Jewish overnight camp is powerful antidote to alienation

The Central Jewish Institute in New York sponsored the first American Jewish summer camp in 1919.

Since that time, Jewish mothers have been conscientiously sewing name tags on dozens of socks, shorts and T-shirts — most of which they never see again — and receiving adoring and affectionate messages from their children that read, "If I want dinner, I have to write this letter."

For Jewish parents, overnight camp is a respite from driving car pools and making lunches. It's also an opportunity to practice Tamagotchi resuscitation skills.

For three of my four sons, it is a time to enthusiastically leave behind their Nintendo 64, their favorite fast-food hangouts and their central air conditioning for accommodations that make Motel 6 look like the Ritz-Carlton.

Two of them are off to Camp Alonim, nestled in the Santa Susanna Mountains in Brandeis, just north of Los Angeles. The other is off to Camp JCA Shalom, in the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu.

These, like all Jewish camps, are survivalist experiences.

But Jewish overnight camp is not about surviving the hairy chicken, the shortage of hot water or the mettlesome mosquitoes.

And it's not about surviving as a Jewish commando — building underground shelters and stockpiling Uzis and cans of Manischewitz matzah ball soup.

No, Jewish summer camp signifies nothing less than the survival of American Jewry. It helps ensure that my children will resist a 52 percent intermarriage rate; the temptations of cults, missionaries and Eastern religions; and the allure of an assimilated society.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents didn't need Jewish summer camp. Rather, in the isolated shtetls of Eastern Europe, the men studied in year-round cheders where knuckle-rapping rabbis made sure they adhered to Jewish law and advanced their Jewish lineage. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were taught to be baleboostas, (super-housewives) and to graciously accept arranged marriages.

But life in America is different. Here Jews live in a more integrated and secularly seductive environment. As a result, Jewish children need more than traditional Hebrew schools to maintain their affinity for Judaism; they need exhilarating, experiential Jewish activities.

And that's exactly what Jewish overnight camp provides — a joyous, invigorating and uplifting few weeks of total immersion in Judaism, with memories powerful enough to last the entire year. This is what Shlomo Bardin, a Chassidic educator from Ukraine and the founder of Camp Alonim, referred to as "an adventure in curing alienation."

Alienation is one of the biggest problems facing today's Jewish children. And non-formal Jewish education — including Jewish overnight camp, day camp, youth groups and trips to Israel — is a powerful antidote.

At camp, my sons experience Judaism with their heads, their hearts and their hands. On Bunk Night Out, for example, a special after-curfew adventure, my 9-year-old does not merely go on a treasure hunt. He and his bunkmates are Israeli soldiers on a dangerous mission, cutting through treacherous enemy territory to find the hidden candy.

My 14-year-old engages in a serious discussion about animals and nature. No one talks in amorphous, self-serving platitudes. Rather, my son and his friends learn about the mitzvot of preserving the earth and of being kind to animals. They learn about obligations, commanded by God, that are absolute and enduring.

Traditional observances also take place.

On Friday evenings, my sons worship with campers, counselors and staff, all dressed in white, at Shabbat services. On Saturday mornings, they attend Torah readings and discussions. They are spiritually nourished as they pray, and they are compassionately connected as they sing "Hinei Mah Tov": "How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters are together."

My husband, Larry, and I send our sons to Jewish overnight camp because we are deeply rooted in our more than 5,000-year-old history. Our sense of right and wrong and our sense of moral and ethical responsibilities emanate from our religion.

Well-grounded and comfortable in our Judaism, we are better prepared to meet the world's challenges. We want the same for our sons. We also want Jewish grandchildren at our Passover seder.

The Talmud tells us that we must teach our children how to swim; their lives may depend on it.

At Jewish camp, there are swimming lessons for beginners as well as advanced swimmers. And these lessons don't all take place at the swimming pool. They occur during Israeli dancing and before each meal when the Motzi is recited. They also occur on horseback rides, in drama groups and at the tetherball court.

What the Talmud neglects to tell us, however, is that swimming lessons are not enough. We must also teach our children how to sew and how to write detailed and enthusiastic letters home.