I returned yesterday from another Foundation for Jewish Camp conference in NJ. I have to say, that these conferences are actually pretty interesting. For the most part, the sessions are useful and informative. For example, this past week we spent a day learning about recruiting and marketing. We also spent a day learning about presentation skills and practicing delivering our camp “pitch.” We worked most of the day with a guy who coaches people in the business world on how to hone their speaking styles. We also had sessions on exciting topics like data bases, internet access, and setting up a phone network. These are issues, that I do not usually think about in Rabbinical School, but clearly are important for me to learn in my job at Ramah Outdoors.

Although I am sure that the reader would love to hear more about the databases and the pros and cons of each, I thought that I would instead blog about a movie we saw called Jesus Camp. Jesus Camp is a truly petrifying documentary about the use of Camp and experiential education in the Christian Evangelical movement. If you have not seen this movie, I would say that it is a MUST SEE. It is not exactly the curl up with the pop-corn type of movie, but the questions it raises are important for any American to ask, and especially those who believe strongly in the power of summer camp.

In short: the movie follows an Evangelical youth minister in her work with the kids in her church/ school. The viewer is welcomed into the lives of a variety of youth, and we follow them in their church activities, their homeschooling, and their week at camp. These kids are taught to “break the bonds of a secular government” to “protect the rights of an unborn child” and to pledge allegiance to the “Christian flag.” As the title suggests, the key part of the camp takes place during the weeklong camp where kids and their parents come together in a camp setting for a week of playing, preaching and prayer. Like many camps, this camp tries to find a balance between physical activities like playing outside with more formal activities like prayer services or preaching sessions.

While it is possible to simply dismiss these Evangelicals as “crazies,” the reason I think it is so important to watch this movie, is that this is a window into the 25% of our country who self identify with this movement. Granted, these 25% are not a monolithic group, and this is one form of Evangelism, but nonetheless, I think that based on our experiences in this country for much of the past eight years, we see that this form of Christian Fundamentalism has enormous influence in the halls of power in our government. I think it is important to understand the motivations behind this voting bloc.

As a Jewish educator I was both envious of the teachers in this movie while also being extremely uncomfortable by their methods. I was envious because they have such an unbelievable effect on the lives of these children. The kids in the movie were so engaged in the lessons being taught and so receptive to the ideas being presented. Finally, I was envious that the families were echoing the messages being taught in the church and camp. While camp in the Jewish world is often a place for campers to come to an intense community that is different from their home, in the movie, these campers come from an intense community that becomes even more intense at camp.

I was uncomfortable by the movie for a few main reasons.

#1 Clearly, I do not believe in the message of the Evangelicals. I do not believe that we should have a religious government (please go to Saudi Arabia for that). I do not believe that only people who believe in Jesus should be saved. And of course, I do not believe that homosexuality and abortion should be outlawed.

#2 I was very uncomfortable by the level of indoctrination that happens in the movie. There is a fine line between teaching content and brain washing. What I saw in this movie was brain washing. A core Jewish value is the belief that minority opinions should be expressed and are welcome into the larger discourse. In the movie, the teachers and parents present all issues as absolute. Kids are not encouraged to question and to challenge, rather they are encouraged to repeat by wrote.

#3 Perhaps the most shocking part of the movie is the way that the teachers and camp professionals are able to create powerful emotional moments. For example, when the preacher wants to emphasize the immorality of abortion, he hands each camper a plastic replica of a seven week old fetus. Each camper holds the fetus in his/her hands as the preacher rails against abortion. By the end of the sermon, many of the campers are crying. “How can the government legalize such murder,” they ask!?

The reason this was so shocking, was that it made me realize the power of what we do at camp. Clearly, our message is entirely different from the Evangelicals. Clearly we are looking to create an atmosphere of challenge and debate. However, we too strive to create intense emotional moments that will enable us to advance our values. This is what happens at Havdallah, when we gather for singing, and dancing and towards the end of the summer, crying. This is what happens on Tish Ba’av when we sit on the ground singing sad songs while chanting Echa. This is what happens on Friday night when we all dress in clean clothes to welcome the Shabbat. In all these instances, we are creating intense, memorable experiences so that Ramah campers will be open to experiencing Jewish values, texts traditions and ideas in a positive light.

But I could not help but wonder, are there times at camp that we, at Ramah, cross over that thin line of teaching versus brain washing? When the Alonim/ Gesher/ Nevonim (etc) camper stands up on Friday night and belts out “yibanei Hamigdash” is this a form of brain washing? When I ask campers to go off on their own for 20 minutes to meditate and to experience the Divine, is this a form of brain washing? When we gather in a circle on Friday night for Havdallah on the second to last night of camp and the sound of tears pervade the air, is this a form of brain washing?

I do not believe that they are. Yet Jesus Camp has made me rethink some of what we do at camp and to ask that important question: where is the fine line between brain washing and creating intense emotional experiences so that a camper is receptive to internalizing a message? Is our commitment to allowing for minority opinions enough to shield us from the accusation of being “brainwashers?”

I look forward to hearing your responses.

Permalink • 1 Comment
Reply to this commentremove
Cults vs. Peak Experiences
by L F, Mon 18 of May, 2009 (17:28)

Let me offer you three things that differentiate Peak Experiences from cult-like experiences.

First of all you have to look at the locus of control. If the decisions for a person are ultimately being made by the person, that is “internal locus of control”. If other people are coercing a decision or there is only one “obvious” choice, this is “external locus of control”. The challenge with children is they are moving from external to internal locus as they become adults. It isn’t until they hit the teen years that they really start to individuate. Our job as responsible role models is to teach them how to think for themselves. The trap we fall into is we want them to do what we want them to do and demanding compliance becomes the short cut. We must work hard to teach them to think and do for themselves, not just do this for them.

The next factor is “client centered program” vs. “program centered program”. Do we wedge the kids into the program or design the program around the client. Truly, it’s always a combination, but you either lean one way or another. Jesus Camp is clearly Program Centered Program”. If there were a person at that camp that did not agree with the philosophy, they were probably pretty clear that it was not okay to speak up about it. There is a phenomenon in Outdoor programming where kids look like they are participating, seem to be having fun and doing exactly what you would expect, but they are not really there. They’ve checked out. It’s very hard to spot from the outside. Not only is this ineffective, but it damages kids in he long run. You think you’re doing a great job, they feel emotionally unsafe and are dissociating.

Client Centered Program is more work up front. Instead of handing your kids a packing list for the big backpack trip, you spend an afternoon letting them figure out what they need. Let them take their best guess. You can ask a few good questions, but not interfere with their process. If they have everything you would have brought, you’ve interfered. You need them to forget something crucial. Then you take a practice hike. This is where they find out how they did and make adjustments. Then they do the same thing for the real trip. Short of serious health or psychological damage, you do not bail them out. Their first trip will have problems, they will make mistakes. This is when you want them to learn the most. As a leader, you plan enough time, create space for them to learn each skill, then let them go. With riskier things, like backpacking stoves, I teach once, am available for questions the second time and let them work it out on their own the third time. I will encourage them to do as much as they can handle. Assessing the group is important, because every group is different. I assume we will provide a good structure for camp that will allow for client centered program.

The third thing is “Challenge by Choice”. This is a primary principle in Experiential Education. If you’ve been on a ropes course, this may sound familiar. Participants choose if and at what level they participate. We can support and encourage, but not force or coerce people into taking risks. It’s far more powerful to step up and say “I am choosing not to do this”, than to do it anyway and resent the experience. A decision to do something or not to do something should be supported by the group equally when a person intentionally presents their choice. Peer pressure and humiliation are not allowed. Unfortunately too many people have been pressured into doing outdoor activities they were not okay with, often times at camps, and never did them again.

My experience with the Jewish religion gives me the impression that it encompasses all three of these philosophies.