My 12-year-old son didn’t have a bris or a baby naming. He doesn’t attend Hebrew School and isn’t planning on having a bar mitzvah (my husband and I gave him the choice). We don’t keep kosher and only sporadically light the Shabbat candles. But this week, as we’ve done for the past six summers, we drove an hour north of our Los Angeles home to drop him off at a Jewish overnight camp.
There, Augie will be steeped in Jewish tradition: folkdancing and singing, Shabbat and havdalah rituals, kosher cuisine and Israeli history. “Mom?” Augie says as we say goodbye in the doorway to his bunk, his duffel bag hitched against his shoulder. “No offense. But the three weeks I spend at camp are my favorite part of the year.”
We live in Hollywood, on the border of the heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Hancock Park. It’s the kind of neighborhood where, until recently, a Honeybaked Ham store occupied a space in the same mini-mall as a glatt kosher bakery. Jews walking to shul on the Sabbath pass trendy Thai and Mexican and Japanese restaurants, day spas and midcentury modern furniture stores, pot shops and wine bars, along the way. I’m energized and inspired by this contrast, and by the vibrant diversity of Los Angeles in general. I myself didn’t grow up going to Jewish camp. So why has it become so important?
I’m an agnostic, mostly culturally identified Jew, the child of a Holocaust survivor, and my own relationship with religion and the concept of God is often uneasy, constantly shifting, and difficult to articulate. As much as I feel a sense of place in my city, it also feels necessary to send my son off to a community where there is no question that he belongs. No matter my own ambivalence, it feels like a gift I can give him. He loves the autonomy and freedom camp provides. I love that he can go on temporary leave from our cacophonous melting pot of a city and, in a wooden cabin nestled among pepper trees, get a better understanding of what it means to be a Jew.
A 2011 study culled data from a variety of polls and found that a Jewish overnight camp experience is a significant determinant in the development of adult Jewish identity. According to the study camp attendees grow up to be 55% more likely to feel an emotional attachment with Israel. They’re 21% more likely to feel that their Jewish identity is very important to them, 45% more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month, and 25% more likely to donate to a Jewish charity. These numbers make my mother (and my son’s Jewish grandmother) very happy. But they don’t get at the heart of why camp sits securely in my comfort zone, while so many other Jewish rituals do not.
I’m uncomfortable in temple, and my memory of prayers and bible stories is spotty, to say the least. I like to joke that my husband and I contract out our children’s Jewish education to a third party for three weeks every year. And yet suddenly, when I find myself trying to unpack my fierce attachment to camp, I think of the story of Baal Shem Tov.
The parable tells of the search for Jewish wisdom down through the generations. Initially, the Baal Shem Tov’s ritual involved going to a special location in the forest, where he would light a fire and say a certain prayer. In the next generation, a student went to the same place in the forest and lit a fire, but couldn’t remember the prayer. The parable continues, like a Jewish version of the game “telephone,” until all that is remembered is that there once was a sacred place in the forest, a fire, and a prayer. Is that sufficient, the last rabbi asks of God? The answer is, it must be.
When I pick Augie up in three weeks, the first thing I’m planning to do–after I make him head directly to the laundry room to deposit his grimy duffel bag, socks and shoes–is ask him to teach me an Israeli dance or two. We’ll dance barefoot, on the living room floor, me singing and embarrassing the heck out of him. Is that “sufficient”? For our family–Jews who enjoy bacon as much as bagels, confine our temple visits to weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and funerals, and quote Bill Maher more often than the Baal Shem Tov–it must be.