Summer Camp Online Photos: The Good, the Bad and the Oy Vey

Like many parents I was concerned that my son wasn’t getting enough sleep while he was away at sleep-away camp. As it turns out, it was my wife’s lack of sleep that posed a bigger concern. Each night beginning around 11:30 she would sit anxiously in front of the computer screen scanning each new photograph as it was uploaded from the camp. It was a slow process that lasted well into the wee hours.

On the slim chance that she caught a glimpse of our son in one of the photos, the analysis would begin. Was he wearing the same t-shirt that he was wearing in the photo two days ago? Did he misplace his glasses since he wasn’t wearing them? Did he look sunburned? Did he make new friends since he was posing in the photo with the same friend from last time? Was he showering? Was he brushing his teeth? Was he having fun?

This new parental anxiety is thanks to the advanced technology now available to sleep-away summer camps. In the “olden days” (more than five years ago), parents had to wait until junior returned home to see photos from his camp experience. Now, summer camps have invested in a few digital cameras and an Internet connection so there’s simply no excuse not to post the daily collection of photos. But is it healthy? After all, just because the technology is available doesn’t mean it has to be used.

Evidence that this has become a national trend among sleep-away camp parents (many day camps post daily photos too) came in the form of a popular animation video this summer. The video, which was created on xtranormal.com and posted to YouTube, mocked the “helicopter parent” who is addicted to scanning the camp website for photos of her child. Many parents with children at Jewish sleep-away camp found it funny and relatable.

In the video (below), two cartoon animals portraying mothers are discussing summer camp. It is obvious that the character whose son is away at sleep away camp is Jewish and the character unfamiliar with the culture is not. The Jewish character keeps saying “refresh” until the other character finally asks why she repeats that word uncontrollably. She explains that it is because she spends many hours late at night refreshing the summer camp’s website to see if a photo of her son has been uploaded. The other character finds it odd that she has just spent a large amount of money to send her son away for a few weeks during the summer only to neurotically check the camp’s website each night to catch a glimpse of her son.

It’s no accident that the online posting of summer camp photos each day has become de rigueur for Jewish sleep-away camps across the nation. A man named Ari Ackerman made sure of it. When Ackerman was in graduate school, he wrote the business plan for Bunk1. He thought of it as a “one-way window into the camp world” so parents would be able to get a taste of what their children were experiencing while away from home for a few weeks each summer. From fewer than 100 camps a decade ago, Ackerman’s Bunk1 now boasts over 1,000 camps that utilize his web application to showcase a couple hundred random photos each night.

Camp directors who thought the daily online photo gallery wasn’t a good idea were pressured by zealous parents who demanded such transparency. Many parents do note the odd culture that has been created with the obsessive scanning of photos just to see that their child is still alive and well. One parent wrote on the Bunk1 blog, “Anybody else here see the irony of confiscating your kids electronics and sending them off into a Wi-Fi free zone, only to spend the summer obsessed with electronics yourself?”

The problem with this new phenomenon is that the photo doesn’t tell the whole story of the child’s day at camp. Analyzing a photograph which only documents one second of a very busy day at camp can lead to unnecessary anxiety. The camper could have spent the day happily engaged in her favorite activities and only at the end of the day when she was exhausted was a candid photo taken of her and posted to the camp’s website. The parents immediately repost it to their Facebook account with the message, “Uh oh… Our daughter looks exhausted and unhappy at camp! Concerned.”

One sleep-away camp staff member who fielded calls from parents this summer recounted that most of the urgent inquiries from parents were prompted by the online photos. Neurotic parents wanted to know why their children were never in the photos (“my child’s friend is in every photo”), why they were never in photos at the beach, why they were wearing someone else’s clothes, and why they weren’t wearing a hat when it was very sunny out. It seems these online photos, while posted with the best intentions, have caused more concern for parents.

A recent column in Time Magazine focused on this online camp photo gallery phenomenon theorizing that it is a “nod to helicopter parents’ inability to cut the cord.” One parent quoted in the column exclaimed, “I totally am stalking my kids.”

Camp was once a safe place where kids didn’t have to worry about their parents watching them. They were free to just grow and enjoy themselves. The new technology, however, changes that.

Demonstrating that camp directors aren’t thrilled about this new culture, the article in Time quotes Sam Perlin, the director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington. He explained, “In the beginning, it was like, Wow, how cool. Now I spend much of my day answering phone calls from parents who say, I don’t see a picture of my kid, or, They’re not smiling — are they having a good time?”

For some parents, just recognizing the back of their child’s head in a photo is reassuring that at least he’s not in the clinic. However, parents survived for many generations not seeing current photos of their children at summer camp. Just because the technology is now available for camps to post these photos doesn’t mean they should feel compelled to do so. After all, there are many other technologies that camps can utilize but have decided that it’s not healthy. The online camp photo phenomenon is a wonderful example of what happens when new technology changes the equilibrium.

Camps should wait until the end of a session to post the photos. Parents will get a lot more sleep that way.

A version of this appeared in the Detroit Jewish News. Cross-posted to The Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

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

Harold Grinspoon Invests in Jewish Families Through PJ Library

Jewish philanthropists of the “mega” variety are always looking for the best ways to use their fortune to benefit the Jewish community. Many of them have set up philanthropic foundations and have paid professionals advising them how to realize the best return on investment for their substantial donations.

In the past two decades, billionaire donors like Les Wexner, Michael Steinhardt, Lynn Schusterman, Sheldon Adelson and the Bronfman family have infused millions of dollars into free 10-day trips to Israel for young adults (Birthright Israel), entrepreneurial programs for rabbis and Jewish educators (STAR Foundation), Jewish teen (BBYO) and college campus initiatives (Hillel), Shabbat enrichment endeavors for synagogues (SYNaplex), and educational programs for adults (Wexner Heritage).
The mega donor whose large scale creative giving has impressed me the most over the past few years is an unassuming, Jewish immigrant who made his fortune in the real estate market. Harold Grinspoon established his foundation to promote Jewish life among young people, adults and families. To date, he’s infused north of $110 million into the Jewish community and has done so without much fanfare.

Harold Grinspoon recognized early on that Jewish summer camps for children have the ability to provide a 24/7 enriching Jewish experience to the future leaders of the Jewish people. While he had the ability to donate millions to Jewish camps to afford underprivileged children with a Jewish camp experience, he went several steps further.

With Harold Grinspoon at Camp Maas in Ortonville, Michigan.

Through the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy, Harold Grinspoon set out to enhance the long-term effectiveness of nonprofit overnight camps. Rather than simply sending more Jewish children to summer camp Grinspoon was determined to improve the camps through intensive leadership training of the staff (young future leaders), enhancing the internal philanthropic environment of each camp, and making capital improvements to allow for more and better programming. Dozens of Jewish camps around North America share their success stories on the Grinspoon Institute’s website.

While large philanthropic giving to Jewish summer camps is not a novel idea, the way Harold Grinspoon leveraged his investments to Jewish camps was creative and will have lasting positive implications for the Jewish community.

But Jewish camping is not Grinspoon’s only philanthropic love. In February 2010 I read an article in the Boston Globe by Eric Moskowitz about Grinspoon’s PJ Library that had just given away its 2 millionth book. I made some notes on a hard copy of the article and planned to write about it on this blog. Somehow the article got filed away and I missed the opportunity.

And then I received an email message yesterday from close friends Cindy and Neil Goldstein of Livingston, NJ. We became friends with the Goldsteins when my wife and I lived in Caldwell, NJ during the final three years of my rabbinical training at the Jewish Theological Seminary. We had our first children just days apart and have remained good friends since.

The Goldstein’s email message explained that Harold Grinspoon arrived at their home on Wednesday to present their daughter Jordana with the PJ Library’s 3 millionth book, Noah’s Swim-a-Thon. I immediately pulled that Boston Globe article out of my file cabinet.

PJ Library Founder Harold Grinspoon reads to Jordana Goldstein at her home in Livingston, NJ

Harold Grinspoon’s creative philanthropic idea for the PJ Library, which distributes free Jewish-themed books and music CDs to children all over North America each month, came from none other than Dolly Parton. Grinspoon explained to the Boston Globe, “I’m in the car one day listening to public radio and I hear that a gal by the name of Dolly Parton is giving away free books to disadvantaged families.”

Grinspoon, who is dyslexic, had not read to his own children when they were young, but he had just been on a flight where he was captivated by a father comforting a crying child with a book. He immediately called Parton’s Imagination Library and arranged to sponsor her program in the Springfield area, where he lives. 

That same spring, he attended a Passover Seder at his son’s house. Around the table in Weston, Grinspoon watched his daughter-in-law give picture books with Jewish themes to each guest. “He was just mesmerized,’’ said Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, his daughter-in-law. “He didn’t even know [such books] existed.’’ 

Grinspoon was surprised by the quality of the stories and illustrations, and more amazed still that his adolescent grandchildren cherished these books from their childhood as much as titles like “Goodnight Moon.’’

He gave his daughter-in-law $500 and told her to buy him a crate of her favorites, which he devoured. Then he dispatched a young assistant to consult with Jewish educators and institutions, with the Imagination Library and packing companies, and present him a report about whether – and how – a Jewish version of Parton’s project might work.

Grinspoon’s PJ Library now sends over 100,000 free books and music to families each month (that figure was only 200 per month in 2005). The program has grown to include, Sifirat Pajama b’America, a division that sends children’s books in Hebrew to Israeli families in North America. Not only have young children and their families been positively affected by Grinspoon’s amazing generosity, but the book publishing industry has seen tremendous growth through the purchasing and distributing of 3 million books in recent years.

Grinspoon reflected at the Goldstein’s home, “While we are thrilled to be delivering the 3 millionth PJ Library book, we won’t rest until we know that every family with Jewish children who wants these wonderful Jewish books is able to receive them… We look forward to delivering the 4 millionth book and 5 millionth book and beyond — and knowing that all across North America and around the world, parents and children are snuggling around PJ Library books, and having special conversations in which parents are transmitting our heritage to the next generation.”

Jewish camping experiences are enduring and have lasting effects on our Jewish community. Those experiences take place outside of the home. Harold Grinspoon’s PJ Library invests in Jewish families by giving parents and grandparents the resources to educate children in the home.

Harold Grinspoon’s dyslexia precluded him from reading to his own children when they were young. As a father who has read dozens and dozens of PJ Library books to my children at bedtime over the past eight years I can honestly say that Harold Grinspoon’s generosity is having a real and meaningful effect. In a way, Harold Grinspoon is now reading to over 100,000 children each month.

(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

Natan Sharansky and Soviet Jewry: A Look Back

Tuesday was the fourth time I heard Natan Sharansky speak. The second time I heard the former Prisoner of Zion speak was at Adat Shalom Synagogue not long after my bar mitzvah. I was still wearing the silver bracelet with the name of my bar mitzvah twin from the Soviet Union. The last two times I heard Sharansky speak were at an AIPAC lunch for rabbis in D.C. in 2008 and at this week’s Foundation for Jewish Camp conference in New Jersey. None of those three speeches even remotely compared to the first time I heard him speak.

Natan Sharansky speaks at the 2012 Foundation for Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly

It was Sunday, December 6, 1987. I was a 6th grade Jewish day school student and traveled with my mother aboard a chartered flight from Detroit to Washington. The late David Hermelin led the plane in singing for the entirety of the flight. Our Detroit delegation filled two planes and we were among the throngs of people who congregated on the National Mall to call for immediate mass emigration for Jewish refuseniks out of the Soviet Union.

Wearing a cheap white painter’s hat that read “Let My People Go” and eating my bagel and lox breakfast donated by Detroit philanthropist and supermarket owner Paul Borman, I marched from the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building singing “Hinei Mah Tov.” I remember hearing Vice President George Bush and Elie Wiesel speak. But the moment I will never forget is when Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky came to the dais to address his 250,000 supporters. It was impossible to decipher exactly what he was saying in his broken English, but I knew that he had spent years in prison and was now a free man on a mission. I remembered singing the words to the Safam song at my 5th grade Zimriyah, “They call me Anatoly. In prison I did lie. My little window looked out on the Russian sky.”

With Natan Sharansky in 2008

On Tuesday, as I listened to him speak about the immense growth of Jewish camping in the Former Soviet Union, I was taken aback by how far Sharansky has come since that cold December Sunday in 1987. Within 25 years, he has not only transitioned from the life of a prisoner to a free man, but he has seen and done so much. He made aliyah to Israel on the day he left his Soviet prison cell and then became the de facto leader of the Russian immigrant community in Israel, winning election to the Knesset after forming the Yisrael BaAliyah party. He published his memoirs, defeated Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, and is now the Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

It is truly remarkable how Sharansky has ascended to leadership in a quarter century, but it is part of the larger story about Russian Jewry. It is a success story. There are large, successful Russian Jewish communities in Israel and throughout the United States (and in the FSU and Germany). There are campus Hillels throughout the FSU, Jewish summer camps are at full capacity in Russia and Ukraine with Jewish campers who learn they are Jewish only days before camp begins. Jewish synagogues of all denominations and community centers have sprung up everywhere in the FSU. There are Russian Jews who are leading the world in the sciences, in business and in medicine. Without a Russian Jew, we would have no Google (Sergei Brin) or PayPal.com (Max Levchin). Five Russian Jews have won a Nobel Prize since 1990. Yuri Foreman is a boxing world champion. There have been Russian Jews in the National Hockey League (Max Birbraer) and in the National Football League (Igor Olshansky). Their story is nothing short of miraculous.

With Natan Sharansky in 2012

Jewish students who graduated college last spring were born after the fall of Communism. They have no memory of the fight for Soviet Jewry. They don’t know about bar mitzvah twinning with Russian teens or the stories of smuggling Jewish books and matzah into the Soviet Union. They don’t know about adding a fifth question on Passover asking when will all Jews be free or leaving an empty seat at the Seder for the Soviet Jews who couldn’t celebrate the holiday.

As I sat listening to Natan Sharansky on Tuesday, a friend and I reminisced about writing letters to President Reagan on behalf of our Soviet Refusenik brothers and to our Russian pen pals who weren’t allowed to learn Hebrew or sing Jewish songs. Twenty five years after that memorable march for Soviet Jewry in Washington, it is imperative we keep telling that story and I am grateful to Natan Sharansky for keeping his story alive after these many years.

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