Overnight Camp IS Jewish Education

I write the Jewish Life blog for URJ Eisner Camp as part of my responsibilities as the Director of Jewish Education. Here’s one I wrote this summer.

When you think of providing a Jewish education for your child, you may think of teaching them about their heritage, building a relationship with Israel, and giving them a familiarity with Hebrew. You may think about conveying our core values and celebrating Shabbat. Or perhaps you think of cultivating their spiritual side and providing them with a robust Jewish community. Jewish summer camp can help you give your child a Jewish education in all of these ways. But Jewish overnight camp can also help you give your child a Jewish education by giving them the tools to grow into the best version of themselves and to live independently.

Dr. Michael Thompson in his book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow names eight things we cannot do for our children:

  1. Make them happy
  2. Give them high self-esteem
  3. Make friends for them or micromanage their friendships
  4. Successfully double as our child’s agent, manager, and coach
  5. Create the “second family” for which our children yearn in order to facilitate their own growth
  6. Compete with or limit children’s immersion in the digital and social media realms
  7. Keep them perfectly safe (although we can make them crazy trying!)
  8. Make them independent

Overnight camp, according to Dr. Thompson’s research, can give our children the freedom and environment to do many of these things for themselves.

Maybe learning to become an independent adult does not seem to fall into the realm of goals of Jewish education, but in fact, it does. The word Torah and the word for teacher (moreh/ah) and parent (horeh/ah) all come from the same Hebrew root for the word “instruct”. As parents, the Torah, or instruction, which we must give our children goes well beyond the world of Jewish ritual or even values. The Talmud teaches in Kiddushin 29a:

Our Rabbis taught: A parent is obligated to do the following for their child*: enter the child into the covenant of the Jewish people, redeem the firstborn [from service in the Temple], teach them Torah, find them a spouse, and teach them a trade. And there are some who also say that a parent must also teach their child to swim.

Some of these tasks seem obvious–we are obligated to help our children fulfil mitzvot as infants which they could not do for themselves. We want to help them step into adulthood by giving them a marketable skill and the ability to start their own families. But why should we teach them to swim? Perhaps because this is a skill that could save their lives.

I like to consider this reference to swimming more metaphorically. The ocean is a vast unknown. Its depths are mysterious, ever-changing, and unexplored. If we prepare our children to swim, we acknowledge that the world into which we will send them is unfamiliar to us; we cannot give them the exact tools they will need, nor can we protect them from every uncertainty, but we can prepare them by making them resilient and up to the task of facing the challenges the surely will encounter. This is our charge as Jewish parents, and this is what Jewish summer camp can help us do.

*This is an updated, gender-inclusive translation.

For more on this topic, listen to this podcast with psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel, “Teaching to Swim Without a Pool.”