Last summer I had the privilege to be the Judaic director at Camp Livingston in Bennington, Indiana. Camp Livingston is a pluralistic Jewish overnight camp tucked into southeastern Indiana. When faced with deciding which Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship I preferred, I knew I wanted to be at camp.
I grew up attending a variety of camps as a Jewish kid from the Chicago suburbs. I began my camp experiences in secular settings, where I learned to swim, do crafts, and play soccer. When I got older, I told my parents I wanted to attend a Jewish overnight camp. The loving parents that they are, they did the research and discovered OSRUI in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and it was here that I was able to combine my love for doing art with my passion for Judaism. I remember learning Hebrew, celebrating Shabbat, and studying Jewish texts. The two summers I spent at OSRUI became a foundational part of my Jewish Identity. I was able to be my most authentic self in a community that was unapologetically Jewish.
I made sure to bring this early love of camp to my role as Judaic director at Camp Livingston this summer. I was determined to make camp a place where the kids could be their most authentic selves, to give them the wonderful experience I had. I also wanted the camp to be unapologetically Jewish. These goals would prove to be a more significant challenge than I had realized.
As a new staff member, I did not appreciate at first how much camp is based on traditions and nostalgia. For the most part, Jewish camps do not stray from their age-old traditions, and returning campers expect certain activities to be done in a certain way. This became overwhelmingly clear when it came to Shabbat services, which, I was told are structured in a specific manner. The need to keep Shabbat precisely as it is, while I endeavored to bring change and innovation, became This was one of my biggest struggles because I wanted to share all of the Shabbat experiences I had growing up at Jewish camps with Camp Livingston. Shabbat was an intense and special moment each week of my childhood summers. I recall listening to the echoing of songs, the gourmet Shabbat meals (my memory might have faded a tad in this regard), and the sense of community that enveloped this moment in time. I soon realized that I had just as much to learn about camp and Shabbat as I had to teach.
One of the decades-old traditions at Camp Livingston is the practice of saying Shalom Aleichem while walking around the dinner tables on Friday night. For some of the returning campers, this moment is their epitome of Judaism at camp. For others, it might be the silly hand motions that accompany the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after the meal. To change any of these traditions would be to remove the one connection these campers have to Judaism at camp. In order to achieve my goals as the camp’s Judaic director, I had to learn to adjust my thinking. I had to add to their customs instead of changing them.
And I did just that.
Instead of changing the liturgy or the Shabbat songs, I added to them. I introduced a new song before dinner called “Five Big Challahs.” This song quickly became a hit with the campers and the staff. The campers were able to practice Hebrew, and I was able to call out campers who had gone above and beyond to demonstrate Jewish values throughout the week. With this success, I felt that I was adding to the specialness that is Shabbat at camp.
The next task I hoped to tackle was Israel Day at camp. Israel Day is notorious for being lackluster in comparison to Color Wars. I knew that if camp wanted to be unapologetically Jewish, that Israel Day needed a facelift. Therefore, I came up with a new theme: “A Day in the Life of an Israeli.” I created Independence Hall from Tel Aviv in the Chedar Ochel (the dining hall). We had each camper sign the Declaration of Independence. We even had Max, the amp director, dress up as David Ben-Guron, wig and all! Following the ceremony, the Israelis ran stations, each one representing a moment in time in an Israeli’s life. They learned about the aliyot to Israel, received a Hebrew name, played childhood Israeli games, attended boot camp, and even got a job as a water carrier! Israel Day ended up being a standout experience. It was fun, it was educational, and most of all, it was Jewish.
The last goal I wanted to achieve was to make Camp Livingston even more of a place where the campers could be their most authentic selves. For me, this was crucial. There are not enough places today for kids to be who they want to be without being (or fearing that they might be) judged. To tackle this goal, I had—yet again—to look at the existing structures and add to them.
Each week I would meet with a cabin to go over Judaic studies. Just like Israel Day, Judaic studies pale in comparison to activities like zip lining and kayaking. Knowing this, I vowed to make my time with each cabin as fulfilling as possible. I came up with a curriculum where the campers were able to ask me any questions about Judaism, no matter how weird or out of the leftfield they were. Can dinosaurs be Jewish? What happens when you die? How do you wrap tefillin? I made sure the campers knew that they would never face judgment for their questions. Each question allowed them to feel heard and to explore Judaism more casually. The questions could be very goofy, but idea behind these sessions was very serious: come as you are, as Jewish as you are, but let’s respect each other’s differences.
This summer, I thought I was going to revolutionize the way Judaism is experienced at camp. In the end, I learned a valuable lesson myself. Jewish camps thrive on their traditions and customs too. My job isn’t to change them but to add to their experience. Each camper is going to attach to one aspect of camp that they will remember with nostalgia. It is essential to maintain these traditions but note where they can be enhanced. I will forever be grateful that I had the opportunity to be the Judaic director at Camp Livingston this summer, and I look forward to how the camp will continue to stay the same and evolve in the years to come.
Tzvia Rubens is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR.