 180 degrees from what “camp” meant to a previous generation. May the memories of those who lost their lives in the Holocaust be an enduring blessing and a constant encouragement that humanity never again allows such a tragedy to occur.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller