Jewish Summer Camp in the UK: “Anything Is Possible!”
by Deborah Blausten
One Monday last summer I woke up on an IDF base, had lunch with the late Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuya, won the football (soccer) world cup, campaigned for an end to child poverty, saved the world from 10 different comic book heroes, and still made it to bed by 10pm in time for hot chocolate.
I’m not joking. At camp, anything is possible!
Shemesh summer camp (run by RSY-Netzer’s, the youth movement of the British Movement for Reform Judaism) is a counter-cultural masterpiece where a community with the values of Reform Judaism, Reform Zionism and tikkun olam at its heart makes its temporary home in the soggy Welsh countryside for two weeks each summer. Every member of the tzevet (staff) is a volunteer. Our camp directors are in their final year of college and aside from a welfare professional and a medic, nobody on camp is over the age of 23.
Several years ago I was set the task of explaining to a room full of URJ camp staff how we do Jewish summer camp in the UK. “That’s like lunatics running an asylum!” one exclaimed. The only response I had to offer was, “Well, I suppose we’re all crazy, then.” As I watched three buses full of teenagers turn the corner into camp last summer (a camp that after 11 years in the Movement, I found myself in charge of!) and my madrichim running toward them, chanting with a ruach only someone who has sat in a camp dining room can truly appreciate, I wished that member of camp staff could have been standing next to me.
The truth is, camp isn’t smooth; it’s a chaotic juggling act between teenage drama, bad weather, and immense excitement. Our madrichim are often exhausted, and our chanichim, or students, get so caught up in the lai lai lai’s of birkat hamazon that they break the chairs they are standing on more frequently than we’d like to admit. We’ve been known to cover everyone in paint, only to be struck by a complete failure of every shower on site, and several summers ago, our chanichim, fresh from a session on animal welfare, went on hunger strike in protest at our serving meat.
Camp is also the place that chanichim make hamotzi over the pizza they ‘illegally’ order onto site, learn the first guitar chords that they will later use to help lead services, discuss the nature of revelation whilst sitting at picnic tables, and experience the siege of Jerusalem from the inside of a cardboard-walled city; each of these Jewish experiences is crafted for them by teams of their near-peers. RSY-Netzer has often found itself at the leading ideological edge of our movement, embracing both egalitarian liturgy and recognizing same-sex unions several years before our parent body.
At 2012′s URJ Biennial, I attended with interest the sessions about camping. There is no doubt that there is much we in the UK can learn from the Jewish camping movement in the USA and Canada. Having spent a year living and learning with NFTYites and passionate URJ campers on Shnat Netzer, I’m also convinced there is much we can share with our friends across the Atlantic.
Our shemesh madrichim build their Jewish identities through helping others find theirs. I certainly couldn’t be more grateful for my time in RSY-Netzer and for the role models I have the privilege to call my friends. The progression each individual makes through the Movement doesn’t just facilitate their growth; it ensures we remain as true to the progressive tradition in the way we approach immersive Jewish experiences as we are when we approach our religious practice. Our community places enormous trust in its emerging leaders and this trust is a catalyst for the Blossoming, or לבלוב, that makes up one of the pillars of our ideology and ultimately will pave the way to the future of British Reform Judaism.