What Chanukah and Camp Have In Common
At its core, the story of Chanukah is a story about the continuation of the Jewish people in a time when there was great pressure to assimilate into the secular society. There were those who advocated complete assimilation into the Hellenistic society, and those who advocated complete disengagement from the secular world. Ultimately, the answer was found somewhere in between. Greek language, traditions and symbols influenced many aspects of the Jewish community in the 2nd century BCE, but the Jewish people as a whole continued to persevere and continued to flourish even while under the rule of foreign governments.
Many of the questions Jewish leaders and Jewish parents asked over two thousand years ago are continuing to be asked today by our own community members here in the United States. How do we continue to live as a Jewish community when we have such close contact with the non-Jewish society around us? Should we be sending our children to Jewish Day Schools, or to public schools? Should we spend money on educating our children Jewishly during the summer, or allow them to simply “chill out” at home during vacation and play in the neighborhood? If we map the answers to these questions on a spectrum, we would find a call for complete ghettoization on the one hand and a call for complete assimilation on the other hand. I think that the correct ground is somewhere in the middle.
Every parent must ask themselves: What values do I want to impart to my children? What tools do I want to give them to be successful as adults in this world? When it comes to helping a child form his/her own Jewish identity these same questions ring true. There is probably no better time to give one’s children the opportunity to grow Jewishly than during a few intense weeks each summer.
Education theorist Peter Berger wrote an article in 1980 titled The Heretical Imperative. In this article, Berger describes the importance of creating a plausibility structure through which an outcome becomes more likely to happen. One does this by creating legitimations, or building blocks, to increase the likelihood of an outcome emerging. For example, if you want your child to become an Olympic figure skater, then taking her to the rink once a week for Sunday morning lessons will not create the plausibility structure for this to occur. In fact the opposite might happen. Your child, skating with other once‑a‑week skaters, will see that skating is a hobby to be done in one’s free time, and not a serious sport that one must dedicate her life to pursuing. However, if one moved her family to Colorado Springs, home of the Olympic training village, hired a professional coach for her child where she spent five hours a day at the rink and hung out with other aspiring Olympic skaters, then one has created enough legitimations whereby it is possible for a child to see herself and eventually to become an Olympic skater. The implausible has become plausible.
Jewish Camp is the Olympic training village of Jewish identity building. At camp, everyone is Jewish. Everyone is doing Jewish. And everyone is exploring their Jewish identity. Shabbat is not something celebrated with a few friends, but with an entire community. Jewish ethics is not something that is talked about in the theoretical, but something that is practiced 24/7. Finding role models who are themselves on their own spiritual journey is as easy as looking to one’s counselors or older staff members.
Jewish camp works as an educational enterprise because all the legitimations are in place to create a plausibility structure where it is fun, engaging, and cool to be Jewish. It is not by accident that people who attend Jewish camp are disproportionately represented in Jewish communal leadership from JSUs to Hillels to Synagogue boards and Federations. It is not by accident that people who attend camp have a significantly lower inter-marriage rate and greater sense of communal belonging than those who do not. Within the sphere of Jewish camp alumni, Ramah alumni rank at the top in almost all positive metrics
I will end this blog post with a chart from Stephen M. Cohen’s The Tale of Two Jewries. This is the “Inconvenient Truth” for American Jews. In a later post, I will examine this chart more deeply using Berger’s lens of legitimations and plausibility structures, but on the most basic level, please ask yourself: If you were investing in your own child’s Jewish future, where would you put your resources? (A complete version of this study can be found here)