At Jewish Summer Camp, Every Day Is Independence Day

While it may not signify the Fourth of July as per the American ideal, Jewish summer camp teaches independence better than anything else.

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Tomorrow is July 4. For most Americans that means a day off of work, a backyard barbeque, a baseball game on the television, friends, family, and, of course, fireworks. For most Americans, this is the quintessential expression of Independence Day, but not for me. In my 32 years of existence I can only recall one or two Independence Days reminiscent of this Norman Rockwell-esque painting. In fact, for me and for millions of other American Jews each summer, Independence Day looks drastically different.

In my childhood memories, July 4 begins with an early morning wakeup call from the oldest kids in camp blaring Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner from their porch. It continues with a special shacharit, morning prayers, where various prayers intermingle with patriotic tunes. There’s the singing of the national anthem in the chadar ochel, the dining hall, marking the only time that the English language is sung in public all summer. Finally, the day concludes with an epic fireworks display over the shimmering lake, the perfect ending to an eternal summer’s day.

For me, and for millions of other Jews, recollections of American Independence Day are colored red, white and blue, in the kaleidoscopic memory of Jewish summer camp. You see, when you spend every summer at camp, then camp comes to define your very conception of summer and therefore of July 4.

But the truth is, although this particular version of Independence Day is perhaps not indicative of the American ideal, Jewish camps nonetheless manage to teach the lesson of July 4 better than anything else. That is because Jewish summer camp in its essence is about one thing and one thing only – independence.

I am watching this lesson unfold before my eyes as I write this. Gazing out my window I see an endless stream of campers flow by, each one representing a story of unfolding independence. There is a girl who attended camp this year for her first time. When the bus pulled away from her hometown her tears flowed freely, but tonight, hundreds of miles away from her parents, she sings and dances with her new best friends, friends she will celebrate milestones with for decades to come in a place she now calls her home away from home.

There is a boy who is 12 years old and in four months he will become a Bar Mitzvah. But, unlike some of his peers, when he is called to the Torah it will not be a one-and-done experience; instead he will repeat it willingly and joyously every summer for the next decade of his life. When his rabbi teaches him how to lay tefillin, he will smile knowingly, because he watched carefully as his counselors, his role models, put them on every day of every summer of his conscious life.

And here, here is a girl who comes to camp seeking joy. At home she struggles through her social life and her complicated family situation during 10 months of the year, counting down the days until camp begins. But at camp she feels truly free. She is embraced by her community, inspired by her teachers, and lifted up by the countless days of sunshine and love that she experiences here.

And this is the ultimate beauty of the Jewish summer camp experience: yes, we teach children why they should love their Judaism, its texts, and its traditions; yes, we inspire our campers to nurture their developing Jewish identities and plot a path for themselves through the complicated thicket of life; and yes, we watch as they overcome challenge after challenge, succeeding in pushing their limits, achieving their goals, and embracing their God-given potential. But more than any of this we are teaching independence; cultivating the native personal freedom that calls out to be cultivated in every child.

It is during afternoons such as these when I find myself feeling truly grateful. As the sun sets on another summer’s day I count myself among the most fortunate of human beings in this world. There is indescribable joy in witnessing a child achieve the glories of independence. And therefore, one simply cannot bear the glory that accompanies watching hundreds of children achieve their independence at the very same time, on the very same glorious afternoon, the Fourth of July, 2013.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish summer camp experience under the educational auspices of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Children at summer camp.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

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