Happy Campers Make Happy Memories

I spent last weekend at the Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire where I grew up as a camper, served as a counselor, Unit Head, Boys’ Head Counselor and Head of the Waterfront. I also met my wife 29 years ago in the camp front office so this is obviously a very special place for me and my family. In actuality though, we didn’t just spend the weekend at camp, we spent Shabbat there.

Shabbat at all overnight Jewish summer camps is unique and special. While each camp has its own levels and types of observances and camp traditions, the commonalities of Shabbat practice at most Jewish overnight camps typically include:

  1. Campers and counselors dressing up, often in white, to differentiate it from the rest of the week
  2. Some type of religious service conducted typically with lots of singing and ruach (spirit)
  3. The raucous singing of the birkat hamazon (grace after meals) following a special and festive Shabbat dinner

My childhood camp started a new tradition years after I left called “ReLiSh” which stands for “Ruach Lifnei Shabbat” (Spirit before Shabbat). The whole camp goes into one of the big buildings and accompanied by a band, everyone puts arms around one another singing Jewish songs in Hebrew and English. It was beautiful and powerful seeing these young people displaying their pride of being Jewish while building a strong camp community. After Shabbat dinner, the camp again went into one of the big buildings and continued singing z’mirot (Shabbat songs).

As I watched this Friday night magic and even more magic on Saturday, I couldn’t help but think about the One Happy Camper program funded locally by the Papernick Family with additional support from the Jewish Federation’s Centennial Fund for a Jewish Future. This program provides an incentive grant of $1,000 (or $700 for a shorter first time experience) to every child, regardless of family income, for a first time camper experience. Sophisticated research conducted by the Foundation for Jewish Camp has shown the impact these grants have in encouraging Jewish families to choose a Jewish overnight camp AND the positive impact that Jewish overnight camping has on infusing a strong Jewish identity into these campers.

This year’s numbers of those who are taking advantage of the One Happy Camper program has grown. After being reminded in a powerful and personal way about how special Jewish camping is, I’d love it to grow even more next year. If you know someone who could/should be considering a Jewish overnight camping experience next year for their children, let them know to visit Jewishpgh.org/one-happy-camper.

While I could do without the mosquitoes, I so wish I was back at camp again this weekend for Shabbat! I am jealous of all these young people.

Shabbat Shalom.

Jeff Finkelstein

President & CEO

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