When First Base is as Good as a Home Run

Joel Lurie GrishaverJoel Lurie Grishaver

It all started with the word “engagement.” As soon as it was on the table—we began adopting a policy that less can be much more. Engagement as a behavior is little more than eye contact.

A Full Definition of ENGAGEMENT

1 engagement

a: an arrangement to meet or be present at a specified time and place <a dinner engagement>

b: a job or period of employment especially as a performer

2 engagement. Something that engages:  pledge

3 engagement

a: the act of engaging:  the state of being engaged

b: emotional involvement or commitment <seesaws between obsessive engagement and ambiguous detachment — Gary Taylor>

c: betrothal

4 engagement. the state of being in gear

5 engagement. A hostile encounter between military forces

The definition the Jewish community uses seems definitely not to be “betrothal” but rather the one that Gary Talyor is describing in 3b:  “seesaws between obsessive engagement and ambiguous detachment.” Shlomo Bardin used to talk of kids being “Hot” when they came home from camp and “cooling down” as time went by. Sounds like the same thing.

There is a camp joke about a Jewish Summer camp that put everything into getting kids to make Havdalah when they get home. When asked if they would make Havdalah at home, one camper answered, “I can’t. I don’t have a lake.” We seem to be putting a lot more effort in making Havdalah candles rather than working on the “inner” lake.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp

“The Foundation for Jewish Camp unifies and galvanizes the field of Jewish overnight camp and significantly increases the number of children participating in transformative summers at Jewish camp, assuring a vibrant North American Jewish community.” Foundation for Jewish Camp, MIssion & Vision

They write:

Summers at Jewish overnight camp turn Jewish youth into spirited and engaged Jewish adults, laying the groundwork for strong Jewish communities. The Foundation for Jewish Camp aspires to elevate the field of Jewish camp, conferring proper recognition and granting appropriate support to expand its impact across our community, so that camp can be a critical element of every Jewish young person’s education.

I recently spend a wonderful weekend at Camp Zeke. It is a beautiful site with a great staff and an interesting mission. It is specialty camp “Incubator” funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

In 2008, with a $10 million investment from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) launched the Specialty Camps Incubator (Incubator) to support the creation and development of five new Jewish specialty camps. A key purpose of establishing the new specialty camps was to attract Jewish teens who were not attending other Jewish camps.

One of the second cohort of these new incubator camps is Camp Zeke that I visited.

Camp Zeke is the first Jewish camp where 7- to 17-year-old campers celebrate healthy, active living. Campers can put on an apron and cook gourmet dishes with a professional chef. They can also choose from action-packed fitness electives, like running, yoga, strength training, dance, gymnastics, and martial arts. Of course, we also offer sports, arts, music, theater, nightly all-camp evening programs (such as dances and talent shows), and all the traditional camp activities.

Camp Zeke (with whom I find no fault) is part of a plethora of new Jewish engagement traps that are designed to look non-Jewish. Think “venus flytrap.” A little Krav Maga, a Rabbi who likes singing and the sleeping in bunks (add Havdalah and stir) is supposed to build enough of a Jewish identity to weather the storm of assimilation and non-Jewish participation. The early studies (see above) say that these camps impact on about 50% of campers. (Cheep at half the price). I personally want to thank all the young women who stopped me short of rounding second base.

We are working on the following assumptions:

  1. Many Jews don’t want an intensive Jewish camp experience.
  2. Most Jewish camps are too Jewish.
  3. Jewish specialty camps (that is the hottest trend in secular camping) may be a way of bringing a lot more kids to Jewish camping. (The Jewish Week, “Camps Build Robots and Ruach”)

The folks from camp Zeke are committed and hard working. They are industriously trying to build a bright and shining future. We wish them well. We hope they make a difference, but this kind of Judaism as second or third priority as a mode of outreach, raises a lot of questions. We live in an age where diet Judaism makes a lot of philanthropic hence demographic sense. It is an era of Judaism lite. We have schools that have become camps. We have youth groups that really are social and gender experiments with a sprinkling of Jewishness. We have curricula that are all experiential or all project based that purport better learning than traditional schools. The question is: “Can we really build a Jewish future out of all affect and no cognition?”

Personally, I’ll bet on a fifty student Talmud camp to make more of a Jewish impact than a 500 kid Jewish sports camp. I use to think of myself as an innovator. I pioneered deductive learning, values clarification, confluent education, camping, non-formal education, youth grouping, bibliodrama and a lot more. After writing this, I wonder if I am doing a Dick Van Dyke impersonation and singing into the storm, “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?” But, having been through earthquakes and hurricanes; I now worry about foundations and structure. I apologize.

Last week, CASIE, The Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education held a web-forum on Jewish Identity: Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking the Purposes of Jewish education. (http://casje.com/casts/beyond-jewish-identity/) It featured: Dr. Ari Kelman Jim Joseph Chair in Education and Jewish Studies, Stanford University, Dr. Marc Kramer Executive Director, RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, Dr. Jon Levisohn Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Educational Thought, Brandeis University, Rabbi Lee Moore Director of Jewish and Organizational Learning, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, Rabbi Julie Roth, Executive Director, Center for Jewish Life – Hillel at Princeton University, Moderator: Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, Community Engagement Manager, CASJE. Mark Kramer, an advocate for Day Schools tried to change the conversation to involve “literacy” rather than “identity.” He was acknowledged but the conversation did not change. Your author suggested that we speak of behavior and not identity. It was posted (and most comments were not) but not responded to. As per usual, Identity was still the center of Jewish Education. I cannot recall the entire dialogue, here, but it is worth reading and should facilitate reflection.

For Jews, water is as much more a symbol than it is a place to float fire. It stands for Torah and a lot more. “I can’t make Havdalah—I don’t have a lake”—could well be a Talmudic level metaphor awaiting interpretation. Jerry Kaye (Camp Director par excellence) was a youth director before going to “Olin-Sang.” He used to show up unannounced at youth grouper families on Shabbat afternoons carrying a briefcase. When the sun went down, he opened the case, took out a Havdalah set. When it was time, Havdalah was made in their living room. That is building a lake. That is erasing the distinction between holy and ordinary.