I begin: I went to a Jewish camp. Loved it. We have six children. All went to Jewish camps. All but one loved them. Jewish camps are a good thing.
But not what theyre hyped up to be.
Just the opposite.
Camp, the current hyperbole goes, gives Jewish kids a total Jewish environment.
No gentile interferences.
To pray is natural because all the other Jewish kids are praying, too.
Not to mention, all the kids are Jewish.
To be Jewish has no dissonance.
Its natural, and, to boot, fun to be Jewish at camp.
Not to mention, the whole experience is in the outdoors.
Because of all this, Jewish identity is transformed at camp.
Get that word: transformed.
The argument today is not that Jewish camp is good for Jewish identity, but positively revolutionary.
Worth investing hundreds of millions of dollars in.
To solidify Jewish identity, Jewish camp is the best investment.
Thats the argument today.
I think all this is exactly backwards.
Heres an issue that gets to my point:
When you plan a Shabbaton, wheres the best place to hold it? In the beautiful setting of the Colorado mountains, or within the comparatively drab walls of the synagogue?
The instinctive answer is: the mountains.
Ive asked this question countless times because Ive organized many such events.
Everyone Ive asked initially says: It may be more expensive in the mountains, more complicated to plan, but of course its better there.
If a persons going to spend a total Shabbos, what could be more influential on his or her religious commitment than a Shabbos in Vail, or Aspen, or Copper Mountain?
The question is rhetorical.
The answer is taken to be a given: in the mountains.
A no brainer.
Wrong, I say.
For this reason: What is Shabbos, an oddity or a regularity?
Heres the message sent to non-Sabbath observant Jews via a beautiful Shabbos in the mountains:
Shabbos is not for my real life.
Shabbos is an exception.
Shabbos is for the mountains where I am a couple of times a year.
Shabbos is an oddity.
Nice. Beautiful. Lovely in the outdoors . . . but has nothing to do with my regular life, week in and week out.
A Shabbos in the shul, on the other hand, communicates this: Shabbos is for the city.
Where I live, week in and week out.
Shabbos is for real life schedules.
Shabbos happens for Sabbath-observant people in the normal context of their busy lives.
Shabbos is not an exception.
Its is beautiful even when the setting in not beautiful.
Shabbos is holy even if cars, cacophony and pollution greet me as I exit from shul.
Shabbos is definitive even if the KGB watches my every move, and I have no choice but to observe Shabbos in fear and hiding.
Shabbos provides the fundamental rhythm of my life in its totality, in good times and in bad, in comfortable settings and terrible ones, in breathtaking settings and mundane ones, in riches and in poverty.
Shabbos is Shabbos.
Week in and week out.
Thats the message sent by a Shabbos, with meals and a guest speaker, when it is held in the place where Shabbos is always held.
If the goal is merely to have a lovely weekend, then by all means go to the mountains.
But if the goal is to communicate that Shabbos is an integral, indispensable part of a persons normal life, then host that special Shabbos in the place where the intended attendees normally live.
Shabbos is not an oddity.
Nor is Jewish identity.
If the message that Jewish identity is for all time, in all circumstances, then it is best built precisely in the place where there are gentile interferences, competitive events and values.
It is best built where most of the Jewish kids are not praying and not doing Jewish.
The message of a Jewish camp is: Its great to be Jewish . . . while Im in camp.
Yeah, all that Jewish stuff is neat . . . for the summer.
Sure, I liked being around Jewish kids . . . for a few weeks.
As I said by way of introduction, I love Jewish camps.
But I love them for what they are, not for what they are not.
They are wonderful getaways, great fun and, yes, an opportunity to intensify a Jewish childs comfort level with other Jewish kids, with prayer, and with Jewish values.
But create? Revolutionize? No, not for most kids.
If a Jewish kid cannot be taught how to live as a Jew in his own neighborhood, with all the distractions that entails, then the Jewish boost from camp will not stick.
At least, not in a transformative, revolutionary way.
Not for most Jewish kids, anyway.
There is no getting away from the hard work.
Jewish identity that lasts is built each small piece at a time, day in and day out, mitzvah by mitzvah, over time, steadily, without interruptions.
Bottom line: Jewish camps are good. But the real investment, the heavy lifting, needs to be not in the few-week framework of the summer, but in the every-day framework of intensive Jewish home life and intensive Jewish education.
I value Jewish camps, but a substitute for day schools theyre not.
If resources are limited, it is not good Jewish public policy to divert heavy investment from Jewish day schools to Jewish camps.