By Michael Duke, associate editor at Jewish Herald-Voice
Hanging out with kids for a couple of weeks this summer boosted my confidence in the future of the print journalism industry, demonstrated the phenomenal impact that Jewish summer camping can have on the next generation and revealed that young American Jews, today, indeed, have a strong connection to Israel.
For the second year in a row, I’ve been invited to the URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas, to lead a journalism activity. It might not be as blood-pumping as the sports offerings at camp, but it’s an adrenaline rush, all the same, trying to make press deadline.
Over the course of five days, a dedicated group of campers – fourth- through eighth-graders who sign up for the journalism activity – brainstorm original story ideas, devise a story budget, develop interview and research questions, conduct interviews and investigations, snap photos, write and type copy and give input on graphics and page layout.
The camper-journalists are rewarded for their hard week’s work with an end-of-activity party (with snacks that they otherwise can’t get at camp) and, more importantly, with a pretty darn good little newspaper – the Greene Cricket-Press – that the young writers take a lot of pride in and that all of camp seems to enjoy.
The experience, for me, has brought a few things to light.
One: These kids are far more excited by the prospect of producing a physical, hold-in-your-hand final product than they are about uploading a file to cyberspace.
This isn’t to say that these digital-natives don’t prefer to spend their time online or plugged in to some mobile device. The fact that they get to type their stories on iPads has proven to be both a draw and a coup for the journalism activity. But, there is something powerful – literally palpable – about putting a physical final product in the hands of 500 people all at the same time. It’s quite the scene with the entirety of camp buried in copies of the latest edition of the camp newspaper, fresh off the press, in the dining hall.
It’s something real, something to keep. It’s something that fosters a sense of community. It’s their newspaper and it can’t be scrolled through and forgotten by the next click of the mouse or finger swipe.
This bodes well for professional print journalism. Young people still are willing to write – and read – the printed-on-paper word. It suggests there’s still hope yet.
Two: Jewish summer camp is punching above its weight to ensure the future of Jewish peoplehood.
For some kids at a camp, this is their only Jewish connection. For others, it’s one of several. For most, it’s a significant Jewish experience. Perhaps, one of the most significant of their lives.
Talking to kids at camp, they say it’s because they get to be around other Jews 24/7. They get to eat with Jews, share bunks with Jews, have fun with Jews. They get to sing Jewish songs, with other Jews. They share Jewish stories, they talk Jewish ideas. They say that at a camp like GFC, they get to explore Judaism and Jewish identity at their own pace and on their own level.
My observation is that being around their Jewish peers is a big part of it. But, the other major piece is the opportunity that these kids have at camp (including camps like Camp Young Judaea) to bond and relationship-build with their Jewish counselors, camp faculty and staff. These are hands-on professionals who have the talent to meet kids where they (the kids) are in their young lives. Folks who know how listen, how to earn and keep trust. They’re cool and they know what’s cool to the kids. And, thus, are well positioned to model Jewish values and instill Jewish pride in these impressionable kids. And, many of them do – quite successfully. I saw it every day.
Not surprisingly, these are counselors and staff who were former campers, themselves, or who boast long-standing connections to camp.
Camp never will be Jewish day school. And, that’s a good thing; otherwise, it wouldn’t be camp. Day schools receive a lot of credit and community investment – deservedly so – for their role in ensuring our Jewish future. Camps deserve a lot of credit, as well, and merit community investment to match.
Three and lastly: Kids care about Israel.
Maybe not for the same reasons that their parents or grandparents do. After all, they’ve never lived in a world without a Jewish state. But, what I’ve observed is that Israel is part of their Jewish identities, of their Jewish interests and of their Jewish consciousness.
And, camp has a lot to do with this.
While Greene has earned a lot of recent press for its new eco-village and sustainability-focused programming, what hasn’t received a lot of attention is its Mishlachat program, which brought some 40 Israelis to GFC this summer to work as counselors and activity specialists.
Just like their American colleagues, the camp’s Israeli staff members make impressions on the kids. Only these Israeli counselors have the additional opportunity and power to directly connect kids to the Jewish homeland. Not only by being Israelis, themselves, but by leading Israel-themed programming, by showcasing Israeli culture and by highlighting Israel’s contributions to these kids’ worlds.
In doing so, they make Israel relevant – hyper-relevant in the “bubble” that is overnight summer camp. And, nothing is more relevant at camp than the relationships and the friendships that are made and kept over a lifetime.