Frisbee with Dignity

May 1, 2001
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Debbie Sussman

I am struck by Mark Charendoff’s comment that what struck him at an informal Jewish educators’ conference was passion and commitment. I agree; the rest is commentary! What do we want from the teachers that teach our children? Passion and commitment. What is it when an environmentalist takes our children into the woods and suggests they listen to God’s creatures or enjoy an awesome sight from atop a mountain? Passion, commitment, and enthusiasm in action. Do we, as informal Jewish educators, believe that children learn from the experiential — the sound of spirited zemirot Friday night? A resounding yes.

Formal Jewish educators often try to duplicate the camp experience: the song festival, the Shabbat ruach, the wherest thou go I will go feeling inspired by camp leaders that are trusted and admired, and engender emulation.

The head staff at Camp Yavneh are 20 and 30 year-olds, and have been coming to camp for 7 to 25 years. Jewish or secular teachers during the school year, they return each summer to make a difference in their campers’ lives. Jewish camping is about learning to live in a community and getting along with your bunkmates. It is about learning to interact with adults of all ages who listen, take seriously your concerns, and then go play frisbee with you in the rain. What does this have to do with dignity? Everything!

Strategic planning must be done, and as Director, I must create a budget and assign bunks, purchase food and communicate with parents, staff, and boards. All this is accomplished in a very professional way. A thankless part of my job, it only becomes gratifying when the campers and staff want to come back to camp summer after summer to be part of a warm, loving, Jewish, (in our case Shabbat observant) joyful environment — where, excuse the cliché- Judaism comes alive!

There already are professional camping organizations, to which most Jewish camp professionals belong. They publish a periodical, sponsor conferences, and help in many ways. Our camp just finished a five-year strategic plan, raised money for physical plant improvements, participated in a four-month task force envisioning our camp’s future, sponsored teachers’ meetings, new camper meetings, reunions and the like. Do we need to be certified to make these things happen?

Can the Jewish community help the jewel of Jewish life? Yes. Provide support and funding. In the last few years the Foundation for Jewish Camping has emerged to help Jewish camps with small grants, staffing, and overall “we want to help” support. This is still too little. Informal educators and institutions need funds to improve aging facilities, to sponsor creative programs and scholars-in-residence, to support in-service training during the year (perhaps led by “formal and informal Jewish professionals working together”), and to pay staff for the jobs they do. Support for internships to train the younger staff for jobs with more responsibility would ensure the perpetuation of strong and meaningful Jewish camping. Eventually, a “super-fund” should be set up to establish new camps in each region of the country to accommodate the thousands of Jewish kids who are presently unable to attend camp.

To quote Mark: Jewish communal leaders may argue with us and disagree, but they will accept our informed opinion with the respect we have earned. With all due respect, whether we are sitting on a dusty floor or standing on a bench singing our hearts out, respect is earned each summer and the results are felt throughout the year. Just ask the kids.

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Debbie Sussman is the Director of Camp Yavneh, a division of Hebrew College in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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