Jewish summer camps help teens strengthen connection to their faith

Summer campers at the JCC’s Camp Sabra hold services with the Lake of the Ozarks in the background. Photo courtesy JCC

By Abby Miller Sophomore, Ladue High School

Instead of hanging around bored next summer, adolescents and teens can be creating friendships and Jewish connections that can last a lifetime.

After seven weeks at my Jewish summer camp, OSRUI in Wisconsin, I returned to St. Louis knowing I had changed forever. Not only had I created friends for life, but I immersed myself in Hebrew, Israeli culture and Torah. I came back with a strong desire to visit Israel and strengthen my new bond with Judaism.

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Jewish summer camps across the continent do their best to achieve one goal: creating and strengthening a youngster’s connection to Judaism and Israel. Although it may seem too early to plan for summer 2013, registration for many summer camps has already begun, so the decision about your summer is far closer than it appears.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s mission is to improve North American Jewish communities through increasing the number of children going to Jewish camps. 

“Summer overnight camp is about so much more than campfires and color war. At camp, kids get the chance to explore who they are—and who they want to become—in an active, inspiring, fun-filled environment,” according to the foundation’s website. “Jewish camp is more than just camp with Jewish kids. At Jewish camp, ruach (spirit) is part of every activity—from dancing to hitting a home run—allowing campers to explore their connection to Judaism in a meaningful way while having the summer of their lives.”

Through songs and fun activities, camps offer children and teens a fresh way to explore their religion. Edan Goldfarb, a 10th grader at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, believes that his Jewish summer camp has reinforced his connection to his religion. For three summers, Edan attended Camp Sabra in mid-Missouri. For the past three summers, he has attended Bnai Brith Beber camp in Wisconsin.

“Through camp, I could see my religion in a whole new light,” Edan said. “Now, instead of seeing it just as a time where I have to go to temple or fulfill another requirement, I remember all my great times at camp and know that some of my best friends around the world are doing the same things as me.”

Emma Barg, who has attended Sabra for seven summers, has also felt the impact of her experiences.  Every year her summer experience makes her excited for the next.

“At camp, I felt closer to my religion,” Emma said. “Everyday has an aspect that made me feel proud to be Jewish and made me proud that I got to spend my summer surrounded by friends of the same religion.”

The same is true of many Jewish teens who attend camp. According to the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s annual report, children and teens who went to Jewish sleep away camps are 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue than those who do not, and 30 percent more likely to donate to a Jewish organization as an adult.

Jewish camps also offer fun activities that link to Judaism and Israel. At Sabra, Emma took part in many Jewish and secular programs, incorporating both into her daily schedule.

“At camp we sing the birkat hamazon at every meal, “Emma recalled. “Once a session, your unit leads Shabbat services on Friday night or Shabbat morning. Also, we could take part in chugs [activities] such as Israeli dancing.”

In addition to these programs, many camps employ Israeli counselors whio introduce campers to Israel and foster their understanding of the country. The Foundation of Jewish Camps reports that those who attended Jewish summer camps are 55 percent more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel after camp than those who did not attend.

“Having Israeli counselors makes it a lot easier for me to keep speaking Hebrew,” Edan said. “We can relate to them on the matters of Judaism and Israel.”

When she returned home, Emma felt a stronger connection to Judaism than before she left for camp.

“Because we get home on a Friday, I always feel the desire to welcome in Shabbat with my family even though I miss celebrating Shabbat with my super close family of 400,” Emma said.

After his sixth year at camp, Edan felt similarly. Not only has he created lifelong friendships, but he also spent his summers surrounding himself with Judaism in a way that was both fun and life-altering.

“There is no question about whether to send your kids to a Jewish summer camp or not,” Edan said. “It is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life and it has brought me closer to my Jewish heritage and allowed me to meet other Jews outside my community while still having the time of my life.”

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis also offers scholarships of up to $1,000 for first time campers through the One Happy Camper program, in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp. For more information, visit www.jewishinstlouis.org/OHC