Camp has always been a huge part of my Jewish identity.
I spent my first 15 summers at URJ camps (at GUICI where my dad served on faculty, followed by KUTZ as a teen). Then NFTY Israel and straight back to URJ camping for additional years of staffing as a counsellor, song leader and Education Director. So it’s no surprise that after ordination I began serving as a faculty Rabbi at URJ Crane Lake Camp, my new home away from home.
This year, I am struck by the parallels and contrasts I see between my own experiences as a young Jewish camper and those I observe this generation’s crop of young girls to be having. As part of CLC’s Kesher Limmud program for their two oldest units, we, the faculty, offer elective courses for the campers to choose from. My course is called “Biblical Scandals”, intended as a way to use the scandalous stories from our Torah to engage campers in conversations about how to respond to and/or avoid the scandals of their own lives – friends, family, community, celebrities, etc. As well as to engage them in a conversation about holy vs. unholy ways of sharing stories and differentiating between truth and gossip.
In preparation for the course, I generated a list of bible stories I perceived to be scandalous: The Garden of Eden, Judah and Tamar, the story of Dinah, Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, Samson and Delila, David and Michal. I began the course, however, by asking the campers who signed up (15 girls and 1 boy) to list the biblical stories they thought were scandalous. I was trying to gauge which stories they were familiar with before teaching them the ones I that had planned, but the list they generated was so different from my own that I decided to shift gears entirely. Here is the list they generated: The tales of the Sister/Wives, Miriam who gossiped and got Leprosy, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his Brothers, Cain and Abel, the Akeidah, and the Tower of Babel.
I spent the rest of the day pondering the difference in our lists. What criteria, assumptions and implications had I used in generating mine, and what ideas had gone into generating theirs. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. My list was all about sex – sexual betrayals and sexual violations – while the list the campers generated was all about ethics – ethical betrayals and ethical violations. So I started thinking about my own experiences as a camper and the Bible classes and courses of interest that I was offered as a pre-teen and teen camper and youth grouper. And most of them were about sex. Sex ethics, sex in the Torah, sex, sex, sex!
We on faculty spend a fair bit of time talking about sex too. Wondering how inappropriate the campers are able to be in this environment, and if one generation is any worse than another. Upon reflecting on the educational experiences I had at camp, and the frequent topic of sex and sexuality I couldn’t help acknowledging that many of my first experiences learning about relationships and sex also happened at camp and in TYG settings. Was there a connection? Was my learning (though well intended) somehow influencing my behavior? I am sure that there were other courses being offered and taught – were my educational choices driven by the experimenting that my friends and I were doing outside the classroom or was it the other way around? Do we want our campers to relate to Torah in this way – reassured that they are not the first generation to blunder through sexual experimentation and questioning, or should we be striving to redirect their age-appropriate lustiness? Are my CLC campers less likely to be engaging in sexual behavior if their minds are focused on ethical stories rather than sexual ones? I don’t know. It’s an uncomfortable thought and an uncomfortable possibility and there’s no real way to know by observing just one group of kids at just one camp. But it’s interesting to think about and I couldn’t help being relieved that their choice of stories meant that I could teach about the scandals of betraying family and friends instead of the scandals of betraying our sexual partners.
Now, in all fairness, the group I was working with was the second-to-oldest group on camp. Next week I’ll teach the course to the oldest campers. Will their list look more like mine? It’s a possibility? And then I’ll be left with the choice – teach them where they are or try to redirect their focus? Provide them with a juicy and exciting learning experience that will change their perspective of rabbis and Torah (hopefully in positive and mature ways) or shy away from a topic that may have the unintended side-affect of encouraging them to act out inappropriately? I’m sure you can tell by now that I’m not one to shy away from uncomfortable topics though, so the question I’m really starting to work through is this: If the older campers generate a list of bible stories that looks more like mine, how can I engage them in conversations about those stories that lead to healthy and appropriate outcomes? Maybe this is an opportunity to talk about sex a camp and the pressures campers face? Or maybe it’s a chance to challenge our thinking. If camp is a safe place to talk about sex and sexuality, does that lead our campers to conclude (perhaps incorrectly) that camp is a safe place to engage in sexual activity?
My dear friend and “faculty sister”, Rabbi Marci Bellows, pointed out that many Jewish professionals only teach about sex and sexuality in informal settings rather than in congregational ones. What message are we sending our youth by making such choices? I certainly never learned about sex in my religious school classrooms (although to be fair, my rabbi was also my dad!). But maybe that’s why I never saw my camp and youth group clergy as people I could bring my struggles and challenges to as I worked through my own teenaged relationship to sex and sexuality. Even the rabbis, cantors and educators who taught those great camp courses on Sex in the Texts didn’t strike me as people I felt safe sharing that part of myself with. So what can I do to change that? How can I approach this course in a way that creates an opportunity for my campers to view me (and maybe all rabbis, cantors and educators) a little differently. How do we walk that delicate balance of sharing enough to be approachable while also maintaining an appropriate level of privacy and of Kavod HaRav? It’s a tough line to walk and I don’t know that I will have any more success than those who walked the line before me.
But it’s worth a try. These kids are worth the effort, and challenging myself to grow and stretch as a rabbi is worth the effort too. Isn’t that what camp is all about? From camper to rabbi – we question, we learn, we grow. I thank God that my camping days – and my questioning days – are not done. I look forward to many such summers to come!