Mah Tovu: How Good Are Our Camps
by Rabbi Ilana G. Baden
This week we learn of how the lyrics of Mah Tovu came about. Enemy king Balak commissioned Bilam (non-Israelite prophet) to set out and look upon the Israelite encampment and pronounce a curse over it. In the end, he ended up not cursing Israel, but blessing it with these words: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael. How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel.
In the context of our Torah portion, we see that these words are to be taken quite literally–for Bilam was looking straight at the tents and dwelling places that our ancestors had established during their wandering toward the Promised Land. Makes sense. But how are we to take these words in the context of our modern liturgy? The ancient rabbis worried about this – after all, when the liturgy was developed, the Israelites had outgrown their temporary tents and dwelling places of the desert. Therefore, the sages deemed that when we hear ohalecha (tents) and mishk’notecha (dwelling places), we are to associate the words with the places of worship and places of study–institutions that are more contemporary.
Well, as I reflect on these interpretations of our Torah verse at this season in particular, I realize that we no longer have to choose between the two readings. For today, we have in our culture something that embodies both tents and dwelling places, as well as places of worship and places of study–and that is: Jewish overnight camp. How many of you went to camp?
My first experience with Jewish overnight camp came when I was entering junior high school. After years of attending day camp, I was quite surprised to learn that my parents had signed me up for a summer in Wisconsin. When I asked them why I could not just stay home again that summer, my mother simply replied, “All year long you go to school and spend time with your very nice non-Jewish friends. We’re happy for this. However, during the summer, you need to live Jewish.” And with that, we started the ritualistic shopping spree for camp supplies. Even though that first summer was a bit tough, I found myself drawn to the camp experience and went back summer after summer after summer–all the way up to rabbinical school. I loved being a camper, counselor, and unit head–and I even had fun during my avodah year (which is the Hebrew word for “service”), the year when we high school seniors spent our morning studying Torah and our afternoons plunging toilets.
And now I am a rabbi, and as such, I had the honor of playing a variation of Bilam–I was commissioned to set out and look upon the Israelite encampment: URJ GUCI – and let me tell you: Mah tovu! How good it is!
We all know intrinsically that Jewish camping is good for so many reasons. For one thing, it does, as my mother said, teach kids how to be Jewish. Especially if you go to a URJ camp–one of the camps associated with our movement, like GUCI is. Here the kids literally eat, breathe, and sleep Judaism. Whether it is by starting every day with Jewish prayers and songs at “roll call,” beginning and concluding each and every meal with the traditional Hebrew blessings, studying Jewish values, such as partnering with God, during the informal educational programs, enjoying a service led by various camper groups before evening programs, or singing the Sh’ma with their counselors before going to bed–Judaism is part of the very fabric of the summer experience.
Another reason that camp is good is that it provides our kids with life-long friendships. Ask any kid–camp friends are different than school friends. Perhaps this is because in addition to the strong Jewish identity it builds, camp also helps kids get in touch with who they really are. Earlier this summer, I had a conversation with one girl in which she told me her theory on why camp friendships seem so much more real than they do at home. She explained: “At home, you’re constantly thinking about what you should wear and say, and how you should act in order to fit in. It’s kind of like you’re putting on a show. At camp, you’re with these people 24/7 – and it is just too exhausting to put that much effort into how you carry yourself all day and night. So you kind of have to give up and just be who you are. When everyone around you does that, too, then you really get to know each other in a much more real way.”
And one other reason that I love camp for our kids is that it helps them become independent in a relatively sheltered environment. With the counsel of their young adult counselors (and with some supervision from the adult faculty), kids learn to navigate their way over a series of weeks in a safe, loving, and nurturing environment.
Yes – camp is good for kids. But more than this, camp is good for the Jews, too.
Recently, I came across a study (Foundation for Jewish Camp’s “Camp Works”) that touted the benefits of camp to our community. It stated that Jewish camp leads to vibrant Jewish professionals and lay leaders. One out of every three rabbis, cantors, and educators, and seven out of every 10 young Jewish leaders in their 20’s and 30’s, grew up at camp. Jewish camp also leads to active Jewish life. Adults who attended Jewish camp when they were younger were 37% more likely to celebrate Shabbat, 55% more likely to feel an emotional connection to Israel, and my favorite – 45% more likely to attend their synagogue or temple on a monthly basis. Hooray, camp!
In addition, camp impacts directly on our congregational life. Many of the innovations of our modern service hearken from camping experiences. For example, the insertion of the mothers in the Avot and Imahot was largely due to a generation of kids who went to Jewish camp and were exposed to this inclusive liturgy and then brought it back home, insisting that their rabbis catch up with the times.
Furthermore, a great deal of our modern music is music that has been produced at camp or spread by camp. One of the highlights of my time at GUCI was getting to know singer/songwriter Dan Nichols better. He has written many songs that our congregation enjoys, and I am so excited that—thanks to the generosity of our Brotherhood and Sisterhood—he will be joining us in November for a very special musical Shabbat.
And one more way that camp has a direct effect on our Temple: our kids who go for the summer eventually come home, and their enthusiasm and energy and passion for Judaism is contagious. Now, even though I played Bilam, I am no prophet – but if I were a betting woman, I would bet anything that in the next few weeks, you will start seeing a few young people at services who had the pleasure of being at camp this summer. When you do see them, I invite and encourage you to ask them how their summer was and, if you really want a treat, ask them to share something special that they learned or experienced while at camp. For in hearing their story, I can guarantee you that you will have the same reaction that I have had:
Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael. How good are our camps, O Israel! And how blessed we are as a community to be able to benefit from them.
Rabbi Ilana G. Baden is the associate rabbi at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, OH. She gave this sermon on July 6, 2012, and the post originally appeared on The Campfire, the blog of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.