Widening the Tent of Jewish Camping in America

Jewish summer camps are often a staple for Jewish children. As someone who went to a Jewish camp for four years, I can tell you that it was an extremely important part of not only growing up, but of finding my Jewish identity. In fact, some of my fondest memories of camp are the beautiful outdoor Havdallah services every week (the service to end the Sabbath). Interestingly, many of my fellow campers came from intermarried families, and some were not Jewish at all. The camp welcomed campers of all backgrounds, and when I think back on my experience, I don’t think “oh, how integrated!” I just think “wow, those were some great summers.”

Welcoming in campers who either may not have been raised Jewish, or only have a distant Jewish relative, can be a struggle for some Jewish camps. How far back in the generational tree do we go? Can we exclude campers who don’t have at least one Jewish relative? The answer is probably no. Judaism is a culture of warmth and family, not of turning people away. So how can we truly extend a hand to children and even grandchildren of intermarried families?

In a recent article for the Jewish Herald-Voice, Teddy Weinberger shares the work of the Jewish Agency, which runs a network of summer camps in the former Soviet Union. These camps, described as a “cultural lifeline to Jewish identity,” are free, and are funded by several Russian Jewish philanthropists, and by several Jewish Federations, such as Atlanta and Boston. The most fascinating part about these camps, though, is who they seek to serve. Many of the campers don’t have Jewish parents, or even Jewish grandparents; they only have at least one Jewish great-grandparent. Some argue that this is providing Jewish camp for non-Jews, but I agree with the article—this is a way of welcoming back in families who were lost to assimilation and political upheaval.

Weinberger then shifts the focus of the article to the United States. Why is this model not being followed here? Surely there are plenty of camp-aged children with at least one Jewish great¬¬-grandparent, so why not reach out to them? Weinberger points out that the majority of Jewish philanthropy for outreach is focused on the intermarried and their children. However, if we broaden the scope and provide funding to reach these other generations (those twice or thrice removed from Judaism), we would reach thousands more people.

Here at JOI, we seek to open the tent to all those who would cast their lot with the Jewish people, whether this be by birth, marriage, or conversion. With many nervous about the “numbers” of Jews world-wide, I think it would be wise to reach out to this relatively unknown segment of the population. Many of the families who fall into the category of having a Jewish great-grandparent may have veered away from Judaism not by choice, but by force, and we should welcome them back in with open arms… starting with some free bug juice and s’mores.


  1. We at the Foundation for Jewish Camp are proud to promote an inclusive agenda for Jewish camp. We continue to create programs that open the doors to Jewish community wide open - through camp. The recruitment of under-engaged families has always been on our agenda and we continue to run programs for Russians, Israelis, and interfaith families to name a few.

    The camps in the Former Soviet Union that Rabbi Olitzky mentions in this post are of great interest to us. In fact, the model of these camps has been brought to North America. B’Yachad, a program of the Marks JCH of Bensonhurst, was the first such camp launched in the United States several years ago and FJC is delighted to have been a part of launching two more: Havurah, in partnership with Camp Tel Yehudah and JAFI; and J-Academy, in partnership with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. These three camps run programs that target campers from Russian-speaking families and endeavor to reconnect campers and their parents to their long Jewish pasts.

    We salute Rabbi Olitzky’s organization, the Jewish Outreach Institute, for their ongoing efforts to create a much more inclusive Jewish community.

    Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO, Foundation for Jewish Camp

    Comment by Jeremy J. Fingerman — November 10, 2011 @ 11:55 am

  2. Good thoughts.

    A common thread among the 20something participants of our Israel program is how much their Jewish camp experiences influenced their feelings of affiliation to the Jewish community. This includes people who come from interfaith families.

    Livnot U’Lehibanot
    Tzfat, Israel

    Comment by LivnotLaurie — November 21, 2011 @ 6:20 am

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