My kids went to camp this summer, for the first time in two years. Not just any Jewish summer camp, but Camp Ramah in the Poconos, one of the 15 camps in the Ramah system, which, like Congregation Beth Shalom, is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. As some of you may know, I am a Ramah alumnus, having been a camper, a counselor, and specialist at Camp Ramah in New England over the space of a couple decades. So I must concede that I am a little biased toward the Ramah camps.
You may also know that Pittsburgh is in the catchment area for Camp Ramah in Canada, but of course due to the whole pandemic business, the Canadian border was closed to Americans at the start of the summer, so two of the American Ramah camps, Wisconsin and Poconos, took in the “Canadian refugees.” So my children, along with our bar mitzvah, Niv, were among the handful of Pittsburghers who spent the summer in the Poconos.
Given camp loyalties, I recall Niv’s mother Shiri (a proud Ramah-Canada alumna) saying early in the summer, that she wanted the Pittsburghers to have fun at Ramah in the Poconos, but not TOO MUCH fun, so that they would want to go back to Canada next summer.
So that was definitely the case for our daughter – she is ready to head north again next June. Our son might have had too much fun in the Poconos.
But actually, it was something else that Zev said upon returning that made me think that this summer was totally worth the thousands of dollars of investment. He returned from camp with a new sense of excitement about Jewish life, saying, “I really enjoyed tefillah at camp. Doing Jewish stuff is fun when everybody else is excited to be doing it together. You can feel the joy.” He came back with a renewed sense of purpose for the coming year, as he prepares now for becoming bar mitzvah next August.
You may not be aware that Jewish summer camps are a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish life. The first, Camp Cejwin, was established in upstate New York in 1919, to help instill Jewish culture and values in urban Jewish youngsters, as well as to get them out of the overcrowded city for some fresh air. To this day, many scholars who study Jewish education agree that Jewish summer camps have been among the best tools that we have in teaching our children Jewish traditions. It is truly the only environment in which children can be immersed in Jewish living and Jewish values all day long, and an incomparable vehicle for creating a sense of connectedness to Jewish life.
One of the things that Zev also mentioned about camp was how much fun it was to chant Birkat HaMazon, the berakhot of gratitude recited after meals, with lots of loud, raucous singing and fellowship and joy in Jewish practice.
Now, you may know that, while I love raucous singing, I also do favor a certain amount of decorum in Jewish life. My wife thinks that I’m generally too serious.
For a couple of the summers that I spent on staff Ramah-New England, when I was in cantorial school, I held the title of Rosh Tefillah, which roughly translates as, “Director of Prayer Education.” Now, it should be noted that the Rosh Tefillah is among the most despised characters in camp. Whenever you see the Rosh Tefillah coming, you should try to get away as quickly as possible, lest he assign you a Torah reading, or make you schlep siddurim from one end of camp to the other, or some other prayer-related task.
So, here’s me, the too-serious cantorial student in charge of prayer education at camp. And there’s the raucous, table-banging, clapping and gesturing and shouting Birkat HaMazon. You can understand how, on the one hand I was pleased that kids were singing; I was just hoping that they would learn to do so somewhat more respectfully.
One day, Rabbi Gordon Tucker was visiting camp. Rabbi Tucker, now retired, is one of the leading lights of the Conservative rabbinate; at the time he was a pulpit rabbi in White Plains, NY, but who had also already been a dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS. And lunch is over, and Birkat HaMazon is at its full-on raucous maximum. I’m scowling. Rabbi Tucker is shouting along with all the kids, throwing his hands in the air, adding inappropriate English insertions, and then he turns to me and says, “God loves this!”
That is the magic of Camp Ramah.
Ladies and gentlemen, what is the point of Jewish education? My kids may end up being performing artists or attorneys fighting for environmental justice. Why do they need to know about Judaism? Why do they need to know how to lead services, or read Torah, or what the textual basis for giving tzedaqah is, or how we seek teshuvah / repentance on Yom Kippur? Why does anybody need to know Birkat HaMazon, much less to sing it with gusto?
Why do our children need to know how to “do Jewish?” Because this familiarity with Jewish practice and wisdom is the reason that we are still here.
Parashat Ki Tavo opens with a statement that is familiar to most of us from the Pesaḥ seder (Devarim / Deuteronomy 26:5-9):
אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גׇר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב׃ וַיָּרֵ֧עוּ אֹתָ֛נוּ הַמִּצְרִ֖ים וַיְעַנּ֑וּנוּ וַיִּתְּנ֥וּ עָלֵ֖ינוּ עֲבֹדָ֥ה קָשָֽׁה׃ וַנִּצְעַ֕ק ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע ה֙’ אֶת־קֹלֵ֔נוּ וַיַּ֧רְא אֶת־עׇנְיֵ֛נוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵ֖נוּ וְאֶֽת־לַחֲצֵֽנוּ׃ וַיּוֹצִאֵ֤נוּ יְהֹוָה֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם בְּיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבְמֹרָ֖א גָּדֹ֑ל וּבְאֹת֖וֹת וּבְמֹפְתִֽים׃ וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וַיִּתֶּן־לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָֽשׁ׃
My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us… The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
The context for this statement, however, is not Passover. It is this: in ancient Israel, when you brought the first fruits of your harvest to your local Kohen (priest) on חג הבכורים / Ḥag haBiqqurim, the festival of First Fruits (which we call today Shavuot), you would make this statement, a brief encapsulation of the history of our people, at least up until that point. If you can picture yourself in this situation – you are a farmer, whose life and whose family’s ability to eat depends on the success of this harvest, and you are required not only to bring some to the Kohen as a sacrifice of gratitude, food which could have actually been eaten by your family. So you are making a big sacrifice, but not only that, but also to recite this formula recalling our history, demonstrating the high importance we place on our connection to that story.
From the most ancient beginnings of the people of Israel, we have made knowing and learning and explicitly connecting our tradition to our very livelihoods an essential part of what it means to be Jewish. It is a fundamental plank in our sense of peoplehood: we repeat and share and teach our history, our tradition, our pipeline to the past. When you do anything Jewish today – singing Birkat HaMazon at the top of your lungs, “throwing away your sins” at Tashlikh, learning text, schmoozing with friends in the sukkah – your story, our history, is right there with you.
A little later in Parashat Ki Tavo (Devarim / Deuteronomy 27:1-4), Moshe tells the Israelites furthermore that when they enter the Land of Israel, they have to inscribe אֶֽת־כׇּל־דִּבְרֵ֛י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את “et kol divrei haTorah hazot” – all the words of this Torah – on large stones coated with plaster and set them up on Mt. Ebal, to remind them all of their tradition and obligations, and to do that even BEFORE they build an altar to God. The story, the words of Torah, are not just an integral part of the ritual, they actually PRECEDE it.
And of course you all know the phrase embedded in the first paragraph of the Shema, which we read from the Torah a few weeks back in Parashat Va-etḥannan: veshinantam levanekha – you shall teach these words to your children. It is up to us to make sure that our children know our history, to know our tradition. It is up to us to pass it on. It is up to us to get their attention, to make sure they are listening, to make sure they hear these words and that they understand them and recite them and teach them to their own children some day.
We send our kids to day schools like CDS and supplementary Hebrew schools like JJEP so that the words of our tradition will be integrated into their daily lives. We bring them to synagogue so that they will know their tradition, that they will not be strangers in their own people’s house.
And we send them to camp to feel the joy, to feel the magic of an environment that is fun and low-stress and raucous, when they can make lots of noise and be together and feel connected to our peoplehood, our traditions.
And there is no place like camp for that. Camp brings together practice and learning, along with some Hebrew and some love of Israel, with sports and art and dance and singing and swimming and all the joy of summer in the woods.
God loves it; God loves the magic of Jewish camp.
I am best equipped to speak to the minds and hearts of adults more so than children. But I know, and you do as well, that our children need to feel the magic and the joy if they are to continue to cling to our tradition. And if you are committed to a Jewish future, to our children understanding the value our tradition brings to our lives, send them to camp. If you are committed to the values in particular of the Conservative movement – of commitment to an egalitarian environment focused on a zealously contemporary yet traditional approach to Jewish living, send them to Ramah, and let the magic do its work.
(And thank you so much to Ramah Poconos for taking in my refugee children!)
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/28/2021.)