What we need is smore frank talk around the campfire

Some years back a reporting assignment took me to a summer camp in rural Ohio where the campfire discussion one evening focused on whether unicorns exist. When a gaggle of Canada geese flew overhead, the camp director, arguing in favor of unicorns, declared it a heavenly sign that he was speaking revealed truth.

A self-satisfied smile spread across the director’s face as the young campers groaned — and then erupted in derisive laughter.

His point had been made; religious beliefs are nonsensical. This was, after all, a camp run by secular humanists designed to direct young minds away from faith and toward reason.

Ah summer, the season when many of us send our children to camp for a mosquito-plagued immersion in our preferred worldview. American Jews and Christians have a decades-long head start, but the nation’s recent explosion of religious diversity has added Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist and other religion-specific camps to the mix. Not to be outdone, secular humanists have followed suit.

Jews can pick from a smorgasbord of camping options spanning our religious-cultural spectrum. Experts tell us that Jewish camping experiences are an effective way to transmit Jewish values to young people. I agree — although it takes far more than camp to do the job right. Raising committed Jews is a multi-faceted, year-round endeavor with parental example being the most important element.

But what about being a Jew in America? How does one navigate the complexity of living as a small minority in the broader religious-cultural context?

Two schools of thought dominate American Jewry. Right-wing Orthodoxy prefers separating as much as possible from the coarsening influences of the American mainstream. But most Jews embrace engagement to varying degrees, with full immersion the clear first choice. This necessitates trying to understand the religious cultures of our friends and, perhaps more important, our enemies.

The United States is among the world’s most religiously diverse nations. But diversity does not equal religious understanding.

Witness the public confusion about Mormonism generated by Republican hopeful Milt Romney’s bid for the White House — even though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a home-grown, well-established part of the American religious scene. “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion,” Stephen Prothero notes in his book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know — And Doesn’t.” “One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.”

We are in desperate need of a crash course in comparative religion — an extended, inter-religious adult summer camp, if you will. (And yes, include the secular humanists; their opinions are as important as anybody’s). I’m not talking about more of the pablum that passes for interfaith dialogue in polite circles, but a full-blown discussion of core beliefs that we often differ over profoundly.

Understanding the beliefs that shape our divergent worldviews is essential for insight into motives and actions, not to mention cutting through the fog of misinformation spread by politicians and apologists. Globalization’s salad-bowl approach to nationhood only increases the need. Without

knowledge of those we share this nation and world with, we are doomed to misjudge their mindset endlessly, often with disastrous consequences.

Public education cannot be counted on to do the job because of church-state political pitfalls. Media is potentially a better educator, though at this point most news sources fall woefully short. Journalists daily miss or misrepresent religious subtleties that, if understood, might shed critical light on complicated domestic and international public policy issues.

Jewish summer camps are important for preserving Jewish identity in our widely pluralistic society. But we also need adult time around a camp fire sharing s’mores and discussing religion with members of the myriad other faiths that shape our nation and world, for better or worse.

Ira Rifkin
is an author and journalist living in Annapolis, Md.