My son has attended Jewish preschool. He has attended Hebrew school. But he’s enrolled in neither at the moment.
Instead, I sent my 8-year-old son to Christian camp.
It was an accident, and maybe the best accident I could have made for his Jewish education.
Now, how does any conscientious mother make this kind of mistake? One, it was a sports camp, and it didn’t occur to me that sports camps could be non-secular, even though it was held at a Christian gospel church. Often in the New York City suburb where we live, secular camps, preschools and extracurriculars rent out space from religious institutions, no big deal. Two, in the camp’s logo, the “t” in its name was a cross, but because a lower-case t is in fact a cross, I didn’t notice. Third, when I spoke to the director inquiring about the camp itself, he never once mentioned Christian education, and of course, I never thought to ask.
Then finally, a couple of days before the start of camp, the head coach sent out an email where he wrote about the coaches’ “devotions.” I thought that was a typo. I thought, “Oh, devoted coaches, awesome!”
Morning of, I read the email again, and again one more time. That’s when I realized it wasn’t a typo. My heart fluttered. I was scared I’d made a terrible mistake that would put my son in an uncomfortable situation.
As he tied his white, high-top basketball sneakers to head out the door, I prepared him that they may talk about God and that there may be praying, all in ways that would be unfamiliar to him. I said, “You can either be quiet and follow along, or be open and say, ‘I am Jewish.’” He hardly reacted to me.
Arriving at the megachurch, my mistake sunk in even deeper. Crosses were everywhere. Bible quotes were taped to the wall at eye level all around the room where I checked him in. There was almost no way the camp would be secular in an environment like this.
After the first day, my son reported that they prayed four times. They talked about the Bible. There was a word of the day, linked to Christian school of thought. The first day’s word was “jealousy.” This was no doubt a very Christian camp.
And he loved it. He reported: Everyone was so nice! The coaches were so nice! The games were so fun! The prizes were so generous! And what’s more, I noticed his basketball skills had improved in just one day.
I believe in tolerance for all religions. I didn’t want to imagine artificial lines of belonging or not belonging, so I put my worries about awkwardness aside and decided to teach my son that this was nothing to be concerned about. I wanted to follow the lead of a Catholic family I know who sends their child to a Jewish preschool at a Conservative temple, partly for the convenience of the location. They don’t apply prejudices to Judaism, and I didn’t want to apply any here. If he was happy there, I was happy for him.
But I never could have predicted what happened next.
My son began asking me questions about religion, showing true curiosity on a topic he’d hardly shown prior interest in. Suddenly he was asking me: “Why are there religions?” “Why do people practice religion?” “Why are there different religions?” “What other language do they use?” he asked, looking for a parallel to Hebrew. We talked about what the translations of the Hebrew prayers mean and how they do sort of sound like Christian prayers. We talked about how Adonai means God, and that we’re praying to God, too, simply a different one. At bedtime one night, I quickly taught him about the Old Testament (or as we Jews call it, the Torah) versus the New Testament. He was eager to have these conversations with me.
On the second day, the word was “obedience.” This gave me the opportunity to say I disagree with that life lesson. I urged him to question authority, even mine, and to be a critical thinker. I explained that Judaism doesn’t look at sin the way Christians do, with there being a clear-cut heaven and hell. On another day, the word was “kindness,” and I had a chance to talk about how being kind is a wonderful life lesson, one I fully agree with and that is supported by many different religions.
By the end of the week, I realized that for him, I had made a wonderful mistake. Sending my son to a Christian camp ignited his curiosity about Judaism. He had more interest in the Jewish religion than he ever had. Now I’m more inspired than ever to get him back into Hebrew school — and next year, he’s probably going back to Christian camp.