It is not the first article I've read on the importance of the Jewish camp movement in North American Jewish life. it's certainly one of the more succinct and well-written pieces on the subject. And every time I read about how Jewish summer camp has made such a difference in someone's life, I think about my own experiences with organized camping.
I am NOT a longtime alum of a Jewish camp. My first real experience with Jewish camp was as a staff member of Machane Jehudah, the innovative experiential Jewish education program served up day-camp style each summer at B'nai Jehudah. How did I, without a lifetime of Jewish camping memories to draw upon, manage to still make a decent go of it as a Jewish songleader for grade-school aged kids in a VERY Jewish setting?
Three things: Jewish education, music education and the Girl Scouts.
The Jewish education piece is more recent, though by now I've been at it for almost fifteen years. Recruited into Jewish ed by a religious school director who learned that I'd been a music educator for years, I was thrown (gently) into the deep end, with a bare-bones curriculum and reassurances that I would not be walking the highwire without a net. In fact, my first three years of teaching a synagogue school classroom provided some of the craziest, wildest experiences I'd ever known as a teacher, with some very smart (and, hopefully, very forgiving) high school students who let me lead them to their own Jewish learning even as I admitted I was learning right along with them. The more I did Jewish education the more inspired by the work I became. And so it has continued all these years.
I started out as a music educator before I even finished high school. First, I was invited to go back to my old grade school and help out my former music teacher there. That lasted two years, before funding for music was cut and she took early retirement. Upon graduating high school, I embarked on what would be a twenty-five year career in pageantry arts education, coaching high school marching bands in the basics of movement; traveling as an instructor for a DCI drum corps; and arranging for and coaching high school drum lines across the Pacific Northwest. I loved teaching music to students who bought in, who showed up every week and worked their butts off to get it right; whose faces reflected the wonder of the crowd's response after a performance and who learned, through that experience, that the secret power of making music was all about giving it away to others.
Before all of that, there had been the Girl Scouts, the organization that had provided me with MY formative summer camp experiences. The Girl Scouts of the early 1970's was an organization that was still steeped in teaching citizenship through civic engagement; promoting physical health through connecting with the outdoors, and gently steering girls towards a positive self-image by encouraging engagement in community-minded experiences. I bought in hook, line and sinker, going to Girl Scout camp every summer for six years and staying involved with a very active troop all the way through eighth grade. Girl Scouts was where I learned about stewardship for the environment through trail repair, watershed conservation and honing wilderness skills; where I learned about respect for one's elders through service projects at our local rest homes; where I learned small business management through the annual cookie sales; and where I first took my fledgling guitar skills and put them to work as a songleader, working with high school girls I absolutely worshipped.
(I couldn't wait to get older and somehow become cool like them!) With their encouragement and gentle tutoring, I would learn -- and eventually teach -- American patriotic and folk songs, silly camp songs, and beloved songs of scouting. To this day, when I think of summer camp, it's not Jewish songs that first come to mind, but the songs I learned in Girl Scouts: the rousing, "She wears a G for Generosity," "America The Beautiful," or the lovely three-part round "Whene'er You make a Promise". Those songs -- and the first scary-but-rewarding experience of leading music at a camporee for over two hundred girls -- are what set my feet on the songleader's path.
Becoming a songleader in scouts helped lead me to a career in music education, which in turn helped to open the door for me to become a Jewish educator and synagogue musician. It's a crazy, beautiful cycle of things.
I love hearing about my friends Jewish camp experiences. I am glad they are so enthusiastic about Jewish camp. At the same time, that wasn't my experience. I can't go back and be a Jewish camper as the adult that I am, because it wouldn't be the same. That doesn't mean I don't think Jewish camp has value. I think it's a seminal experience for Jewish kids and I am SO glad to have been involved in Machane Jehudah day camp for two years now. (It's so good that if I had a kid of my own I'd send her there!) But Jewish camp is not part of my personal quilt of formative experiences, and I can't have the same personal response to it. I think that mostly that's okay. Like many of my generation who grew up assimilated, I found other things that taught me the value of citizenship and community-building, and that those have helped to open some of my doorways into the Jewish world is a huge bonus.
To my friends who are spending time as campers or staff at sleep-away camp this summer, I hope you have a BLAST. Make the most of every sunny day out on the trail, every lunchtime sing-along, and every evening around the campfire. These are the things that make memories, and that can make values to guide you for years to come after the flag is lowered on the last day and the busses come to take you back, all suntanned and lean and golden, back to the city.
Happy summer, and happy camping.