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What makes Jewish camp, well, Jewish?

What makes Jewish camp, well, Jewish?

As professionals at FJC, we get asked this questions all the time. And surprisingly, there is not an easy answer. Each Jewish camp is “Jewish” in its own way. Yes, at most there are services. Some once a week to celebrate Shabbat, some every day. Most camps have Israeli staff to help infuse learning about Israel in to the camp.  Being a Jewish camp goes far beyond calling the dining hall the Chadar Ochel and making a Star of David out of popsicle sticks.  It is about the ruach (spirit) the campers exude or the kavanagh (intention) behind the programming.

Jewish camp is camp with a soul. We asked a few camps to give us some insight into how they infuse Judaism and make it part of camp.  Here’s the first post…

Swimming – A Lesson in Judaism and Independence

When we think about the skills we need to be successful in life, swimming doesn’t make most of our top 10 lists.  Here at Camp Interlaken, on the shores of beautiful Lake Finley (pictured), our campers get to choose their own chugim (activities).  Over the course of the day, they attend five different chug periods, one of which is a mandatory swim chug.  Of the almost 50 different activities that we offer here at camp, why do we require swimming of our campers?

According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), a parent must teach their child:

1)      Torah

2)      A profession

3)      To swim

Why, in Judaism, do we put swimming on such a high pedestal? In my opinion, there are two focal reasons for swimming: safety and independence.

At the time of the Babylonian Talmud, swimming was likely being taught as a survival skill.  Many of the daily chores required accessing a body of water.  For the safety of the children, it was necessary to teach them how to properly swim to take care of themselves.  Today, we send our kids sailing and surfing, water-skiing and windsurfing, on canoe and kayak trips, and more.  Each of these activities has a level of associated risk, for which we prepare our campers.  We build swimming skills and confidence that allows for participation in many different areas.  Much like in the time of the Talmud, we are diligent in preparing our campers for their daily schedules of activities.

For some campers, the first risk that they are taking is when they jump in the pool/lake for swim testing on the first day of camp.  We start our campers’ summers by emphasizing the importance of swimming.  In teaching the children to swim, they also learn a great deal of independence; a value we rank very highly at camp.  They are learning to take care of themselves, react properly in case of danger, apply their skills to other areas and grow confidence.   Additionally, they receive additional rights as campers when they hit certain milestones such as the ability to take a boat out on their own, or participate in the other activities.

We pride ourselves in the ability to teach and grow our campers.  At the beginning of each summer, we tell parents that we hope to return their child to them as better version of themselves.  Teaching swimming helps parents to fulfill the Talmudic commandment and make them more independent adults in the future.

- Daniel N. Baer, Associate Director, Camp Interlaken JCC (Eagle River, WI)

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