More than fun and games

Not so long ago, Jerry Silverman was an executive with Levi Strauss, living in Walnut Creek and doing the dad thing. As the father of five, he enjoyed visiting the Jewish camps his kids attended and eventually became involved as a lay leader.

Moving to the East Coast to become CEO of Stride Rite, he continued his involvement in youth recreation as head of the board of directors for both Camp Ramah in New England and the Stride Rite day care center.

Recently, he said goodbye to corporate America to put his energy where his heart lay — at summer camp. He’s now executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, a New York-based umbrella organization of more than 120 overnight camps.

Jewish camp, as Silverman sees it, is not simply a matter of fun and games and Shabbat under the trees. It’s about the very future of the Judaism in America.

“Unaffiliated children” witness Jewish tradition on a daily basis at camp for perhaps the first time, he said in a recent phone interview.

“Kids bring it back into the home. They ask, ‘Why aren’t we lighting candles?’ Go to Tawonga and listen to them giving thanks for the bread they receive at every meal or at Shabbat. All this is brought back into their homes. It’s brought back into their communities,” Silverman said.

Bringing Judaism back into the community and connecting children with Israel are among the aims of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, established in 1998 by Elisa and Robert Bildner. For that reason, the foundation sponsors leadership training and brings Israelis to camp, both as campers and counselors.

Ironically, enhancing Jewish identity also works with the secular Israelis, who participate in the foundation’s Noar l’Noar (teen-to-teen) program, funded by the Goldman Foundation. For the first time perhaps, Israeli kids and counselors at such camps as Tawonga, near Yosemite, are participating in Havdallah (the end of Shabbat) and prayers before meals.

“It’s easier here to be Jewish,” Asaf Tzur, then 15, of Kiryat Shmona told a reporter visiting Tawonga in 2003. “Here Judaism is a religion for the soul.”

The primary purpose of having Israelis at camp, said Silverman, “is to create connections — not an infusion of Judaica.” But this past summer, “I witnessed two Israeli women, post-army, having a bat mitzvah at camp, and I witnessed two women reading out of the Torah for the first time.”

He added: “So many positive things have come out of [the interchange between Israelis and Americans] — the exposure of Israeli kids to a spiritual approach as well as connections between bunkmates.” Those connections have encouraged trips to Israel, with Americans visiting their friends from camp.

“What’s beautiful in the camp environment, whether it’s Camp Tawonga, Camp Newman [in Santa Rosa] or Camp Ramah in Ojai, they do such a beautiful job of creating Judaism in a [natural] format. It’s like breathing air. That’s why the quantitative data coming out is so powerful. Sixty-five percent of Jewish professionals came out of Jewish camping,” he pointed out.

Silverman, who was recently in the Bay Area, talked about some of the new programs the foundation is involved in, including a Spielberg Fellowship, to bring in specialists in drama, and JENE (Jewish Environment and Nature) Fellowship, to fund environmental programs with a Jewish focus.

With funding from the Avi Chai Foundation, the camp foundation is awarding Cornerstone Fellowships to assist camps in enhancing their Judaic focus. Tawonga and Ramah are among the recipients.

With that in mind, the foundation is training more than 200 third-year bunk counselors across America, “to intensify their capability to teach Jewish moments in a very, very casual situations — to integrate some kind of teachable moment while lying around a bunk — as well as help them become leaders in camp and mentors to first-year counselors,” Silverman said.

“Yes, camp is for campers. Camp is also for staff,” he added, noting that 8,000 to 10,000 college students work at Jewish camps, “absorbing that Jewish oxygen.”

“The beauty of camping, especially for college students, is they take it back with them on campus. … They go back to their communities and become afternoon Hebrew school teachers, youth group leaders. In a sense, it’s their first foray into being Jewish teachers and being involved in Jewish education.”

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].