I grew up a secular Jew in Los Angeles, and around the time I became a Bar Mitzvah I started working in secular summer programs and camps. Because my experience with Judaism was limited to Sunday Hebrew School, I never considered that Judaism could be fun or that a summer program could successfully integrate Judaism into its core curriculum while also fulfilling the goals of a camp-style education. There are many reasons a parent might send their child to a summer program, but from my eight years of working in camps, here are three that I have inferred:
- They want their kids to have fun.
- They want their kids to be active, and to be tired by the time they come home.
- They want their kids to have an enriching educational experience.
During the last week of June I had the opportunity to work at the Center for Small Town Jewish Life’s Funtensive, a summer program catered to Maine Jewish youth that teaches not only Hebrew but also important ideals and practices that make up our Jewish identity. During the weeklong program, I was impressed and surprised by how effectively the 2018 Funtensive gave kids an experience that was fun, active, and enriching.
One of the ways camp leaders Mel Weiss and Rabbi Erica Asch made the program fun for the kids while maintaining the emphasis on Judaism was by tying the content together with an overarching narrative. The theme for 2018 was Jewish life-cycle events. Every day we discussed a different life-cycle event—from birth to death. On Monday, when the kids showed up, we got into a circle and after some brief introductions dove right into what it means to be born into a Jewish family. Mel, or “Morah Mel” as the kids call her, taught about how Jewish babies are named, and the kids participated in a mock naming ceremony for a family of stuffed animals. While I thought that most kids would not be interested in Jewish birth, all 18 kids that morning leaned in with bright eyes, listening, asking questions, and hotly debating the names of the stuffed, Jewish family. They squealed with delight when we settled on the names Leia, Bella, and Sloth. From the opening circle of Funtensive on Monday, Morah Mel, Rabbi Asch, and the other staff framed Judaism in a way that made it accessible, relevant, and thrilling for the kids.
From my experience growing up in a Jewish household, we are a sitting people. In my family, any activity takes a lot of deliberating and complaining before we ultimately decide to bag it and just order in. This inertia did not carry over to my experience at the 2018 Funtensive. Not only was there so much activity that I was exhausted, but the program was active enough to tire the kids out as well— a much greater feat than tiring me out! Besides the Jewish education that was a part of the opening circle, the staff also led Hebrew games several times throughout the day. These games were a lot like the classic summer-camp field games, just in Hebrew. So instead of “Red Light, Green Light” we played “Or Adom, Or Yarok.” Not only were these games fun and active, but they also engaged the children’s’ minds by encouraging them to speak and listen in Hebrew.
As a child, I had a difficult time connecting with my Jewish identity. It was not until I came to Colby and started studying with Rabbi Rachel Isaacs that I became interested in Judaism. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see how readily the kids engaged with Judaism in a myriad of ways. The most potent experience I saw many kids have at Funtensive came on the day we talked about death. I was a little concerned with how the kids would handle a two- hour long discussion and activity about such a somber topic, but they all listened with grace and acted with intention during these conversations. While some kids had more personal experiences with death, most all of the children had someone in their lives that had died. The activity of sharing memories of the important people they had all lost, as well as discussing the intentions behind Jewish funeral and memorial practices, showed the kids that together they had a community of people who were like them, who had similar customs and experiences.
Part of the Center’s mission is to strengthen small-town Jewish communities, and the kids at Funtensive demonstrated this in a more concrete way than I have seen otherwise in my experience with Judaism at Colby or the rest of my work for the Center. The kids were not only enriched through the Jewish education they gained that week, but also through the Jewish community they helped construct over the course of the program.
Judaism is not always easy or fun. However, it can be extremely rewarding if you take the time to actively engage with it. The kids at Funtensive got an education about their heritage and religion that I took for granted as a child. I never thought my Jewish experience was fun, active, or enriching, but Morah Mel, Rabbi Asch, and the Funtensive staff created a program that is all three, and ultimately helps to strengthen small-town Jewish communities of Maine by engaging the youth. I am grateful to have been a part of this learning experience, even though I had to wait until college to participate in a fun, engaging Jewish children’s camp.