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Jewish Camps Are Better than Hebrew School

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I just came home from an incredible “girls’ weekend” with the friends I made long ago at NFTY, The Reform Jewish Youth Movement—and I am overwhelmed with feelings of happiness and belonging and love.

I’m a 46-year-old single mom from NY currently living in the town of Sharon, MA–an amazing community that has a large Jewish population, an abundance of synagogues to choose from for Hebrew School and worship, and a stellar public-school system.

I moved up to the area to obtain my Master’s Degree in Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University, and wound up staying here for professional reasons. I subsequently got married, had a child and then divorced, all while working for the Jewish community. I stayed here rather than moving back to NY so I wouldn’t disrupt my daughter’s life, and in the process, have come to a major conclusion–the thing that has formed me, defined me, and what I miss most, are the informal Jewish educational experiences and the friends from those places that make me feel whole.

As hard as I try to make new friends and become involved in other activities, it’s just not the same.

Growing up, I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t hate Hebrew School, and there were even times I looked forward to attending each week. I attribute my positive experience in great part to our Hebrew School Principal, a man named Jack Perel.

Mr. Perel, as we called, him was a Holocaust survivor, numbers clearly tattooed on his arm, and a story that kept me riveted every time he stood and shared his terrifying story in a quiet yet determined voice. But what I was sure of, the message I received from him, was being Jewish and proud wasn’t found between the pages of a textbook, or dare I say prayer book, but found within relationships and experiences.

So, after a few years of Junior Youth Group, I moved onto the big leagues and joined NFTY. And my life began there–its where I found my Jewish identity. I made so many friends who understood who I was, and how I felt. Life became enduring the moments between events until I could be reunited with them.

I met girls who became my best friends and boys who were my first kiss, my first love, my first heartbreak and my platonic friends as well. I even went on a trip to Israel, a journey that enabled me to explore my Jewish identity in a sacred land, and in the process, make more friends for life.

Again, this informal Jewish educational experience taught me more in a month and a half than over 10 years in a formal classroom had done.

After I graduated from high school and attended college, I stayed close with my NFTY friends and my teen tour friends. Even at that age, I realized the friendships that were created in those spaces were special and could not be replicated, as hard as I tried.

When I entered graduate school, I was not surprised to find out many of these friends had decided to enter the field of Jewish Communal Service because of their experiences.

And let me be clear: I never heard a single person say, “Oh, I’m pursuing this field of work because I thought my Hebrew School was the best!” No, without exaggeration, every member of my class decided to pursue this field because of Youth Group, Camp or Israel programs or a mix of all those pieces. It was a huge “aha!” moment for me.

After becoming a mom, I realized that even though I would provide my daughter with a home filled with Jewish tradition, including lighting candles on Shabbat and celebrating all of the holidays, as well as joining a synagogue so she was able to attend Hebrew school, I needed to pass along the chance for her to explore Judaism informally.

She noticed, too, that my friends came from that world, and soon it was her turn. I made sure she attended a Jewish overnight camp…and I literally saw the transformation. She was hooked–her best friends were her camp friends and she became that girl who lived “10 for 2”! Camp Micah became her home away from home, and then she joined NFTY…and this mom was kvelling as she saw her daughter start to make her own set of friends for life. She taught herself to play the guitar and learned all the songs, attended every event, and joined the special world that made me into the Jewish woman I am to this day.

This summer she is traveling with Camp Micah to Poland and then Israel with her 24 best friends. She is on the most important informal Jewish journey of her life and is living for every moment. She has visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, heard one of the last Righteous Gentiles still living speak to them, and currently she is traveling in Israel, seeing and living history. She has already said to me a few times that she feels transformed–her love of Judaism (if possible) has grown, and she wants to share this spiritual transformation with others.

Our children need not to be in a formal classroom–they need to be traveling and going to camp and weekends away with other Jewish kids. By no means can we fool ourselves into thinking that future generations of Jews will be created by compulsory attendance at Hebrew School. I urge every Jewish parent to give their child one or all of these gifts because I am positive that this is the answer that will ensure Judaism will not die.

I’m living proof: as I said, I just spent the weekend with my closest NFTY friends of over 30 years, and we are proof that informal Jewish education creates bonds that not only last forever, but turned us into parents who have made it our mission to pass down this tradtion to our children.

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