I asked Zachary Lasker, the director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary (and former director of Camp Ramah in California), what makes camp the incredibly potent experience it is. He answered, “Studies have shown us that the more immersive an experience is, the more ‘sticky’ it is, in a good way. That goes for learning anything: language, music, culture.”
Because overnight camp is an immersive, shared experience, it feels hyper-real and intense. You’re with your friends 24/seven. You see them in multiple contexts: You see what they’re good at and what they struggle with; you gain insight into your own accomplishments and struggles. You and your bunkmates fight and you make up, because the intimacy of camp means you can’t (and don’t want to) fight indefinitely. “An hour in camp is like a month in the outside world,” Lasker said. “Everything cycles so quickly.”
And in Jewish summer camp, Jewish values and identity-builders are integrated into everything. There are Israeli pop songs and Jewish folk dances, everyday objects are called by their Hebrew names, kids play fierce games of ga-ga (aka “Israeli dodge ball”) and discuss the week’s Torah portion. Kids with different levels of Jewish education and cluefulness and levels of observance live together and respect each other’s differences.
Lasker pointed out another special aspect to camp friendships: “In the secular world, you don’t always have future touch-points to fall back on naturally, as in the Jewish world. I showed up at my camp friends’ bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings and brit milahs and baby namings. We did participatory stuff like bikur cholim [visiting the sick] and doing acts of tzedakah together. In times of sorrow as well as joy, we showed up for each other. I can’t think of another environment that fosters such deep roots.”
When you return to the same camp over and over, you see the changes your friends have undergone during the school year. Bodies change. Clothing taste changes. Interests and passions change. You don’t notice these minute differences in your school friends, because you see them every day. With your camp friends, it’s as if you can time-travel, seeing who they were last summer at the same time as you see who they are now. And that helps you appreciate the fact that you’re always changing, too. Passing through different developmental phases with someone—Josie started sleepaway camp at 8 and has known many of her friends since then—gives you a shared vocabulary, shared experiences. “In some cases,” Lasker pointed out, “you go from being peers with someone to being co-workers, if you return to camp as staff. It’s yet another rich way of relating. You problem-solve together and work as colleagues as co-counselors or unit heads.”
Camp is all of Judaism’s mitzvot pertaining to community in one setting. All our rules about how to live with others, how to be kind, how to treat others—all are put to the test. At school or shul, you go home and you can be someone else. Camp is home. You shower with these people. They see your Snoopy pajamas. They see how you react when you’re hit in the head with a volleyball.
Read the entire article at the Tablet.