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

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

Yes, Jews Rock Too

Here’s my latest post for the Community Next blog “Rabbi J in the D”:

We all know that Jews can rock. After all, you only need to listen to Bob Dylan or Gene Simmons of Kiss to know that. But there are also some Jewish singers who are rocking Jewish music… and I don’t mean Jon Fishman leading Phish in “Avinu Malkeinu.”

I remember in 1999 when the Jewish rock star Rick Recht came to the Jewish summer camp where I was working (Camp Ramah in Nyack, NY). He had all the little kids dancing and screaming like they were at an arena concert with 20,000 fans. Then he worked his way into a cover of a Dave Matthews song and had the teen and 20-something staff members hooked.

Recognizing that there was a need for an Internet radio website dedicated to Jewish rock music, Recht has created Jewish Rock Radio. “Jewish Rock Radio was launched to provide a mass communication channel utilizing the power of music to attract, inspire, entertain, and educate Jewish youth while providing information about a variety of meaningful engagement opportunities for Jewish youth.”

The channel will expose new and established Jewish artists, as well as provide education for artists to professionalize their music and marketing. Recht didn’t want to simply create another Internet music channel. He wanted to give back to the Jewish youth who have been his biggest fans through Jewish youth groups and Jewish summer camps. As the site explains, Jewish Rock Radio is also “for Jewish youth to share their experiences with each other about a variety of national Jewish programs in which they have participated; and, to inspire and create a ‘path’ for Jewish youth to participate in Jewish life as Jewish composers, performers, songleaders, and teachers.”

Jewish Rock Radio (JRR) is the flagship program of Judaism Alive, a nonprofit 501(c)3 formed in 2009 to strengthen Jewish identity and connection for youth through their love of music, musical instruments, and online interaction. While Jewish teens will continue to fill their iPods with Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, now they just might add some Jewish rockers to their playlist like Naomi Less, Blue Fringe, Josh Nelson and Socalled.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog

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

Siddur It Yourself: BBYO’s Build a Prayer Site

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

When it comes to Jewish prayer, there are two schools of thought: keva and kavannah. Keva means “rote” and refers to the fixed prayers that are set forth in the siddur (Jewish prayer book), while kavvanah is the free and spontaneous inner devotion of the individual.

Many Jewish youth groups and Jewish camps have tried to bridge the gap between the opposing principles of keva and kavannahby creating fresh and innovative prayer books for each service. For generations, Jewish teens, educators, and camp rabbis have spent hours photo copying prayers out of the standardized siddur and pasting them onto sheets of paper along with spiritual poems, catchy songs, motivational quotes, and clip art to make custom service booklets. The interweaving of traditional liturgical texts with hippie quotes and Debbie Friedman songs to create a specialized prayer book offers the keva of the siddur, but encourages the self-expression and spiritual spontaneity that is at the heart of kavannah.

Now the market leader in pluralistic Jewish youth programming, BBYO, Inc., has launched a web-based application to design custom-made prayer books. Build a Prayer, which took almost two years to develop and is being funded through a Jewish Funders Network grant, offers every text imaginable, from Hebrew, English translation, transliterated, traditional, and pluralistic. Service creators can choose from pictures, poetry or commentary, and then share or print the service for use with their community. MyJewishLearning.com partnered with BBYO and provided the educational content about Shabbat and prayer for the online Resource Center that is built into the site.

Build a Prayer isn’t only for the teenage members of BBYO. Matthew Grossman, the organization’s Executive Director said, “We hope Build a Prayer will be a valuable tool for the entire community; it is available to any organization, educator or teen who wants to produce creative worship experiences.”

After a guided tour of the Build a Prayer site by Michigan BBYO Director Eric Adelman, I played around with the many features and found it to be user friendly, interactive and intuitive. As someone who has created many custom prayer books and song sheets, and who likes a crisp, clean look, I really appreciated how professional looking the finished product turned out.

To learn more about the concept of BBYO’s Build a Prayer and to find out if the organization was worried that Jewish teens would miss the scissors and glue part of DIY siddur making, I posed some questions to Shayna Kreisler, the Director of Civic Engagement and Leadership at BBYO.

Who came up with the idea for the Build a Prayer site?
The original idea came out of the observation that at BBYO, we see teens and staff members creating relevant and powerful Shabbat services, but also feeling challenged since most of them have only experienced services within their own synagogue. This challenge is made more difficult since most teens aren’t comfortable in a traditional siddur – they don’t know where services start and end, what to include or what is “safe” to leave out. To meet that need, these worship services are typically guided by a teen-designed collection of songs, poetry and prayers that is compiled through an effort of photocopying, cutting and pasting together old song sheets and prayer book passages. As an organization, we saw the need to provide Jewish teens with an accessible place to explore prayer and its meanings – doing it online also happens to save some glue.

Was there a “grassroots” push from teens to create this resource?
I think that we were really responding to a need that we had been hearing from the field – BBYO, because we are not affiliated with a movement, does not have one single prayer book that we all use. Each region and community ends up making their own or creating new services for each chapter overnight, regional convention, etc. The teens that I work with on the International level were having issues finding the resources online, so while they did not know to ask for it directly, it was certainly a need that was being presented in the difficulties they were having in finding the appropriate resources.

Who runs the site?
BBYO runs the website, but we work in partnership with other organizations (currently, The Foundation for Jewish Camp and MyJewishLearning.com) and are looking to build more partnerships around the website. We really feel that this is a value added resource for the entire Jewish community for a plethora of uses – independent minyanim, youth movements, day and overnight camps, b’nai mitzvah students, parents of b’nai Mitzvah who may not be as familiar with the Shabbat service as they would like, educators working with teens or other age groups, and more!

What has the feedback been from teens?
The teens LOVE it. We have received some really positive feedback about the resource and how it has changed the way that people look at the Shabbat Service. Eventually we hope to add in holidays, the weekday service, a haggadah, etc. Most of the feedback we receive is from people saying that the site is great and it would be amazing if it could do x, y or z. We take the feedback very seriously, and we are trying to respond to the needs of the community. I encourage anyone who has any feedback to email us directly through the website.

Was there any concern that teens would feel nostalgic for the old-style cut and paste prayer books?
The BEST part of the website, in my opinion, is the content finder. Once you start to build a Shabbat service, and choose your languages, the type of service you want to create and your prayers, you can start to add in your own poems, lyrics, translations, thoughts, videos, audio, images – almost anything really! And all of that info gets stored in the content finder for others to utilize. The more people add in their own content, the more rich the website becomes as a tool. We really look at that piece of the website as a way for people to share their thoughts and ideas and their creative work with the entire community. In a way, buildaprayer.org takes the scissors and paste concept and brings it into the 21st century. I really do not think that we lose anything at all – I think it really opens up the Shabbat experience in a whole new way.

It is difficult to find a siddur that really fits an individual’s or a community’s needs completely, but with Build a Prayer it becomes much easier to make a custom fit prayer book that will encourage both keva and kavannah. On behalf of Jewish educators, youth group workers, and camp rabbis everywhere: Thank you BBYO!

Here is the video tutorial for the interactive Build a Prayer site:

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

The Decade in Jewish Education

A couple days ago JESNA (“advancing Jewish learning, transforming Jewish lives”) chose what it considers to be the best in Jewish education of the decade. At the conclusion of their top 10 (actually 11) list, they invited others to share their own lists. And so I have. First, here’s the JESNA list (in no particular order):

  • Taglit-Birthright Israel
  • Funding Partnerships
  • Consumer-centric Education
  • Rise of Innovation Sector
  • Congregational Educational Change Initiatives
  • Revitalization of Jewish camps
  • Online Jewish Learning
  • PJ Library
  • Jewish Service Learning
  • “Public Space” Jewish Education
  • Focus on Outcomes

And now, here is my list of the best in Jewish education for the past decade:

Jewish Camping – I may be biased as the rabbi of a large Jewish camping agency, but Jewish summer camps are just about the only thing working these days in terms of informal Jewish education (I’ll get to those 10-day free Israel trips in a moment!). Thanks to Elisa and Rob Bildner who had the foresight to found the Foundation for Jewish Camp and to mega-donor Harold Grinspoon, Jewish camps are on the rise. The euphoric experience that thousands of Jewish kids and teens feel for a month or two each summer is the Jewish education world’s home run.

Technology – From online distance learning to Jewish utilization of social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), no one can dispute that modern technology and communication have removed borders and made the global Jewish community feel much smaller. Many Jewish organizations have figured out how to use Web 2.0 applications to their advantage and many more are just beginning to navigate the terrain. I have to single out Darim, who’s “committed to assisting Jewish organizations in their efforts to increase their professionalism and relationship-building capacity through the effective use of technology.”

Indie-Minyans – I was surprised JESNA didn’t mention Hadar, which I consider the decade’s premier example of do-it-yourself Judaism, albeit in a professionalized way. Hadar began the decade as a start-up minyan (in a cramped NYC apartment) and ended it as a dynamic community that includes a yeshiva, minyan, and think tank. Hadar is educating 20- and 30-something urban Jews in fresh ways, and the established synagogues and seminaries are certainly watching closely.

JDate – Yes, I’m including an online dating website as one of the best in Jewish education for the decade. JDate has 650,000 members worldwide making it a substantial community. While it may not be a traditional education website, its members learn a lot about Judaism while searching for their potential mate. It also forces many unaffiliated Jews to feel connected with a Jewish community, and to consider their own Jewishness (and their future Jewishness). It also helps “strengthen the Jewish community and ensure that Jewish traditions are sustained for generations to come” more than most educational initiatives.

Pro-Israel Groups – I’m always amazed at the level of involvement so many unaffiliated Jews have with organizations like AIPAC and StandWithUs. These groups are committed to educating the Jewish community about Israel’s history, culture, people, and politics, as well as its struggle to survive.

Jewish Service Learning – The past decade was all about a new form of tikkun olam. More Jews than ever combined Jewish learning with a zeal for pursuing justice. This one-two punch caused organizations like AJWS, Jewish Funds for Justice, and Avodah to flourish. Jews were able to apply their Torah learning to real life situations (business ethics to the Enron and Madoff scandals, ethical kashrut to the Rubashkin/Agriprocessors debacle, pursuing global justice to Darfur, pikuach nefesh to post-9/11 security systems, etc.).

Inclusion – Gay rights in the Jewish community came about through education. The Boston-based Keshet discovered new ways to educate the community about GLBT inclusion, while a gay Orthodox rabbi came out of the closet to help create and promote a film about homosexuality in the Orthodox world. The Conservative movement’s seminaries opened their doors to gays and lesbians, and the decade ended with the majority of Reform and Conservative rabbis willing to perform commitment ceremonies for same sex couples.

Informal Ed – In each decade, JCCs and Hillels have had to adapt to new trends. These are the community centers for the Jewish people and thus, have to offer everything the Jewish community seeks — whether in the suburbs, the city, or on campus. Learning Torah with a local rabbi under the same roof you can practice Yoga, swim laps, send your toddler to pre-school or your teen to high school, have a Kosher lunch meeting, go to the theater, and rally for Israel is truly impressive. It’s possible that our JCCs are the most underrated educational agency in our Jewish community.

Post-Denominationalism – I believe the last decade prepared us for true post-denominationalism in this new decade. The last ten years saw the rise of community day schools and high schools, and therefore the growth of Ravsak — the network of these non-denominational schools. It also became common for Reform and Conservative congregations to merge in an effort for both of them to survive. In most cases, these bi-denominational mergers proved flawless. Family foundations and federations created programs, fellowships, and new organizations that transcended the movements. With mega-money from the Bronfmans, Schustermans, Steinhardts, Wexners, Davidsons, Grinspoons, and Adelsons came programs that no one denomination could claim — the STAR Foundation’s Synaplex and PEER programs, Taglit-Birthright free Israel trips, PJ Library, Avi Chai, PEJE, etc. The growth of organizations like BBYO, Melton, and Clal also demonstrate a post-denominational, informal educational spirit.

Interfaith – Through the out-of-the-box education offered by the Jewish Outreach Institute and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the Jewish community began to consider interfaith families in new ways. While the Reform movement was quick to welcome the interfaith family, the more traditional movements need to be educated on why this is of paramount importance to the future of Jewish peoplehood.

Conclusion: The Jewish community is always changing and it is through education that we reach new heights. In the new decade, we’ll begin to see the impact of the young Hadar-influenced leadership on synagogues and temples across the country. New advances in technology will allow us to share Jewish wisdom across continents at lightning speed. We’ll see much more collaboration between synagogues, federations, camps, and youth groups to create community-wide endeavors that will save money and reach more Jewish people quicker. We’ll also begin to determine whether the mega-philanthropists and federations are really getting the bangs for their millions of bucks with the Birthright Israel investment. Because if we don’t see real results in the coming years, we’ll regret how much money was spent on middle-class 20-somethings for their free-ride to Israel at the expense of many other important educational initiatives. Finally, the alphabet soup of Jewish communal life will get smaller as we weed out redundant organizations, and support creativity and innovation — the hallmarks of Jewish education.

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

Irving Berg

When I was an 11-year-old camper at Camp Maas in Ortonville, Michigan, I had the privilege to be part of the group of campers in Deroy village who designed and built a concrete sculpture. “Priestly Blessing” is an artistic representation of the hands of the kohen (priest) offering his blessing. The artist who led the project was Irving Berg (right), the long-time artist-in-residence of Tamarack Camps.

Irving Berg died on March 21, 2009 at 87. It is impossible to walk around the Tamarack property (1,500 acres) without encountering his sculptures. The Irving Berg Sculpture Garden is one man’s permanent contribution to a Jewish camp. With these sculptures Irv will continue to educate Jewish campers about their heritage even after he no longer walks this earth.

This past summer (2008), I facilitated a scavenger hunt of sorts with the oldest campers at Camp Maas — the Teen Service Staff (TSS). The group of sixty teens who would be entering 11th grade were divided into smaller groups and then sent out in search of some of Irv Berg’s sculptures. They had to decipher the Jewish message each sculpture represents and then report back to the group. Many of the Jewish teens remarked how they had spent many summers at camp seeing these works of art, but never considered the deeper meaning behind each sculpture.

A wonderful tribute to Irv’s legacy at camp was created in Summer 2008. Award-winning animator Gary Schwartz created an animated documentary of Irv Berg’s sculptures. The film can be viewed below.

As the rabbi of Tamarack Camps, I had the distinct honor of officiating at Irv Berg’s funeral. The hesped (eulogy) that I delivered is available online and the obituary is available at the Detroit Jewish News website.

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

eCamp Israel

I recently learned about a new program that merges three areas I am passionate about –Jewish camping, Israel, and technology. Israel has always embraced high technology and modern communication. Part of what has made the almost sixty-year-old nation’s economy flourish in the past two decades has been the success of its hi-tech sector. Now a new summer camping initiative is making the hi-tech experience available to Jewish youth who are interested in spending a summer in Israel and also interested in technology.

eCamp Israel is a technology summer camp based in Israel and open to American Jewish youth. As a member of the rabbinic cabinet of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Project Reconnect, I was asked to look into the feasibility of including eCamp Israel as one of United Synagogue Youth’s summer options in Israel. USY sends hundreds of teens to Israel each summer, and this program would allow some of those teens to specialize in a hi-tech track while in Israel.

I am very impressed with this new program. eCamp’s mission is to “help young people realize their highest potential, discover their talents, and reach for their dreams”. Their cutting-edge e-workshops will allow each individual camper to express their creativity, and the youth participants will work on their own projects in a collaborative environment (open-space computer lab).

eCamp, located in a residential educational institution near Caesarea, will not be a “computer camp” where kids sit in front of a computer all day. Rather, the camp will encourage the campers to go outdoors to do the normal summer camp activities like sports, swimming, and nature exploration. The camp will motivate campers to create a better world through the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) with each camper receiving a certificate for 5 hours of community service per session.

eCampers will meet with entrepreneurs including the founder of ICQ, now the originator behind the AOL Instant Messenger, visit leading Israeli research centers such as Intel, Microsoft, Google, Motorola, and train in the Israeli Air Force’s flight simulator. Participants will have experience theoretical developments by visiting leading academic centers such as the Technion and Weizmann Institute. Shai Agassi, a hero in Israel’s technology world and the founder of Project Better Place, will be eCamp’s Chief Scientist. When I spoke with Nir Kouris, co-CEO of ecamp and an Israeli entrepreneur, he explained that “As one of the global centers of technological innovation, it is time Israel gives back some of our know-how and share it with children from around the world.”

The idea of an International Technology Summer Camp in Israel is brilliant. Jewish youth already flock to Israel in droves each summer and many of them have to put their technology interests on hold during that time. So, while most Jewish youth won’t be able to use Instant Messenger while they travel in Israel this summer, the campers at eCamp Israel will be introduced to the hi-tech gurus who developed the infrastructure to run Instant Messenger. This program will open the gates for Jewish youth to the #1 success story of Israel – Technology Innovation.

eCamp is just one more piece of great news in the world of Jewish camping. Recently, the Jim Joseph Foundation and Foundation for Jewish Camping announced a $8.4 million partnership grant to create a Specialty Camping Incubator. The Incubator will create four Jewish specialty camps based on skills such as athletics, computers, and arts according to the successful model already established for Jewish camping.

It is truly remarkable to see the innovations taking place in the field of Jewish camping. It makes me want to be a kid again!

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