Rituals and Imaginary Walls: How Jewish Summer Camps Build Identity

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 5, 2019 / 2 Tamuz 5779

Summary: Rabbi Kosak discusses the power of Jewish summer camp, why they have such an outsized impact on Jewish identity, and teaches about what an eiruv is and how it creates community.

Summer is here, which means that it’s camp season for many thousands of children. Of special note for those of us dedicated to a strong Jewish future is the impact that Jewish summer camps have in forging durable identities and commitments to Jewish living. The last general study of Jewish camps that tracked some of this impact, Camp Counts, came out in 2010. It showed the powerful influence Jewish summer camps have on the next generation of Jews.

Our congregation is fortunate to have robust adult commitments to two of the Jewish summer camps in our area, both Camp Solomon Schechter and BB Camp. Indeed, CNS has good representation among both lay and professional leadership of those two important institutions. While that is clearly good for those camps, it says something noteworthy about our kehilla’s desire to ensure that these camps survive and thrive.

Given how influential Jewish camps are, it’s worth referencing a more recent study, by sociologist, Steven Cohen. He studied the impact that the Ramah camps had on Jewish identity. This 2016 study showed even better outcomes for Ramah alumni than the Camp Counts study showed for Jewish campers overall. While I am neither a statistician nor a sociologist, it appears that this additional bump in impact is a result of the especially intensive Jewish environment that the Ramah network nurtures. For those not familiar, Ramah is the official camp network of the Conservative movement.

There’s a way this seems counter-intuitive. We might think that asking less of people would make them more willing to participate, yet the research seems to indicate that the highly enriched environments of Jewish summer camps are effective precisely because campers have an immersive, meaningful experience of Jewish life. By living intimately with Jewish ritual, campers show a higher emotional connection to other Jewish values and ethics.

It is my conviction that ritual practice is the container for ethical values, although it isn’t exactly clear why this should be the case. I suspect that rituals are the communal glue that keep us connected to our heritage, our religion and our God. This is a profound response to those who ask, “does God really care if I come to Shabbat services, or study Jewish texts, or only eat matzoh on Passover? Doesn’t God care more about my ethical behavior?” I don’t dare speak to “what God thinks.” What is clear, however, is that rituals make US care. That concern spills over into identity, connection and commitment to our Jewish values.

Earlier this year after careful deliberation, I accepted the role of Camp Solomon Schechter’s mara d’atra, precisely because of the way that camps work to build Jewish community and connection. The Aramaic phrase mara d’atra indicates the individual responsible for making halakhic (legal) decisions about Jewish practice and observance for a given community. Among those duties for camp is thinking about prayer culture, Shabbat observance and having ultimate responsibility for the kashrut or kosher quality of the camp’s food service (the camp’s day to day kashrut is overseen by Ilana Lipman).

An additional area that I oversee is the integrity of the camp’s eiruv. An eiruv is the popular term for an ethereal wall or door-shaped structure that surrounds an area and allows one to carry on Shabbat. The correct technical term is actually a shitufei mevo’ot, or a “partnership of streets.” In today’s world, the presence of an eiruv matters most to Jews with a deep commitment to ritual observance. That said, the idea behind an eiruv can impart very important lessons to anyone who is concerned about building thick communities with shared values.

Given that, it’s worth a few moments to learn about an eiruv, why having one is considered a mitzvah, and what we can learn from its presence.

There are three main Biblical verses that form the foundation for the rabbinic understanding that a community needs an eiruv.

In the book of Exodus (16:29), we read, “Let no man go out from his place on the seventh day.” Taken on its surface level, the Bible is literally commanding us to spend all day inside on the Sabbath. This is actually the understanding by which some early sectarian communities operated.

In the book of Exodus (36:6), we also read, “Moses commanded, and a message was propagated in the camp saying, Let no man or woman do any more work for the holy donation, and the people ceased to bring.” This command was connected to building the original sanctuary (the Tent of Meeting), whose labor was prohibited on Shabbat, and from it, the Talmud understood that one may not carry on Shabbat.

In Numbers 15:32+, we encounter a man who gathered sticks on Shabbat, for which God issues an edict of capital punishment.

When our Sages looked at these three verses (and some other Biblical sources, particularly one in Jeremiah), they needed to understand how all those laws could operate together simultaneously. What they came to understand is that within a single “area,” one could travel and carry things, but one could not carry or even travel outside of that area by more than 2000 cubits, or two thirds of a mile.

By careful reading of the Bible, they identified a number of areas, such as private and public domains. They also developed a work-around. By encircling a neighborhood with the form of a wall or a door, they could confer upon an area an identity as a single legal domain. Thus, people could carry food and walk to synagogues and their friends’ homes. That is the role a contemporary eiruv fulfills.

In essence, there are two main lessons we can glean. The first is that every community needs boundaries to exist. Those can take the forms of rules, norms or conventions. They also can have a geographical boundary. Consider that many Portlanders don’t want “to cross the river,” and the ongoing reality of boundaries will become clearer.

The second is that even today, we need some degree of proximity to form meaningful communities of connection. While we may talk of our on-line communities, and may even have online friends, it is the people you work with and live with and socialize with on a regular basis who form your thick community—the people who will be there with you through life’s ups and downs.

The reason that Jewish summer camps imprint Jewish identities on their campers is because either implicitly or explicitly, they form such a bounded community. Within camp, a certain culture dedicated to joyful Jewish living exists. Rich Jewish life. Meaningful Jewish life. Camp is a place permeated with yiddishkeit.

Step outside that boundary, and those values and experiences fade away. So as the mara d’atra of Camp Solomon Schechter, I am responsible for the legal integrity of the camp’s eiruv. But the entire reason to have an eiruv is not merely for the eiruv itself, but for what transpires within it. By building the edges of your community out of a Jewish legal structure, you optimize what will occur within. That’s a secret free for the taking.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What have you learned from boundaries? When have you respected them? When have you transgressed them?
  2. How do you “mark” your home to make it a Jewish space? In what ways does this “marking” change how you think about your home?
  3. Given all of our modern technology, from on-line, to cars and buses, in what ways do you think that we no longer need an eiruv?
  4. In what ways, despite our modern technologies, do we need an eiruv or the equivalent even more?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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