Guest Column by Geoffrey Menkowitz
I live in a bubble. At least in the summer I do. It is a precious bubble, a sacred retreat and a cherished respite from everyday life. A place where kids begin each morning with joyous song and end each evening holding hands in a circle.
It is a busy place where sports, arts, aquatics and outdoor adventure occupy our days. A place where the evening soundscape is filled with Hebrew language, infectious laughter and crickets.
It is admittedly idyllic. It is a blessing and a joy to work long days caring for children in this environment. Still, it is a challenge to suspend my life at home.
Beyond the basic logistics of house sitters and long-distance lawn care, it is difficult suspending personal relationships, commitments and involvement in community for so long. The re-entry is generally more difficult than making arrangements for departure because, in addition to the transition, there is so much catching up to do.
This past summer, though, while there was a lot of troubling news to digest, sadly very little was novel: continued global terror, distasteful presidential contest and enduring racial tensions. What did I really miss this summer? The Pokémon obsession!
For someone who missed the “Pokémon Go” mania unfold, it has been nearly impossible to wrap my head around this whole phenomenon. After I finally figured out what everyone meant by “real-life Pokémon,” I still could not connect with the sheer craziness it inspired.
Gamers fell into lakes and walked off cliffs chasing their prize. People were arrested for trespassing and even quit their jobs to pursue all of the Pokémon.
My intent is not to disparage a game that served as enjoyable entertainment for so many this summer. Creating fun happens to be what I do professionally. I point out the Pokémon craze in stark contrast to the experience of my own summer. For all the chiding I receive from friends about living in a fairy tale for three months, disconnected from the “real world,” summer camp sure feels more real than this.
Instead of chasing after digital monsters, I was surrounded by kids and young adults chasing after mitzvot, seeking ways to treat one another with kindness and striving to be their best selves. What happens here is very real and profoundly important.
Caught as we are in a global climate of violence and vitriol, there’s also much hand-wringing in our Jewish community as the results of the Pew study continue to ring in our ears. The message that I come to share as we enter a new year is that our future is indeed bright.
I am witness to an extraordinary cohort of emerging adults. Don’t dismiss them as a generation whose games and phones obfuscate what matters in life.
The children with whom I spend the summer are proud and knowledgeable about their Jewish heritage. They lead lives informed by the values of inclusiveness, kindness and justice. Community is important to them, and they strive to access Jewish experiences to construct moments filled with meaning.
My personal experience as a camp director is not novel. Across North America, thousands of children recently completed inspiring, life-changing summers at Jewish overnight camps.
As I write, we are preparing to travel to Charlotte, N.C., to host camp reunions and meet new families. Again, a stark contrast and, again, an opportunity for critics to dismiss our energies as misguided. How, at a time when the city is in the middle of protests and riots, can we be engaging families in conversations about summer fun?
Indeed, given the events unfolding in Charlotte, we are especially motivated to recruit for camp — not in spite of the current social climate, but because of it. We believe in the power of Jewish camp to create the next generation of leaders who will increase light in our world by bringing Jewish values and wisdom to bear on their contributions as professionals and community volunteers.
In the year ahead, may we all renew our support of critical educational experiences like Jewish camp, on personal and communal levels, affirming the power of this enterprise to shape identity and instill commitment. May we all find the strength and openness to encourage the passion that kids bring home from camp and not dismiss it as juvenile.
And let us make room for their leadership. The future of the Jewish community and the health of our broader society depend on them.
Geoffrey Menkowitz is the director of Camp Ramah Darom.