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Originally published February, 2006. Republished July 30, 2012.
Jewish summer camp makes an enormous difference in the lives of children. During the past twenty-five years in which I directed Camp Tawonga, the inter-denominational summer camp of the San Francisco Jewish Community, I have been pleased to witness a growing body of scholarly research confirm what we practitioners have always known on an intuitive level: that positive Jewish experiences which occur in a fun, natural and peer-led environment make a lasting impact on children's identity.
The Tawonga Mission statement, which has guided us since our founding in 1925, makes our identity goal very clear: "To develop positive Jewish attitudes and identification in a pleasurable atmosphere." Nowhere does it say that this is just for Jews.
In fact, when I first arrived at Tawonga, the board of directors told me that 10% of the kids we served were not Jewish and that I was to make sure we never lost that 10%. This reflected Tawonga's inner confidence — then and now — that Judaism has something valuable to offer all people, and that all people have something valuable to add to Judaism.
We are rightly proud of the Jewish ideas, beliefs and values that are lived out at camp. The Jewish idea that one creator makes us all kin. The belief that we are put on this earth to do good. And the value of learning and of challenging conventional wisdom.
At the same time, we gratefully acknowledge that from the Greek afikomen to the German dreidel, Jews have always incorporated contributions from the cultures in which we sojourn. And, after all, didn't Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all have interfaith families?
Today, Tawonga serves some 2,000 children each season, in a wide variety of summer, travel and family camp programs, and we still have our 10%, plus all of the kids from interfaith homes who identify in some way as Jewish.
We do a lot to make sure every child feels welcome at Tawonga, irrespective of identity. It starts with the brochure itself. Right on the cover it says "Making a place for every child," and the beautiful photos throughout intentionally include a diverse array of children and staff. The registration form asks nothing about religious affiliation, these questions being reserved for later background information we request about campers and their families. We hire 150 Jewish and non-Jewish staff each summer, with excellence as our primary criterion.
Tawonga offers a variety of Family Camp Weekends as a way to introduce new families at camp. We have been honored with several national awards for these outreach programs, including Keshet Camp for Gay and Lesbian Families, Mosaic Multiracial Camp, Palestinian-Jewish Peacemakers Weekend, and Grief & Growing Weekend for the Bereaved. These special programs have established our reputation as a welcoming place for all.
In 2006, Tawonga is partnering with three of the largest Reform synagogues in our region to create a weekend specifically targeting interfaith families. The rabbis told us they wanted Tawonga as the host for the program in part because of its reputation for out-of-the-box programming but also because, as a non-movement camp, Tawonga is more neutral turf. It's an easier, safer place to say "I'm not Jewish, but I'm interested."
The new program isn't named yet but the rabbis know who they want to attract. They have identified many interfaith parents who've entered their kids on the bar/bat mitzvah track but themselves exist at the margins of the synagogue community. They also have in mind all the newlywed couples they've married who have not yet decided how they will raise their kids. In addition, Tawonga serves hundreds of kids for whom camp is their primary Jewish connection and who would benefit from deeper Jewish engagement. For all of these families, the collaboration wants to remove traditional barriers to involvement like the pressure to convert or donate. In fact, they hope to raise enough money that every newlywed couple would get a free weekend at camp as a gift from the Jewish community.
When we plan these kinds of Jewish educational experiences at Tawonga, we get into the same frame of mind we have when planning a buffet. Each person gets to choose what and how much to take, nothing is forced and it's all good. Personally, I always remind myself of what we say at every Passover seder: "Let all who are hungry come and eat." Only we are not just addressing hunger for food. Those who have a spiritual hunger, intellectual hunger, or yearning for meaning in their lives will all find something at our table. You would be amazed at how much kids will take in when they get to do the taking. Of course, each offering has to be interesting and authentic, run by knowledgeable and charismatic teachers.
According to The New York Times, rates of inter-racial marriage are up among all ethnic groups. This is great news for Judaism, because as surface qualities become less important in personal identity, internal qualities — like the ones kids learn at summer camp — become more important. In addition summer camp at its heart is all about getting along. In the bunk, on the trail, at the dining hall table and around the campfire. It makes perfect sense that Jewish summer camps should lead the community on a path to a richer Jewish life, informed by Jewish tradition and enhanced by the interest and involvement of our non-Jewish loved ones.