This Jewish Summer Camp Survey Question Made Me Feel Seen – Kveller
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This Jewish Summer Camp Survey Question Made Me Feel Seen

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I recently completed an online survey aimed to improve the experience of my son’s overnight camp. I expected to answer a few questions, rating my son’s first Jewish sleepover camp experience a 5 out of 5, and then move on with my day. But when I came to the final set of questions, I was pleasantly surprised that a simple survey could impact how I saw myself as part of the greater Jewish community. One question in particular made me feel seen as a modern, 21st century Jew.

As a kid, I attended Hebrew school three days a week at a Conservative synagogue. I was an active member of United Synagogue Youth (USY) in high school. And in 11th grade, I co-founded a Jewish association at my school aimed to teach students about Jewish holidays through celebration. In college, when a friend met someone I’d gone to high school with, this hometown acquaintance said, “Oh, you mean that really Jewish girl?” I never identified with that description of myself because, despite feeling at home among these various Jewish groups, there was always a piece of me that felt slightly askew during services. I simply wasn’t religious.

Learning the Hebrew language was like acquiring a secret code I’d learned to decipher, but only to a certain degree. I could read words, but I never learned their meaning. This disconnect kept me feeling a distance away from “full” Judaism. I was merely wetting my toes at the edge of the lake instead of swimming toward the crowd a way in. And I couldn’t decide if I wanted to take that leap. To this day, when I sit in services, which admittedly is not very often, I don’t feel connected to Judaism on a religious level. I savor the prayers and melodies as a connection to my heritage and my childhood, but I don’t recite them with purpose.

My loose connection to religion stems from multiple facets. I never felt the need for an almighty being to give thanks to and confide in. I don’t necessarily believe a greater being is responsible for our every success and failure, or capable of changing our path in life. I am filled with questions about the way our world works and the deeper meaning of life, and I’ve decided to keep the possibilities open instead of accepting the beliefs of my people. I’ve always felt as though my lack of religious beliefs diminish my degree of Judaism, and as I completed the camp survey about my son’s Jewish summer experience, this lingered in my mind, a constant reminder of my less than “full” Jewish status.

Despite being non-religious, I love Jewish culture. Gathering to eat gefilte fish while telling the story of Passover is a spring ritual that brings my extended family together each year. Lighting the menorah with my kids on chilly Hanukkah evenings warms my winter heart. Eating apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah resets my inner peace, giving me a sense of a fresh start to the new year. Dancing to “Siman Tov u’Mazel Tov” at Jewish weddings shows me I’m part of a community, even if I’m far from home. Culturally, I’m all in.

As I neared the end of the survey, there was the question I’d been asked countless times but never had a solid answer to: What branch of Judaism does your family identify with?
My husband and I both grew up in Conservative synagogues, although his family is more observant than mine. Neither of us are religious, but we want our children to grow up knowing the religion of our families, understanding where their ancestors came from and what they endured, and to have a love of holidays and family gatherings, just as we do.

Are we Conservative? Not anymore. Are we Reform? We’re likely joining a Reconstructionist synagogue. So no? Must the synagogue we join define our level of Judaism? Can’t we just be Jewish?

But then, there it was, the multiple-choice option I’d never seen before that perfectly described who we were and who I’ve always been. Option D: Just Jewish/ culturally Jewish. It was as if camp looked through the title and saw my Jewish identity in all its glory, along with its morsel of conflict. For the first time in my life, I felt like a full Jew. A whole cultural Jew.

I realized that if this question required option D as an answer, I clearly wasn’t the only one struggling to fit into the black and white branches of Judaism. Jewish culture is rich with tradition and deep with layers of engaging ways to celebrate. There is room for Jews of every shape, size and color. Our degree of religiousness doesn’t define our level of Judaism. Today, because of a camp survey, I finally feel comfortable accepting my culturally Jewish status and, boy, does it feel good.

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