Last week’s issue was education; this week is camp. It begs the perennial question: What is the most important thing we can do as parents to ensure Jewish continuity, both within our own families as well as the community? I do not think there is a single answer; more importantly, I do not think there is a silver bullet. I do think the discussion is important because it creates awareness, concern and ultimately action.
The discussion isn’t limited to these two incredibly important facets — Jewish life and continuity. Externally, Birthright has done an outstanding job of creating a link to Israel, and hence, a link to Judaism. Birthright has touched a large percentage of the current generation. I suspect it has touched more “kids” than day school and camp combined. Birthright’s self-assessment suggests that its alumni are more engaged in Jewish life than non-alumni.
Birthright trips, however, are relatively fleeting. A week to 10 days versus weeks, if not months, of immersion through education and camp. Hillel and AEPi touch our children at a particularly important time in their lives, college, just when they are making truly independent decisions for the first time. Our children who make a choice to participate in activities at Hillel or AEPi are making their very first decision to become engaged in the Jewish community of their own free will and accord, and I believe this sets them on a very healthy trajectory.
Internally, how we celebrate Jewish life at home clearly has an impact on our children’s engagement. Do our kids see us involved in Jewish communal life either at events (such as the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival), at synagogue, or maybe just reading the Jewish paper? Jewish traditions offer our kids constant positive reminders of their heritage, including Passover, Chanukah, b’nai mitzvah and/or the weekly recognition of Shabbat.
For families, Shabbat is an evening of prayer, food and tradition. But, in many homes, it is also celebrated by a quick meeting of the family for lighting of the candles, a prayer over wine, and a short family discussion of the past week before everyone goes out to dinner. In all of these instances, the little recognition we make instills a lifetime of tradition to the next generation.
Jewish day school education is undoubtedly the most immersive Jewish experience we can offer our children. It is also important because it captures our kids at a very early age – preschool. A child who attends through eighth grade, or even high school, is certainly deeply rooted in Judaism. Day school and Jewish high school are not without challenges. There is a significant cost factor and many families are not looking for this kind of immersive experience. I would be remiss if I did not suggest two more challenges. First are sports. In the secular world in which we live, sports are important (socially, and for teamwork, self-esteem, fitness — the list is long) and specifically sports such as football, soccer and swimming often conflict with Shabbat, and that means the family and the student must make choices. Second, less than about 2,000 kids are in Jewish preschool, day school or high school in our community, and that probably represents 10 percent or less of the children in our community. The reach is small.
Camp penetrates our community more deeply. A back-of-the-napkin guestimate suggests at least 4,000 kids go to a day camp or sleepaway camp each summer. Taking preschool and day camp out of the equation, at least twice as many kids go to Jewish sleepaway camp than Jewish day school and high school combined. Camp is more fun than school; the one benefit to Jewish immersion at camp is that it is fun and not required. Our kids opt in on their own.
Both education and camp create lifelong friends, and both offer a long-term immersion that translates into routine and better understanding and personal inclusion of our Jewish roots and tradition. Both could gain more participation if they were cheaper or subsidized. Both are vitally important to our continuity. While not every family is interested in sending their kids to Jewish schools or camps, there are many families that would if they could.
I will end with one thought for our schools and camps. I wonder if schools and camps should consider tracking their alumni – like Birthright does – for their impact on future Jewish engagement. Drawing a conclusion might just tip the scale for families on the fence as well as donor support.