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Carving Our Niches at Summer Camp

I owe my life to Jewish summer camp — literally.

I met my wife when we were counselors at Camp Ramah in Massachusetts. My in-laws met as staffers at Camp HES (Hebrew Educational Society) in Suffern, N.Y. My father met my mother when he was a camp teacher and she a camper, also at Ramah. (I am told things didn’t get going until a few years later.)

Set aside, for a moment, what the pamphlets tell you about how summer camps build Jewish identity, get campers in touch with the outdoors and build strong peer relationships in a Jewish setting: Jewish summer camp is a hookup-fest.

True, much of the more advanced romantic activity is limited to the staff — at least I hope so. Still, given my family history, you can’t blame me for thinking that all of the name-tag sewing, calamine-lotion smearing and color-war hollering is an elaborate, Rube Goldberg machine aimed at creating Jewish marriages and, later, Jewish babies, who themselves become campers and counselors and have more camp-inspired marriages, more babies and so on.

That said, if making matches were the main goal of summer camp, we’d be better off subsidizing JDate-style matching services or deploying an army of old-fashioned matchmakers to bring our young adults together. It certainly would be more cost-effective.

After all, camp is expensive, running about $7,000 or so for eight weeks — which is a good chunk of a year’s day-school tuition. Camps also require capital-intensive buildings but use them only two months a year. As communal investments, at first blush they may not seem like such a good deal. (Full disclosure: I am a parent of two Camp Ramah kids, and my wife sits on the board of Camp Ramah’s Palmer campus.)

But marriage, of course, is not the ultimate goal of camping — and not everyone emerges from camp having met their future spouse. Most don’t. Still, those who attend for a few summers are immersed in an all-inclusive cultural and sometimes religious experience. That shapes them in a way that no other Diaspora Jewish experience can.

Among campers, long-term connections — spousal or otherwise — are made and common experiences shared. Talk to former Jewish summer campers — whether they attended Ramah, Young Judaea, Habonim Dror, Betar or something else — and you’ll think you’re talking to very distinct tribes with their own traditions and languages.

The broad diversity of Jewish summer camps — some of which are highly religious, some highly Zionist, some highly secular — builds adherents to specific elements of Judaism and Jewish culture. Camp Ramah, to give one example, seems particularly adept at collecting together — and minting more — children and adults who love to sing Jewish and Zionist songs at the drop of a hat. This is a quality of very limited economic value, but it is still emphasized in Ramah households the way other families pass down recipes.

And so when you go to a Jewish summer camp, you become a champion of that camp’s unique culture, and later seek out others just like you, not only as mates but as friends. You begin the process of building a community of shared interests, experiences and values.

A fair-minded observer might ask: “The Jewish people is so tiny, why divide it into ever smaller segments? Why not just be Jewish?” It’s a fair point, but as the old joke about the Jewish man on the desert island illustrates, one of our great strengths as a people is our ability to constantly carve out new, distinct and often mutually exclusive Jewish niches, to the point where one shipwrecked Jew could reasonably require two synagogues — one he will attend, and one he won’t set foot in. We absolutely need to be more than “just Jewish.” That’s what makes us Jewish.

Jewish community leaders take note: It may be tempting to focus on institutions that serve the entire community without distinction, but don’t get carried away. Our summer camps show we have a preference for a bit more micro-marketing — places where we define our Jewish comfort level down to the smallest detail. On those distinctions do we base much of what follows — whom we marry, how we identify with Israel, how often we attend synagogue and, yes, which melodies we sing around the dining-room table. Those things that divide us are not always to be feared; they may well make us stronger.

As for my daughters, I hope they find in camp the many charms of being away from their parents. Let them forge what they believe to be their own unique experience with Judaism, even as they are tugged by the invisible string that pulls them into the embrace of the Judaism of our household, and their grandparents’ household, and so on.

Noam Neusner is the principal of Neusner Communications, LLC. He served as President Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter from 2002 to 2004.

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