Camp and the 7 PCEs

One session has finished and another is beginning at the camp where I serve as the Director of Jewish Education (and mom to two campers). In our third summer of the pandemic, a lot has changed, even as we do our best for camp to get back to normal. We have collectively been through a challenging few years, and we are wondering if and how the kids will be alright. At times like this, it can be helpful to remember what really matters– what are the core components that make camp such a valuable experience? 

As you might know instinctively already, camp builds resilience. Now there’s some more exciting research to support that. A 2019 study outlined 7 Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) that can counteract the negative effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The 7 PCEs are:

  1. Being able to talk with family about their feelings.
  2. Feeling that their family stood by them during difficult times.
  3. Enjoying participating in community traditions.
  4. Feeling a sense of belonging in high school.
  5. Feeling supported by friends.
  6. Having at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in them.
  7. Feeling safe and protected by an adult in my home.

Camp intentionally supports the four PCEs that are not home-based (numbers 3-6). Campers take an active role as participants and leaders in Jewish and camp traditions every day, week, and summer. For example, campers lead Shabbat services in the way that they choose (visual art, dance, music, or writing). Camp cultivates feelings of acceptance and belonging for every camper, from the bunk brit (contract) they create on the first night to the plaque that includes everyone’s name on the last. Camp creates opportunities, both planned and spontaneous, for campers to support their friends and to be supported by friends, whether in sports, drama, art, or sicha (a weekly conversation where campers share their thoughts and feelings). And we know that the strength of our community comes from the depth of our relationships– counselors check in with every child every day, and their observations are shared with unit heads and our dedicated Community Care team. 

Sure, camp wouldn’t be the same without our epic DJ dance party, color war, and field trips. Campers and staff look forward to all of the activities in the various department areas. But in the end, it’s a community of caring relationships that matters most. In just a few weeks each summer, we are giving our children some of the most fundamental tools they need for long-term resilience, truly the essential tools for thriving in and improving our world. 


Learning Is How We Re-Create Ourselves

I hope you enjoy this piece I wrote for eJewishPhilanthropy. For me, these are the elements of Jewish camp education that rise to the top and can be applied in any setting.


Here we are in June, mourning the closure of camp while simultaneously thinking of how to adapt our Jewish educational settings for the fall. Perhaps one can inform the other. I do not recommend trading the trappings of camp (e.g., Hebrew unit names, t-shirts, and tie dye) for the trappings of school (e.g., grades, text books, and desks). Rather, a closer look at Jewish camp education can help us focus on what is core to Jewish education as we rethink our approach in synagogue schools. 

So many descriptions of Jewish camp education describe it in ways that are hard to understand (“magical”) and impossible to replicate in a supplementary school setting (immersive). I’d like to share here a few elements based on my academic research and experience with Jewish camp education that help it to succeed and that can be applied to any setting. In my position at URJ Eisner Camp, I primarily direct the hour designated to Jewish education for every camper every weekday. While this hour is embedded in the larger, holistic context of camp, there are mindsets and approaches that can certainly be implemented in after school programs.

  1. Love. Campers feel the love around them at camp. They are accepted for who they are. Our educators love the setting, the content, and the learners. Camp is a place where our visiting faculty come for their own rejuvenation. They delight in the content they are teaching. Most important of all, they love the campers. The most successful camp educators are able to tolerate all kinds of behavior, because they care first and foremost about getting to know the children, connecting with them, and accepting them. Strong relationships with campers help us to negotiate challenges and hold campers accountable for their behavior. When loving acceptance happens in a Jewish context, it sends a powerful message about the child’s place in the Jewish community. Similarly with content– teachers need to be excited by the material in order for students to be. Jewish tradition is rich with content that can engage even the youngest student, and that should be at the core of what we teach. 
  2. Quest. The hierarchy between student and teacher is broken down at camp. Camp is a community of people, older and younger, who are puzzling out who they are as individuals and a community, in their day to day interactions and through designated time for Jewish education. Underlying all the learning are existential questions, such as “How can I be my best and truest self? What is the right thing to do? Why is the world the way it is, and what is my role in it?” This is the kind of Jewish community to which we all want to belong– one which makes our lives more meaningful by helping us understand ourselves and our purpose in the world. In a supplementary school setting, this means bringing big questions to students and sharing our own journeys. As the seder reminds us, we each have to answer what our history and teachings mean to ourselves and empower the next generation to do the same. 
  3. Agency. Campers are happiest when they are able to make choices about their learning. Sometimes they choose the content, and other times they select an approach to it. Agency can take place in little and big ways, from adding hand motions to a song to writing lyrics and music, or from voting on where to donate tzedakah to researching worthy causes. When it comes to online learning, our students are more expert than we are; they have more experience learning in this way, and they often are more adept at using the technology. Ask your students how you can make their experience better. Let them shape their own “Zoom Mitzvah” or other online worship. The flip side of agency is contribution. As learners help shape their learning experience, they can contribute to the community. Active participation makes learning meaningful. 

All of these elements: love, quest, and agency, are intertwined. Membership in a loving, curious, and responsive community involves students in the effort to build a better community. Now more than ever, we can recognize how important it is for people to be seen and heard and for the community to respond by reshaping itself into the best expression of its members. As Peter Senge teaches, 

Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning. (2006, p. 13-14)

This is not easy work, but it is the work at the heart of Jewish education, in any setting and for any age. 


Senge, P. M. (2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Rev. Ed.). New York: Doubleday.

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.”

Jewish Learning Outcomes: A Text Study

During the recent “Striving for Shlemut” convening, I had an opportunity to learn from educators who were part of the Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom. As they presented their new paradigm for Jewish education and modeled teaching using it, I was struck by the humility of the teachers and the brave willingness to shift focus from achieving particular outcomes to embracing questions and process. In this paradigm, learning is both a process and an outcome, a means and an end. These educators found the purposes of Jewish learning to be growth and striving towards wholeness, an orientation that lets go of perpetuating a particular type of Judaism. This is learning to help people thrive and, in turn, shape a community that contributes to shlemut (wholeness). This understanding of instruction (torah) is related to the way a parent (horeh/ah) raises a child– modeling ways of being and growing, providing fertile ground for exploration and development, and delighting in the surprises that inevitably develop. In light of this experience, I present three texts for educational leaders to consider. Where do you fall in your understanding of the purposes of Jewish learning? How does it affect the work that you do, the way you learn, and the way your learners grow as a result of your teaching?

*            *           *

Three stories from the Babylonian Talmud about teachers’ and learners’ responses to unpredictable outcomes relate to the discussion about the goals and outcomes of Jewish learning. The first text is found in Ta’anit 23a. After sleeping for seventy years, Honi the Circle-Drawer finds himself in the back of a classroom, hearing his own name invoked. “I am he!” he calls out in desperation. But the scholars do not believe him and give him no respect. This pains him so deeply that he prays for mercy and dies. Honi gives us the example of a teacher fixated on continuity; ironically evolution hurts him, while the students seem indifferent. Honi’s story stands in contrast to that of the man he encounters at the beginning of the text, confidently planting a seed that will not bear fruit for 70 years. Although this man will never see the fruits of his labor, he is committed to participating in the process.

In the second text, from Menakhot 29b, Moses asks God to show him the man who will one day interpret meaning from the crowns on the letters in the Torah scroll. When God allows Moses to see Akiva’s classroom, Moses cannot understand what is being said. When Rabbi Akiva’s students ask for the source of his teachings, Rabbi Akiva answers, “This is law given to Moses at Sinai.” This calms Moses. The continuity here is not in content but in identification, a voluntary binding to a tradition. This soothes the teacher and the student, as they both derive meaning from seeing themselves as part of something bigger. The outcome is unpredictable, but the process is constant.

The final text is Bava Metzia 59b, in which the kashrut of an oven is being debated. In this argument between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer, God supports the ruling of Rabbi Eliezer repeatedly through miracles that defy nature (a carob tree uprooting itself and moving, a stream reversing its flow) and finally a voice from heaven that clearly expresses support for Eliezer’s argument. But Rabbi Yehoshua declares “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” meaning the teaching is now in the hands of the students to interpret. The story concludes with Rabbi Natan encountering the prophet Elijah years after the incident. He asks how God (so clearly overruled!) reacted at that time to Rabbi Yehoshua’s behavior. Elijah’s response is, “God smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.’” Here we have a Teacher who delights in the continuing revelation manifest in the ongoing adaptation and changing understandings of the teaching.

As you consider these stories, locate yourself on the spectrum of process and outcomes, questions and answers.

Questions to consider:

  • Which depiction resonates most with you?
  • When have you found yourself reacting as Honi, Moses, or God? As Rabbi Yehoshua or Rabbi Eliezer? What were the factors that contributed to your reaction?
  • In a situation like the debate in the third text, what other reaction can you think of that would be in line with your understanding of learning and learning outcomes?

Shavuot 5778: Torah from the Heart

Our synagogue had a wonderful event on Shavuot eve in which people shared their personal Torah. Each person spoke from the heart, and we experienced learning about ourselves and each other as the community opened their hearts to each other and made a sacred and safe space to do so. I’m so grateful I was invited to be a part. Here are the words I shared.

Adele Faber, co-author of the parenting book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (among many others) explains how we often deny children’s feelings. “I’m tired!” they say. “But you just took a nap!” we respond. She taught me that both things can be true. And two things can be true for the same person at the same time—she explained how important it can be for a child to hear, “You love your new baby sister, and you also wish she would go away.” This non-binary way of thinking can be liberating.

Sometimes what is in our heart is conflicted. As the musical Avenue Q puts it, “The more you love someone, the more you want to kill them.” The Torah I have learned is not a Torah of either/or. It is a Torah of both/and, of holding two conflicting ideas at once.

Our tradition teaches us this. Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad, we sing in L’cha Dodi. In one utterance, we heard both keep Shabbat and remember Shabbat. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim—both these words and those words (which appear to conflict) are the words of the living God. Biblical scholar Robert Alter explains that the contradictions in the Torah are not the result of messy editing or unsophisticated thinking but reflect an essential truth; like a “post-Cubist painting which gives us, for example, juxtaposed or superimposed, a profile and a frontal perspective of the same face.” This is the artist’s way of representing a complex reality. He goes on to explain, “the biblical outlook is informed, I think, by a sense of stubborn contradiction, of a profound and ineradicable untidiness in the nature of things, and it is toward the expression of such a sense of moral and historical reality that the composite artistry of the Bible is directed.”

The Torah of both/and teaches that we don’t only have the potential to be or feel or experience two things, but that we do perceive, feel and identify as two things at the same time. Let me suggest a few of these contrasts which I experience for you to consider for yourself.

I accept the truths of science and the truths of the Torah.

I am a part of a community and apart from it.

I am thankful for the time I have with certain people and in certain places, and at the same time I mourn what might have been when it turns out differently than I had hoped.

I both love Israel and am critical of it.

I can exert my power while at the same time I give it away.

I can be on a diet and feel completely satisfied. (Just kidding!)

I am simultaneously safe and vulnerable.

I am both productive and procrastinating.

I am certain, and I am open to having my mind changed.

I am both privileged and persecuted.

I am whole, and I am broken.

I am right, and I am wrong.

I am at once a teacher and a learner.

Embracing both/and is not trying to please everyone or a refusal to commit. It is rather an attempt to express a larger truth about the messiness of life, the diversity of experience, and our capacity to live with complexity.

A Mindfulness Mindset in Parashat Sh’mot: Reflections for Camp

This weekend I was supposed to be up at Eisner Camp with a cohort of folks working on bringing mindfulness to camp. (I’ve written about this initiative before.) Unfortunately, the snow has caused us to cancel the retreat. When it rains, we get wet, but when it snows…we stay home! What’s a Jewish educator to do when she has prepared some thoughts on the weekly parasha, only pertinent to the week we read Parashat Sh’mot? Thanks to this blog, I can post it here for all of you.


When I looked at the Torah portion this week, I focused on a “mindfulness mindset”, meaning the way that a mindfulness practice can affect the way one approaches life, learning, teaching, and camp. I chose a few sections of the parasha to focus on, each one highlighting a different aspect.

Sh’mot 1:1-4, Names and gratitude

Why begin with names? In this touching commentary,  Rabbi Bradley Artson of the American Jewish University reflects on the purpose and effect of starting this section of the Torah with a list of names. He notes that while long dedications in books or thank yous in speeches can be tiresome, they signify what we value about each individual and the power we have to impact others’ lives.  He writes, “You can see that a list of those people who contributed to who you are today would be tremendously long. To other people, your list would also be boring. But each of us cherishes such a private list of gratitude, since that list represents the many facets of our own personality. By insisting that we endure several such lists, the Torah opens us to recalling our own dependency on others, and also spurs us to be such influences for those people whose lives we can touch.” Gratitude is both a starting point for mindfulness as well as an outcome of it. When we notice how others have touched our lives, we feel appreciation as well as the potential to (as we say at camp) “Be the one” who others think of when they make their lists.

Sh’mot 2:11-15, Appreciating different perspectives

When Moses sees a Hebrew slave being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster, he rises up to defend the slave and commits murder. The next day, Moses is shocked that the event is known among the slaves. Moses saw no witness to his actions, even though the obvious witness is the slave who he defended! It is amazing how our own perspective can blind us to the experience of others. In our work with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, we are often reminded, “Other people are not failed attempts at being you.” This adapted quote from anthropologist Wade Davis originally referred to other cultures, and was apparently apt for the ancient Egyptians. In his commentary on the Torah, Plaut quotes philosopher André Neher’s description of Egyptian artwork: “The scenes depicting slavery and forced labor are brutal in their massiveness. Human beings are so closely packed and piled upon each other that they appear as a single whole yoked as such to its work, without any individuality at all.” Moses is part of Egyptian royalty, even though he knows his roots. In this scene, Moses is taking the first step in appreciating the perspective of others when he attempts to right the injustice he sees. But, he cannot comprehend the individual experience of the Hebrew.

In this story of becoming a nation, the Jews are not a singular mass but a community of individuals. In this parasha the word Ivrim, “Hebrews”, is oddly spelled with two yuds. Also cited in the Plaut commentary, 19th Century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this unusual grammatical construct in which the singular is not absorbed into the plural form shows that the Jews were individuals as well as a group. This appreciation for the individual experience is central to a mindful approach. We invite others into experience, but we don’t dictate it, and we don’t have expectations of what that experience will be. We practice listening with full awareness and try to cultivate an appreciation for a diversity of experience.

Sh’mot 3:1-3, Curiosity about experience, interest in one’s inner world, embodied awareness

In this scene, Moses has a revelation about God through a vision of a bush that burns but is not consumed. To me, this section reflects Moses’ growing curiosity about his experience. Daniel Rechtschaffen reminds us that the goal of teaching mindfulness to children is their growing interest in their own inner world. Sometimes when we meditate, we practice repeating the following: (Inhale) “What’s this?” (Exhale) “Don’t know.” Similarly, Moses exclaims in chapter 3, verse 3, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight! Why doesn’t the bush burn up?” It is this curiosity that opens Moses up to revelation, which is his and his alone.

Moses is next instructed to remove his sandals. Perhaps this can further be tied to curiosity about embodied experience. Where in the body do emotions lie? What is going on in my body at this moment? Taking of our shoes helps us to feel the sensations of grains of sand or blades of grass beneath our feet, our bones spreading to support us on the earth.

A lot of attention is paid to Moses’ objections to God’s request. It seems foolish that Moses challenges God, raising the issue of his speech impediment; even God says (essentially), “I know you have a speech impediment. I make speech impediments!” But God doesn’t correct Moses’ speech. These objections may be the first signs of Moses’ attention to his inner life, as he verbalizes his feelings. In mindfulness practice, we are taught to “notice what you notice, feel what you feel”, and then to continue to experience it rather than cling to it or run from it. At camp, we can help campers to experience something unpleasant, get curious about it, and learn from it, rather than rush to fix it.

Sh’mot 1:9, Becoming a People

Pharoah refers to Am B’nai Yisrael, the first time the people of Israel are referred to as a nation. Throughout this d’var, I have touched upon the balance between individual experience and community. At camp, we are a group of people each trying to “Be the one.” Many people refer to camp as a place where we can live Jewish lives and experience Judaism holistically, and they see this as a unique strength of camp as a Jewish educational experience. Some of you know that I’m doing my doctoral research on the evolution of Jewish education at camp, and I’ve been interviewing various people who have been involved in camp from an educational perspective over the past 25+ years. Recently a respondent suggested that our Jewish camp experience transcends time. Each summer we experience the quintessential Jewish story– a group of individuals coming together to figure out what it means to be an enduring people, with both individual and communal revelations that bind us together through shared values and experience.

A close attention to individual experience partnered with an awareness of the cosmic significance of our being is also part of a mindfulness mindset. This insight gave me personally a new perspective and sense of purpose for my work at camp, and I hope you find some meaning in it as well. I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments. Stay warm, and Shabbat shalom!

What Is Summer For? Reflections on the Relationship between Day School and Camp

Here’s an article I wrote for the current issue of the day school journal, Prizma.  Enjoy, and tell me what you think!

Imagine you are welcoming your students on the first day of school after many of them have been at Jewish summer camp. What is going through your mind?

A) I hope they didn’t forget everything they learned last year! Maybe they learned even more in the 24/7 Jewish educational environment of Jewish camp.

B) I can’t wait to see how they’ve matured socially and emotionally after living in community with friends, negotiating intense feelings and close relationships.

C) Summer camp is an adventure! I can’t wait to get to know these kids and see how their new experiences will enrich our classroom learning.

As day school educators and possibly camp educators as well, your hopes for what your students can learn and how they will grow over the summer are tied to your conception of camp, the potential for learning there, and camp’s goals, in particular with relationship to school. The relationship between camp and school is one that has existed and shifted since the beginning of summer camp. The educational goals of camp can be seen along a continuum in relation to the education that takes place in school. Just as you may have wanted to choose more than one of the responses in the above thought experiment, these goals combine in various ways, and there is overlap in categories along the continuum.

Camp in Place of School

On one end of the continuum, camp is meant to take the place of school when school is out, addressing the loss of learning gains that might occur over the summer when assessed through standardized testing (sometimes referred to as the “summer slide”). In the history of both secular and Jewish camps, this goal is a prominent one. In addition to camp’s beginning (most often traced to Frederick William Gunn in 1861 as an outdoor education component of a school program), the rise of camping was in part due to urbanization and industrialization, when fewer children worked on farms and an increasing number attended school with a fixed summer vacation. Camp took hold as part of the educational movement of American Progressivism. In the Deweyan school of thought, camp serves as a laboratory of learning by doing.

Advocates of camp as an extension of school argue that campers can potentially learn more or better during the summer months in the all-inclusive, creative and hands-on environment of camp. For example, summer reading programs have been designed to integrate into the camp day and address any summer learning loss, and recent efforts in Hebrew immersion in day camps seem successful in achieving their goals. Often the promise that camp will give campers an academic advantage is a selling point for parents.

A category along the continuum that exists primarily in Jewish camps but not as prominently in the secular camping world is camp in place of school as a venue for education, that is, the claim that the Jewish education and experience to be had at summer camp is superior to what can be achieved in Jewish schooling. This conception of the educational goals of camp can result in episodes of camp that look a lot like school. Christian and Jewish summer camps describe similar phenomenon, in which the religious learning part of the day looks much like traditional classroom instruction, albeit in a natural setting, what Ramah Director David Mogilner called a “heder under the elms.” This presents a contrast wherein the rest of the camp day campers are immersed in play and experiential learning, but Jewish content is relegated to rather non-progressive educational models.

Alternatively, camps may seek an integrated model in which learning happens while kids are having fun. Here fun conflated with learning comes to mean that learning is less onerous. This stance can cause camps to eliminate time specifically devoted to Jewish learning in favor of an integrated model; this model has been shown to have mixed success. Sometimes the learning is neither broad nor deep—not every topic can be associated with a camp activity, and not much can fit into a fifteen-minute sound bite. At times the Jewish learning segment of an activity still feels like a formal lesson, albeit a shorter one, but one that still interrupts an otherwise fun and recreational day.

Camp as Complement to School

Another goal along the continuum is camp as a complement to school. In this case, camp is for addressing crucial developmental skills that are more peripheral to a formal school curriculum. This kind of learning includes social-emotional learning, such as self-regulating and negotiating interpersonal relationships; leadership development; and experience in the outdoors. Parents of campers and Jewish summer camps also proclaim the many social-emotional benefits of camp: increased responsibility, sense of self and interpersonal skills.

Related to this goal is the idea that camps and schools may be in dialogue with one another, influencing one another through people, scholarship and experimentation. Beyond experimenting with creative curricula and teaching that could make schools more engaging, some camp advocates argue for a shift in emphasis in formal schooling towards the social-emotional goals of education as a result of the educational model that camps provide. These thinkers assert that the positive emotional environment of camp, including close relationships with adult teachers and role models, primes campers for all kinds of learning.

Similar to the way that non-academic growth can complement the academic growth that occurs at school, camp seems to provide a context for Jewish living in a way that schools cannot. Experiential education, learning that comes out of and relates directly to lived experience, could fall under this category, as could Jewish learning that occurs when living a Jewish life in the context of a vibrant, fully encompassing Jewish community. We might call this conception of Jewish education at camp as camp in place of shtetl, family, or some other premodern, all-encompassing Jewish life. In this conception, as the original founders of camp felt that camp was a return to a more pure and holistic way of life before industrialization, some Jewish camp advocates see camp as providing a total Jewish experience that is no longer available in our segmented, modern, hyphenated lives.

Camp in place of family can be found as a goal in secular camping today as well. In his book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, psychologist Michael Thompson declares that camp can deliver on many of the things that parents want for their children but cannot actually provide. He argues there are eight things parents cannot do for their children (even though they try): make them happy, give them high self-esteem, manage their friendships or make friends for them, be their agent, manager or coach, be their second family, compete with children’s digital world, keep them perfectly safe, or make them independent. In this view of camp, camp counterbalances and counteracts the over-parenting that is stifling children’s independence and growth, independence and growth that will allow them to achieve and access the eight items above. The unencumbered and uncomplicated relationships of camp are also seen as a psychological benefit and a necessary antidote to inevitably fraught family relationships. Developing these close extra-familial relationships are key to adolescent development.

Camp as Other

A final category could be described as camp as totally other, or unrelated to school. In his list of the 10 elements that make camp powerful for children, Michael Thompson puts “Camp is not school (no tests, judgments, or evaluation)” at number two. According to Thompson, what camp is is even more significant: a place for play and imagination, an opportunity to choose, to be part of a larger community and connect closely with others and nature, and a chance to fully be one’s self.

It is not uncommon in the research on camps to find the word “fun” as describing the central goal of camp. Often the advocates of fun and play explain that people learn through play and object to “fun and games” as a critique or description that minimizes the important growth and learning that takes place at camp. They see this kind of unstructured free living as core to learning and becoming. In contrast to the conception of fun that leads to learning (particularly academic learning, which is usually seen as boring), “fun” may be understood as both an ends and a means. (This outlook is more popular in literature about the importance of play in early childhood, for example.) When fun is seen this way, campers can develop their own theology and practice through interaction and experimentation.

Along these lines, the education that takes place when one is having fun is learning as being, experiencing freedom of self, expression and exploration. “Fun” can be described as fully engaged, free, living of present experience, whereas formal Jewish education could be seen as learning about or preparing for the actual experience of living. Some proponents of camp as a totally different way of being and learning reject the current emphasis in education on measuring outcomes. They argue that this emphasis is contaminating and that children learn when they are engaged in solving problems in community and direct experiential learning. In light of this framing, might a potential goal of Jewish learning at camp be simply the unencumbered direct experience of the world and others? Could this be considered Jewish learning, if the experiences take place in a context of Jewish people and a community informed by Jewish values and rhythms?

At the crux of all of these models of school/camp is really a question of what Jewish education is for. As Jewish educators, are we trying to create more learned and practicing Jews (who perhaps know and practice the way we do)? Are we teaching Judaism in service of a better and enriched life for our students? Are we hoping our students will become creative contributors to our Jewish heritage, even if that contribution leads to Judaism looking different than it does now? If we might want some combination of all of the above, which goals are best met by school, and which by camp? Understanding our ultimate goals, not to mention those of our students, can help us answer the question of what summer is for, and then we will be able to promote or design the kind of Jewish learning that might take place during the summer break in line with those goals.

What Makes Prayer at Camp So Special?

Open your heart. Open to Me. Let My Presence rest on you.

The question of what makes prayer at camp so special has peppered both camp and synagogue innovation literature over the past few decades. There is an apocryphal tale of the camper returning home and insisting they could not celebrate Havdalah without a lake. Sales and Saxe (2004) suggest a few ideas: campers taking leadership roles, the presence of the Torah, creativity and kavannah. My own take comes out of the observations I have been able to make working at URJ Eisner Camp these past two summers; I came as someone with a background in Jewish education with an interest in the phenomenon of camp as well as someone who did not grow up at a URJ camp or any other Jewish overnight camp except for a few years in elementary school.

Recently I have had a new insight into this question. This is just a personal reflection; I invite your reactions on whether or not this resonates with your experience. Of course, prayer at camp is not always a positive or impactful experience. But when it is, it seems transcendent.

Camp has given me the opportunity to participate in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s educator initiative, Educating for a Jewish Spiritual Life. Through this experience over the past year, I have learned that cultivating an open heart is a core concept of Jewish mindfulness. Through our practice we explore how an open heart feels, physically and emotionally. We pay attention to the behaviors and attitudes which open our hearts, such as awareness and gratitude. An open heart leads to authentic prayer, genuine empathy, equanimity, and a capacity to love one’s self and others.

It seems to me that camp primes one’s heart to be open. The environment of camp, when it works, is one of safety and love. Campers move about confidently and freely. They know they can be themselves, whatever that means to them. Rules about how we treat others are front and center. Lifelong friendships are formed. Counselors offer unconditional love and care to their campers. In this environment, we can enter prayer with an open heart. Perhaps this is what Splansky (2006) is getting at when he says, “The sense of community precedes the praying.”

Jewish mindfulness also cultivates the capacity to provide a loving and safe environment for one’s self. As we sit, we concentrate on the phrases inspired by the Priestly Benediction, “May I be loved. May I be safe.”, as we envision those feelings and the people or places who have contributed to experiencing those feelings in our lives. This capacity is especially important when we face something unpleasant. When we have negative feelings, we try to hold ourselves with compassion through the experience. Similarly, there are times that camp life is dramatic or difficult, and camp holds you in those moments and helps you recover.

In my experience, the meaningful power of camp prayer comes through the elements of love, safety, and holding with compassion; the setting, music, and logistics of the services alone do not have the power to open one’s heart. In these crucial ways, camp exemplifies what we try to do for ourselves through Jewish mindfulness practice.

Sales, A. L., & Saxe, L. (2003). “How Goodly Are Thy Tents”: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences. Hanover: Brandeis.

Splansky, D. M. (2006). Creating a Prayer Experience in Reform Movement Camps and Beyond. In A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping (pp. 151-172).

My Father Was a Wandering Aramean

I recently went looking for this piece I wrote back in 2006 because of the mention of Leon Wieseltier, and his quote is still the best part of the essay, I think. You can find the archived article here, but since I’m not sure how much longer it will be there, and I might want to find it again one day, I’m posting it here. Since I wrote this, I think I’ve become a bit of a relativist, embracing multiple expressions of Judaism, from knishes to Maimonides to many less stereotypical expressions, but that message to “Get into the fight” still seems to be a compelling and succinct rationale for Jewish education. Enjoy as we prepare for Passover, when we read this verse in the Haggadah.

Ki Tavo concludes the litany of laws reiterated to the people as they await entrance into the land. Details of a ceremony that must take place upon their entry into the Promised Land are given. In elaborate, even excruciating detail we learn about the reward for adhering to the covenant and the extensive, harsh rebuke for abjuring it.

Our parashah begins with a description of the offering the first fruits to be performed once the people enter and settle in the Promised Land. Approaching the priest in front of the altar, each individual recites a formulation with which we are familiar because of its appearance in the magid (telling) section of the Passover haggadah:

You shall then recite as follows before the Eternal your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean.’ (Deuteronomy 26:5)

Is this statement a claim to a biological lineage or an exercise in religious imagination? This question is addressed in the Mishnah, which asks if a convert should recite the statement. While the prevailing conclusion is that they should not, Rabbi Judah argues that Abraham, “father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5), was also a convert and “father of all non-Jews who chose to become Jews” (Jerusalem Talmud, Bikkurim 1:4 in Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. 3, 160). Maimonides agrees with Rabbi Judah in a response to an inquiry from the famous convert Obadiah. Maimonides tells him, “You should recite all the prayers just as they are formulated in the liturgy. Change nothing! …[E]veryone who accepts Judaism until the end of all generations…is a descendant of Abraham…There is absolutely no difference whatsoever between us and between you” (Cited in Fields, 161).

The open and unequivocal embrace of converts has implications for our understanding of what makes someone Jewish. Clearly, if one can become Jewish, Jewishness is not a factor of blood, race, ethnicity or lineage. This means that we cannot rely on our last name, physical characteristics or hereditary diseases to define us as Jewish. Nor can we rely on those who hate us and discriminate against us based on these things. Who would want to, you may ask. There are many Jews who are Jewish simply as a condition of their birth, like being short or left handed, it is a situation they must deal with, sometimes bringing pleasure and sometimes pain. Even if they are proud of their Judaism and association with the Jewish people, it is still a passive association, something they are rather than something they each day become.

What is Judaism, then? Is it a nationality, with a language, history and cuisine? The modern state of Israel has given new life to this line of questioning, including the claim that a full Jewish life can only be lived in Israel. But history does not support this assertion. Judaism is multi-dimensional and transcends any single category or definition. Having such things as a language and a country mean that Judaism is more than a religion.

On the flip side of our openness to conversion, it is hard to leave the Jewish people. “The Talmud, the fundamental source of rabbinic Jewish law and lore, does not recognize the possibility that a Jew might ‘convert’ to another religion and thereby cease to be a counted among the people of Israel. The covenant between God and Israel is seen as a contract binding for all time upon the descendants of those who stood at Sinai….” (Washofsky, Jewish Living, 47-48). But as we learn in Ki Tavo and others, there are conditions to this covenant.

If we follow God’s injunctions, we are rewarded and our lives are enriched. If not, the gruesome consequences are described in this week’s parashah. Perhaps there are more subtle consequences of leaving our rich tradition behind, of being ignorant to the requirements and rituals of Judaism. In an interview with Abigail Pogrebin, Leon Wieseltier rails against this ignorance. “Owing to the ethnic definition of Jewish life, there has occurred a kind of internal relativism among all things Jewish,” he says. “If we’re just a tribe, if we’re just an ethnic group, then all of our expressions are equally valuable, they all delightfully express what we are. ‘I like Maimonides, you like knishes, but we’re Jews together!’ Right? The philosophy, the food, it’s all a different way of being Jewish. … So in America now it is possible to be a Jew with a Jewish identity that one can defend and that gives one pleasure—and for that identity to have painfully little Jewish substance” (Stars of David, 156, 157). Wieseltier defines Judaism within the context of covenant, and that covenant comes with obligations. He challenges us:

“…[T]he Jews are a people, the Jews are a nation, the Jews are a civilization—but they’re all that because they are first and foremost a religion. That’s the source of the whole blessed thing. Except for our religion, we would not be a people. When Jews come to me with perplexities about the meaning of Jewishness, I say to them: Judaism. Just go to it; check it out, study this, study that, try this, try that, humble yourself for a while before it, insist upon the importance of having a worldview, develop reasons for what you like and what you don’t like, get into the fight. Get into the fight.” (Stars of David, 167)

Let us resolve to take up the fight, to engage with Judaism and play an active part in defining it.

Purim: We Have Been Here Before

As we approach the holiday of Purim and find ourselves deep in this year’s bizarre election cycle, I find myself thinking back to different times. The article I wrote below was originally published in a weekly Torah commentary by the URJ back in December 2000 and is archived here.
Four election cycles ago was a different time entirely. On the other hand, we have heard these stories before. Jewish people have risen to positions of prominence and power even as a minority, Joseph and Esther being the two most obvious Biblical examples.
This year, in addition to a woman and a Jewish man seeking the presidency, a new Haman has emerged, a person whose ego makes him a demagogue and whose ability to incite hate makes him terrifying.
While things have changed, the last questions I raised give me pause today: “There were many times when Jews achieved levels of acceptance only to face later expulsion or worse. Is this cycle destined to repeat itself throughout history? What is its end? Where in that cycle are we now?”
I’m interested in your thoughts, so please tell me what you think in the comments.

Joe and Hadassah Lieberman: Viceroy of Egypt and Queen of Persia

The narratives of the Bible are in many ways archetypal stories of the human condition, repeated throughout history. This year, a Jew, Senator Joe Lieberman, was nominated as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States. Who could be more suited for this position in history than two people who bear the same names as our only biblical role models to have achieved levels of prominence in non-Jewish governments, namely, Joseph and Esther (whose Hebrew name was Hadassah)? Let’s explore these two models with regard to some specific issues raised in both the Tanach texts and in this year’s presidential race.


Joe Lieberman tends to refer to God in his speeches. In Parashat Miketz, the biblical Joseph constantly mentions God. When asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph replies: “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare!” (Genesis 41:16), and in the course of the interpretation provided him by God, he mentions God three times. This piety so impresses Pharaoh and his advisers that Pharaoh chooses Joseph to supervise the food reserve (an ironic parallel to the issue of our budgetary surplus) because of Joseph’s relationship with God, and Pharaoh even refers to God twice as Elohim, the same way that Joseph does.

In contrast, God is not mentioned even once in the entire Book of Esther. Mordecai tells her: “Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?” (Esther 4:14), hinting that God directs the course of human events. How different or similar are Esther’s and Joseph’s approaches? Which one do you think is better suited for a politician in the U.S. today?

Family Values

Joe Lieberman was praised for his frank condemnation of President Clinton’s sexual infidelity and dishonesty. In rabbinic literature, Joseph is often referred to as “Joseph the Righteous,” having earned this title for refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, who then falsely accused Joseph, resulting in Potiphar’s having him thrown in jail.

There is a parallel story of an attempted rape in the Book of Esther. When Esther revealed to the king Ahasuerus that Haman was plotting to kill the Jews, the king stormed out and returned later only to find “Haman…lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined.” (Esther 7:8) Do these two biblical stories serve to warn us that as Jews in a non-Jewish society, we run the risk of having the core of our identities violated?

Assimilation and Intermarriage

Both Joseph and Esther married non-Jews. Although each of them assimilated into the majority culture, they were both forced to confront their roots. When Joseph’s brothers arrived in Egypt, they didn’t recognize him. He swore by Pharaoh’s name (Genesis 42:15) and had called his “firstborn Manasseh, meaning, ‘God has made me forget completely…my parental home.'” (Genesis 41:51) Esther, too, hid her Jewish identity, and without Mordecai’s prodding, she would probably not have approached the king. On the other hand, each week parents bless their sons, expressing the hope that they will be like Ephraim and Manasseh, who, rabbinic tradition teaches, embraced Judaism even in Egypt. How does a Jew who has attained a position of prominence in the U.S. today affect the identity of other American Jews?


Finally, we can speculate about how this year’s events might be viewed in the course of Jewish history. There were many times when Jews achieved levels of acceptance only to face later expulsion or worse. The tale of Joseph is a story of such a cycle—from favored son to slave and prisoner to the viceroy of Egypt. While Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, became the site of years of bitter Israelite slavery, it is also the place from which we were redeemed and led out to the Promised Land. Is this cycle destined to repeat itself throughout history? What is its end? Where in that cycle are we now?