Rabbi Ariel Tal
Jewish Camp: Where Judaism is Fun!
Camp - Where Judaism is Fun!
Wait...can Judaism really be fun? That may not be the popular opinion of Judaism. In fact, many Jewish people around the world populate Synagogues mainly on Yom Kippur - i.e. the longest, most intense davening experience in the year. Moreover, on Yom Kippur there is no Kiddish (because we fast!), and most of the service is conducted in Hebrew, which is genuinely not the native language of most Shul attendees. Not necessarily your “best seller program” to promote sustainable dedication to Judaism. Of course, Yom Kippur services are important and should be well attended, but will attending Yom Kippur service help create a sustainable and long term connection to Judaism? How can we create a Jewish experience that does create a sustainable and long term positive connection to Judaism and can be fun?
Enter Jewish camps in New Zealand and around the world! If you ask any former Wellingtonian about their affiliation it usually will be either “Bnei” or “Habo” depending on which camp they went to. They will tell you about the time that Wellington had a busload of kids they sent to Bnei camp and how Bnei Akiva in NZ (and worldwide as well) is a “victim of its own success” in promoting Aliya, and many of the campers took them quite literally and are building their families currently in Israel. Jewish adults around the world may affiliate with their community or not, but if you ask them about their identity it is all about what camp they went to and which youth group they were part of. Jewish camp is probably the most powerful Jewish connection in any child’s life - from primary school to high school, and even into their university years.
What’s so special about a Jewish camp? I mean, it’s just a camp, right? There are many camps in New Zealand - adventure camps, sports camps, schools have their own camps (in fact, Nechama went to “Greek camp” as part of her class camp last year), cheerleading camp and others. Jewish camp, whether Bnei or Habo, is essential to building the Jewish identity of our children, the next generation. Want proof? I have it! There was an extensive study by the Camps of North America Foundation that explored the long term effects of adults who attended Jewish camp in their youth. The detailed explanations are in a publicly available report:
Here are some of the main statistics:
As adults, campers are 25% more likely to donate to Jewish charities (in relative to Jewish adults who were not campers in Jewish camps)
As adults, campers are 55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel
As adults, campers are 45% more likely to attend Synagogue once a month
As adults, campers are 26% more likely to become members of a Synagogue
So, how does it work?
Let’s take a glance into what happens inside the camp. I can take you into the Bnei Akiva camp, since I personally attend them and openly recruit for them (For details about the Habo camp, please see contact details below for Noah Mirkin, Rosh Ken Habo in Wellington). First of all, one of the focal points of the entire camp is the “Mitbach”, the kitchen. As is tradition, the parents of the Rosh Machaneh, the Head of the Camp (usually a uni student) run the kitchen for the week. The entire camp is Kosher, making the Bnei Akiva camp the only completely Kosher camp in the entire country! And the food keeps coming out at a good rate (and sometimes even has a Nespresso machine for the staff…). Second, the Ruach! The camp is full of singing, cheers, carefully choreographed dances before Tefilla and cheers for each table at the end of meals. Pretty much anything that goes on in camp is done with Ruach - Hebrew for spirit. When my own girls came back from the first winter camp they attended, in 2019, they taught us all of the camp dances, the camp songs (a mixture of traditional Jewish music, modern Jewish music and some select secular songs) and all of the cheers. Aliza, funnily enough, learned the cheers so quickly and even till this day wants to sing them at our table (Bulldog, for one!). She will be eligible for camp in about 5 years! Before Tefilla, there are “ruach dances” that the Bnei Mads (short for Madrichim, or counsellors) lead with the kids with carefully and fun choreographed dances to get campers moving and active to start their day.
Third, the camp has a theme to it. Each theme is selected by the Bnei Staff, which is headed by the Bnei Akiva Shlichim in AHC, now Noam and Elisheva Fogel, together with the Rosh Machaneh. The theme either has to do with a broad topic in Judaism or Israel. The Pe’ulot, or activities, are all based on the general camp theme. This ensures that there is a take home message or messages for the Chanichim, the campers. The Pe’ulot are done informally and not in a classroom setting. As the Rabbi of the WJCC, I usually give a Pe’ula to the seniors and sometimes to the Mads as well, but can be “caught” being a group leader for a junior group on occasion just for fun and to help the Bnei staff. I try to stay between 1 - 2 days each camp if possible.
Lastly, and most important, is the general atmosphere around the camp. It is a Jewish camp, which means it is only for campers from Jewish families. The names of the groups are in Hebrew, the names of stations are usually names of cities in Israel, there is Jewish music blasting on the loudspeakers throughout most of camp, and the campers have an opportunity to meet Jewish kids from around New Zealand and Mads from NZ and Australia (when the cross Tasman Bubble ever happens!). Tefilla times are built into the schedule, Birkat Hamazon is always sung out loud and the campers are part of a full immersion Jewish experience, set in a fun atmosphere! The recipe for creating a sustainable and long term Jewish connection for the campers.
To put it in the words of one of my Rabbinical mentors in Israel, it may be more important to send one’s kids to Jewish camp twice a year than bring them to Shul once a month. Eventually, the camp will translate into embracing Jewish life one way or another, but Synagogue attendance may not have the same impact. It is an interesting point of view, and one that even as a Community Rabbi I can wrap my head around it, and find it interesting at the very least.
There are many challenges to running a Jewish camp in a small Jewish community such as the NZ Jewish community, and there are imperfections, difficulties, and sometimes constructive criticism that needs to be shared. However, Jewish camp may be the single most important decision in molding your childrens’ Jewish connection for years to come. Camp is where Judaism is Fun! It’s not fair to compare camp to Yom Kippur, because they serve different purposes, but only one of them creates a positive, sustaianble and long lasting Jewish connection, while the other is an important religious day on the Jewish calendar, but serves as a Day of Atonement.
So, have you signed your kids up yet? You still have time!
To learn more about the Bnei and Habo Camps, feel free to contact the Bnei/Habo leaders:
For Bnei Akvia - Rosh Snif Wellingon - Isaac Thompson-Gregg firstname.lastname@example.org
Or the Bnei Akiva Shlichim - Noam and Elisheva Fogel Shlichim@ahc.org.nz or
For Habo - Rosh Ken Habo Wellington - please contact Noah Mirkin - email@example.com