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Summer Camp as Promised Land

The spirit of Judaism is thriving by the ga-ga pit

Liel Leibovitz
August 17, 2018
Photo courtesy Camp Settoga
Photo courtesy Camp Settoga
Photo courtesy Camp Settoga
Photo courtesy Camp Settoga
This article is part of Summer Camp.
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Earlier this week, I drove to pick up my children from Camp Settoga. There was really no reason for me to brave the tides of the Palisades Parkway—the kids could’ve easily taken the camp bus, as they’ve done every morning and every afternoon for the past seven weeks. I told myself that I was making the trip to show the camp to my mother, who was visiting from Israel, but, really, I needed to take one last look myself. I needed to figure out why I’ve grown so attached to the place, and what about it made me feel that sense of transcendence you’d more readily associate with meditation or a good Friday evening in shul than with a stretch of land where girls and boys congregate to play ga-ga and make s’mores.

Like many parents determined to raise Jewish children who feel the joy and the pride of the faith, I’ve read the report confirming that attending a Jewish summer camp did much to strengthen a child’s Jewish identity later in life. The survey measures 13 key variables, but as I stepped out of the car and into the camp, I realized that there was really only one that mattered: space. To put it bluntly, to be in a great Jewish summer camp is to relive that most central of Jewish dramas, namely figuring out how to turn the world from all that it is to all that it can be.

Just look at history’s first Jewish campers: Standing on the cusp of the Promised Land, Moses dispatches 12 spies to scout out the new country and see what it’s like. Ten of them return with a disheartening report. Canaan, they tell their fellow Israelites, is lousy with giants, men so mighty that they were sure to crush any intruder. These natives were so imposing, the spies report, that “we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”

Even in a book as thick with rich and strange descriptions as the Bible, this one stands alone. The spies aren’t merely reporting facts and figures; they’re conveying a complex psychological state of mind. Looking at the well-armed giants, they imagine themselves through the eyes of their future adversaries, and find themselves lacking. The only cure for such self-doubt is 40 years of erring in the wilderness until all of little faith pass away and a new generation rises with a new outlook on life.

It may seem like too harsh of a punishment for a people who were just rescued from slavery, but when it comes to inhabiting spaces, mental and physical alike, the Torah is unyielding. The Promised Land, it makes clear, is a state of mind; as Michael Walzer brilliantly observed in his Exodus and Revolution, without faith, Canaan is just another Egypt. Look at it soberly, and the Promised Land is just another collection of barren hills dotted with the fortified encampments of your enemies. Close your eyes, and you may begin to imagine what it could be like if you followed the divine commandments and made this nascent nation a more just and perfect union.

If these sound like platitudes to you, consider the fact that the Bible, a book capable of devoting many long paragraphs to instructing us precisely what to do should our ox, say, gore a neighbor’s ox, never once bothers addressing what you would think is the seminal question of the Promised Land’s precise boundaries. That’s because its boundaries exist as much within us as they do out in the real world. The only way to fulfill the promise of the Promised Land is to make it worthy of its divine designation. That’s its very purpose: God, after all, could have just as easily dispatched his chosen people to all corners of the earth to preach his teachings far and wide. But that, He knows, would’ve made his teachings theoretical, the sort of stuff you learn in school or in shul; instead, he wanted to show that heavenly bliss was possible here on earth, in the realm of human beings. And the only way to do that was to build and run an independent Jewish nation where the laws of the Torah are observed, where the stranger and the poor and the meek are all cared for and protected, where the land is respectfully cultivated and the beasts worked with compassion, where cruelty is forbidden and where justice reigns. The light unto the nations only shines if it exists, a real light emanating from a real land occupied by real people.

The Zionist pioneers who returned home after millennia in exile were moved by the same notion. They came together—socialists and nationalists, secular Marxists and Hasids, men and women of all backgrounds and walks of life—to revive the ancient messianic spirit that has always propelled Jews to step out into the world and assert themselves not in theory but in practice. Like their ancestors, they made the Promised Land live up to its promise. And if you want to feel the same wild spirit humming today, just visit a great Jewish summer camp.

While day schools may instruct our minds and shuls may cultivate our souls, only camp lets us become by acting. Overcome your dislike of heights, say, and climb Camp Settoga’s adventure course, and you’ll receive a tag commending you for conquering your fear. Help a friend feel better and you’ll get a tag for kindness. These are no small trophies of positive psychology; they’re reminders that the well-lived Jewish life is and has always been about refusing to let your detractors, your circumstances, or your anxieties define you and instead living up to who you know you can be if you only gave it a shot.

It’s a complicated theological concept, but the red-shirted children gleefully playing ball or working in the garden or swimming at Camp Settoga seemed to understand it implicitly and embody it in their every move. Removed from their tight urban quarters, they were given a verdant land of their own to make promised. Without their passion and the dedication of their counselors, it was just a string of fields and buildings; by looking first at themselves and then at others, they’ve made it a community guided by values, empathy, and warmth. And that’s the sort of message that resonates long after camp ends.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.