Vital Signs: Torah and Service

February 8, 2010

Source: Jewish Ideas Daily


In this the first article in a series on people and places fostering commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people in the United States and elsewhere, Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York writes about experiential education, commitment to a clearly defined Jewish ideology and providing educating challenges that make Bnei Akiva's Camp Stone an excellent educational institution demonstrating Torah and service in action.


Wertheimer writes:

"In some ways, Camp Stone is not exactly alone. Ever since the second quarter of the twentieth century, Jewish educators have appreciated the opportunities provided by sleep-away camps for immersing the young in a living Jewish environment. The alumni of such camps include a number of postwar Jewish baby boomers and their successors who have gone on to become leaders in every sector of the community. But the movement hit a trough in the 80's and 90's, from which it is only lately emerging.


Today, camping is once again rising on the communal agenda. Support has come from two different directions. The first is made up of individual philanthropists, many of them represented by a Foundation for Jewish Camp that mobilizes donors to invest in new construction and in scholarships for needy families. The second comprises educators for whom camping represents the quintessential paradigm of "experiential education"—the key, in their view, to ensuring a lasting identification with Jewish life. Some urge that the camping model be brought wholesale into schools, synagogues, and other settings. Recently, the principal of a day school admitted that he will only hire teachers who have worked in a Jewish summer camp.


But if it is not entirely sui generis, Camp Stone still displays remarkable distinguishing features. One is its unabashed commitment not just to Jewish "identity" but to a clearly defined Jewish ideology. Under the auspices of Bnai Akiva, a religious Zionist youth movement whose slogan is Torah V'Avodah, Torah and Service, the camp gives instruction in Jewish classical texts side by side with a stress on community service and respect for all human beings. Orthodox in orientation, Stone is far from insular: older campers work with fast-fading Jewish communities of all denominations in Western Pennsylvania, and campers are in regular contact with local people, including Amish farmers, employed by the camp in a variety of positions. The campers themselves come from across North America, Europe, and Israel; by deliberate policy, around 15 percent are drawn from homes without affiliation to any Jewish religious movement. All are brought together in the common enterprise.


Jewish "experiential education" is often designed around the twin poles of recreation and "socialization." The former creates an association between fun and interaction with other Jews; the latter focuses on imparting skills for Jewish communal life. Important as these are, an even more critical quality, according to the educational theorists Joseph Reimer and David Bryfman, is challenge: pushing the young to "stretch themselves and grow toward a more complex participation in . . . Jewish life." Hence Camp Stone's seemingly divergent but mutually reinforcing emphases on working the land, on encouraging children to ask hard and even uncomfortable questions about Jewish texts, and on physically demanding activities (like rebuilding the Temple)."

Updated: Feb. 21, 2010