Rabbi Rick Jacobs

4 Surprising Ways Camp Connects Us All

Sports, games, art and science projects. Swimming, hiking, climbing. Laughing, learning, sharing. It’s these activities, and more, that transform summer camp into one of the strongest links in the Reform Movement’s chain of connections. In fact, summertime for the URJ is like one huge game of connect-the-dots. Connecting current campers with alumni. Connecting clergy with worshippers. Connecting songleaders with singers. Connecting students with teachers. Connecting our Jewish past to our Jewish present and future.

In the last few weeks, I’ve spent time at several of our overnight camps – URJ Kutz Camp, URJ Greene Family Camp, and URJ 6 Points Sports Academy – and I’m headed to GUCI this weekend and to URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy in early August. Being at camp is a joy. It’s a reminder of what was most special to me as a camper – feeling for the first time a brand new excitement about Shabbat, the Birkat HaMazon, and standing up for social justice.

Kabbalat Shabbat in the woods is enchanting. We wear white, yet the energetic dancing, enthusiastic singing, and feeling of being carried away brings Shabbat into vivid Technicolor. It’s a wholly different experience than Shabbat back home. Indeed, the flames of camp’s Shabbat candles ignited a spark in me. And when I visit camp now, I see thousands of young Jewish people in whom sparks are being kindled. Camp is a precious doorway into a lifelong love of Reform Judaism.

As a place of nexus, camp is uniquely rich. The ways camp connects to our children are obvious – by inspiring the next generations of our Movement, and our future leaders. Although some of the ways our camps connect others may be less apparent, they are no less powerful – even for Reform Jews who never spend one minute in a bunk.

Camp Connects to Congregations

Camp activities and staff reach beyond the boundaries of camp, delivering the joys of Jewish life year-round. Rabbis, cantors, educators, youth professionals, and local congregational leaders active in youth programming at camp also share ideas for teaching and guiding their entire congregations. NFTY leaders meet to discuss ways to bring ideas back to their youth groups. Teen Collective initiatives bring tikkun olam and teen leadership to the forefront at a crucial time for participants, stressing that healing the world is both a Jewish imperative and a lifelong pursuit. The URJ’s Service Corps Fellowships place veteran camp staff in congregations year-round to lead innovative camp-inspired programs that engage every congregational cohort.

Camp Connects to Israel

Israel engagement is symbiotic at camp. We introduce our youth to sabras who provide a personal connection to the Jewish state. Simultaneously, we implant in those Israelis an incredible love of Reform Judaism that they excitedly bring back home. We are enriching our Movement’s commitment to, understanding of, and love for Israel just as surely as our camps’ nature counselors are tending to the bounty of their community gardens. Also, many of our camps lead straight to a summer experience in Israel for teens and their camp friends, which for most is a first, and transformative trip.

Camp Connects to Families

The magic of summer camp is invoked often. There is magic, too, when parents and children are reunited after a summer, having had time apart to recharge and to grow by pursuing their own passions. Kids return home steeped in Reform Judaism as part of daily life, sure of their place in the world, which helps tether each families’ bonds. Lifelong friendships are formed between campers’ families that weave Reform Jews together, strengthening our communities, and enriching our entire Movement.

Camp Connects to “What’s Next” in Jewish Life

So much of what prompts change within the spiritual life of our Movement starts at camp. The biggest influence to Reform Jewish music, in the name of Debbie Friedman, z’l, was nurtured at our camps. Anyone who is moved by our songs has been touched by camp.

The URJ invests in immersive experiences – overnight camp as well as Israel programs, trips to Washington, DC for advocacy training, and volunteer travel opportunities – not only because they work. These experiences connect individuals to each other, to the congregational community, and to their personal Jewish identity.

Even if you have no obvious connection to our camps, perhaps in thinking about these ideas, you can seek out ways to connect yourself to camp. And please comment below to let me know about the connections you make.

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs

About Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the URJ. See his full bio and other writings on the URJ website.

2 Responses to “4 Surprising Ways Camp Connects Us All”

  1. avatar

    HI, Rick,
    As always, I thoroughly enjoyed your portrayal of the many ways in which a Reform Jewish summer camp experience can establish and reinforce so many values and extend in so many directions over the course of our lives. Having spent several summers at Kutz Camp (including Torah corps) in the 60’s, several more at GUCI in and Harlam in the 70’s and again in the 2000s! and a dozen years at Camp Swig in the 70s and 80s, I’ve been a vert big fan of the programs.

    Whenever I put on my Camp Harlam Staff (collared) T-shirt, I feel about 30 years younger!

    The only thing I might suggest to you in your various blogs–please don’t refer to rabbis and cantors as ‘clergy’-
    of course we’re clergy, but the positive valence of ‘rabbi’ and ‘cantor’ is about 10 times that of the word ‘clergy’.



  2. avatar

    Dear Rick,
    Thank you for articulating so beautifully the impact and meaning of our camps as Living Judaism connecting us and the generations to come with the vital elements of our survival! I am the product of camp Swig and without Debbie Friedman and her influence I would not have persued my dreams. I was a Songleader at Jacobs and Greene family camps, and a NFTY kid, my kids were NFTY kids and went to two URJ camps where I also served on staff when they were campers. Yet no one from any of those camps or NFTY seems to stay connected with me now. My kids are grown and moved on with their lives. I am part of A metro community which recently held a concert of NFTY alumni and I wasn’t even invited! I know how important the camping movement is to our young people and I continue to encourage and send many kids to camp from my congregation. One of my students is a star at Kutz! No one from any of those camps ever reaches out to me in any way to invite me to visit or be a guest for Shabbat! I think that’s a missed opportunity for so many Jewish professionals around the country, but especially for me, an alumna of the camping system and former NFTY Songleader. I owe so much to the URJ camps. And I still have much to offer in return. It would be lovely to be included in some of the current programming even though I’m not in the current “in” crowd. I’m still a camper at heart! Many blessings!

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