Learning Torah in a Tent
Today is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year… which just might be my favorite day of the year. Unofficially, June 21 is the camp season kick-off date, and for many Jewish kids and families, that’s a big deal.
Jewish summer camps enjoy a long history in the United States. Many Jewish camps date back to the turn of the century. The first known Jewish camp was a girls’ camp in New York founded in 1893 by the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society. During the 1920s and ‘30s, and during the World War II era, Jewish camps sprung up all over the country. American Jewish community leaders attempted to create a prototypically American setting in which Jewish youth—mostly from urban areas—could be immersed in, and learn about, Jewish activities, values, and celebrations.
For many Jewish youth, especially those not in Day School or raised in observant homes, summertime is their annual dose of “Jewish time.” For others, summer is a break from all things Jewish—the time away from Hebrew School or Day School. In either scenario, summer seems to mark a shift in one’s Jewish experience.
In thinking about my own summers, I certainly did feel this shift in Jewish experience, but only retrospectively. I spent my childhood summers at Camp Walt Whitman (CWW), a coed overnight camp in Piermont, New Hampshire. Founded in 1948 as a somewhat Jewish-centered cultural camp, it secularized in the early ‘60s. CWW, as I knew it, was an 8-week utopia of hiking in the White Mountains, singing folky anti-war songs around a campfire, canoeing on a placid lake, poetry at our camp meetings (the summer always began with a reading in the woods of Whitman’s I Hear America Singing), and having our Saturday night “Square Dance” which, despite being called “Square Dance,” mostly consisted of Israeli circle dances. Thanks to camp, I learned to dance the Mizerlu at age eight.
In spite of my love for Camp Walt Whitman, I occasionally wished I’d been sent to a Jewish camp. Today, the usual buzz among Jewish institutional leaders is that Jewish Camp and a Jewish Day School are paramount to Jewish self-identity. I went to neither, and growing up in a relatively WASPy town, I didn’t have many Jewish friends. Naturally, Jewish camping could have provided me with Jewish social and educational experiences I didn’t have throughout the school year.
Looking back, however, I don’t think I’d have wanted it any other way. The organic connection between nature and Judaism that I felt during my CWW summers has stuck with me in profound ways. I didn’t learn how to bentsch (say the prayers after meals), but I did learn my Bat Mitzvah Torah portion in a tent on a riverbank. I didn’t learn the Parsha HaShavua (weekly Torah portion) on Saturday morning, but I did learn the meaning of Marge Piercy’s The Art of Blessing the Day. I didn’t learn the Hebrew words for evergreens, flowers, or ladybugs, but I did sing Eitz Chayim Hi on top of Mt. Washington and those evergreens, flowers, and ladybugs were singing with me.
So what I learned as a little camper was this: I am as Jewish in the woods as I am on the bimah. In fact, maybe I’m even more Jewish in the woods… and the woods are everywhere...