Shabbat and Summer Camp

Shabbat and Summer Camp

It’s SUMMER! And it’s Shabbat. What’s Jewish about that combination?

For many Jewish children, the experience of Shabbat at Jewish summer camps is their most powerful Shabbat experience. Even for those children who regularly observe Shabbat, the Summer Camp Shabbat experience is entirely unique. Services are outdoors, surrounded by nature. They are accompanied by enthusiastic song leaders and often over-the-top energetic singing and dancing. The children are surrounded by their friends from distant locations. The creativity of the summer camp Shabbat is certainly a hallmark of Jewish camping.

Unquestionably, Jewish summer camps are a brilliant idea. They help create and strengthen Jewish identity like no other experience. Who thought of Jewish summer camps?

Actually . . . the concept of Jewish summer camps in America has a long and unique history. Social reformers back as far as the 19th Century created Jewish summer camps as a way to bring disadvantaged Jewish immigrant children out to the country to escape the squalid conditions of the tenements and slums. As might be imagined, these summer camps, while being entirely Jewish, were far removed from any specifically religious experience, including Shabbat! The ideologies of these early summer camps were socialist, not religious. Starting in the 1920’s however, camps emerged with varying ideologies: Zionist, Hebrew, Yiddish, Jewish Cultural, Religious (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox). There now are Jewish camps for families, for interfaith couples, for LGBTQ Jews, for Jews of color. In most Jewish camps, even the most secular, however, Shabbat figures in. When I was a kid I spent two summers at Camp Conestoga outside of Pittsburgh, a totally Jewish camp with only Jewish kids and Jewish staff. On Friday evenings, we all wore white and had a special dinner with challah, but no one ever mentioned the word “Shabbat.”

At a camp like our Steve and Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken JCC in the North Woods, Shabbat is a powerful experience which colors all the memories of camp. Every Friday at Interlaken, late afternoon is the “Shabbat Walk”: The entire camp dresses in white, and the leaders and song leaders walk through the camp in sort of a parade that gathers more and more campers as they visit each of the cabins and end up in a Shabbat circle. Services are in the outdoor amphitheater, and then dinner – complete with singing and dancing. It is a memory that the campers and staff carry home with them as a powerful memory of Shabbat. It’s a unique experience that is almost impossible to replicate back home.

The story is told of little Tyler, who after returning home from camp, misses it so much that his parents are alarmed. In a stroke of inspiration, Tyler’s mom says to him, “Maybe we should observe Shabbat here at home. Maybe that could help you miss camp less! Let’s do Havdalah every Saturday night here at home. (Havdalah is the tradition end-of-Shabbat ceremony with wine, a braided candle, and spices).”

“Oh, Mom,” Tyler responded, “We can’t do Havdalah at home. We don’t have a lake!”

Shabbat Shalom