Building Jewish Souls One Smile at A Time

By Jordan Dale


In my twenty years as executive director of Surprise Lake Camp, we’ve always been asked the question, “What percentage of your campers are Jewish?” The answer has remained the same–somewhere between 95% and 100%. What has changed, however, is the reaction to who we consider to be Jewish.

We always err on the side of being inclusive. If a child has one Jewish grandparent and chooses our Jewish camp, then we consider him or her to be Jewish. Twenty years ago this inclusive attitude was sometimes frowned upon. Some people thought that if we defined Jews liberally, that meant we somehow had a watered down Judaic program and that we weren’t living up to our mandate to serve the Jewish community.

Then the Jewish population study of 1990 was released with predictions of doom about the future of Jews in North America. Suddenly community leaders and funders were focused on Jewish continuity, and programs that engaged marginally affiliated Jews and even intermarried families were warmly encouraged. SLC’s inclusive policy went from being a sore point to the “in-thing” in a very short time.

Our programmatic blindness to mixed marriages is so deeply entrenched that once a child enrolls, any sense that he/she is from a mixed family is completely lost. If you ask our staff to name kids from families who are interfaith, they can’t. It is simply that irrelevant. All our children are treated the same regardless of their economic background, their race, their religious training, and the religion of their parent(s).

Does this mean our program is watered down? Certainly not! We run a very rich Jewish program that includes weekly Jewish themes, two Jewish resource specialists who run daily programming, a shaliach who does Israel programming, twenty other Israeli staff, an annual Israeli Day, services Friday evening, Saturday morning, and Saturday evening, two Judaica resource centers and an Israeli Scouts shack, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah program, a Tisha B’Av observance, prayers before and after the meal, kosher food service, a Jewish Leadership Committee of staff and campers who help plan and run Jewish activities, Jewish singing and music, use of a Jewish Teachable Moments curriculum that incorporates Jewish values into everyday camper experiences, an Israel trip for older campers, Jewish storytelling, and annual special programs such as Hashnassat Orchim (welcoming strangers) training and Touching Torah, both provided by the Mandel Center for Jewish Education.

The Bar/Bat Mitzvah program is a true jewel. Starting with the premise that a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is, at its essence, a very simple ceremony, we have designed a program that enables campers to prepare for and have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah while at camp. These campers say the blessings, read from the Torah, and make a speech. The camp gives them a gift and a certificate of Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and provides a kiddush (post-ceremony party) for their parents and friends. All absolutely free. The program was originally established to benefit families who could not afford a modern Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Increasingly, however, it has appealed to families who could afford one, but for whom a traditional temple ceremony is not spiritually accessible or comfortable. We are averaging about twenty B’nai Mitzvot a summer. Our simple ceremonies are very meaningful and inspiring, both to the participants and to everyone else at camp.

Jewish Teachable Moments is also very powerful. Using materials and training provided to us by the Foundation For Jewish Camping, Surprise Lake Camp has been one of the pioneers of this methodology. It trains counselors to identify moments in the typical camp day when Jewish values can be used to solve a problem or teach a lesson. Because this can happen anytime, any day, Jewish education is no longer relegated to specific times when a Jewish activity is on the schedule, but rather it becomes an organic part of the entire camp environment. And because the material is associated with real daily experiences, it makes Judaism relevant and meaningful to campers, regardless of how much Jewish background they may have.

Our lack of attention to whether someone is from an interfaith family is just one aspect of our welcoming culture. We also proudly serve a number of Jews of color. This, together with programs we run to raise consciousness about Jewish diversity, reinforces that you can’t tell who is Jewish or how strong their Jewish background is by what they look like or what kind of name they have.

Now, not everyone at SLC is Jewish, even by liberal standards. Among campers, we don’t discriminate against participants and staff members from different faith backgrounds, especially if they come with a skill or certification we need.

So what about interfaith dating? Once again, no big deal. If our philosophy is that a child is Jewish even if only one grandparent is Jewish, then why do we need to be so afraid of interfaith dating? At SLC, we would much rather spend our energy building a joyful, compelling connection between our campers and their Jewish identities than fussing about whom they date and whom they marry. Our belief is that if they love being Jewish, they will convey this to their children. We turn them on to Judaism by giving them positive experiences, and we don’t risk turning them off by passing judgment on the person they decide to love. It is our belief that trying to regulate youthful romance usually doesn’t work anyway. Young people resent it if we try to tell them to reject people they like, especially in today’s secular culture where romance across religious lines is widely accepted. Why create bad feelings that will be associated with the Jewish experience we provide?

At Surprise Lake Camp, we take an approach to Jewish identity formation that focuses on joy and acceptance, not fear and bias. We believe if we make young people feel good about being Jewish, it increases the likelihood that they will stay Jewish. We build Jewish souls one smile at a time.


About Jordan Dale

Jordan Dale was a camper, counselor, and supervisor at Surprise Lake Camp and has been the executive director for 20 summers. He is a lawyer, having passed the bar in Illinois and New York. He has served on the boards of numerous camping organizations and currently sits on New York's Governor's Advisory Council on Children's Camp Safety. He is a Mandel-Avi Chai Senior Fellow.