Camp Experience Important for Jewish Youth

In the Babylonian Talmud, we read about a social phenomenon from the first centuries of the Common Era called the “kallah.” Kallot (the plural of this Hebrew term) were events where rabbis from different academies all over the Jewish diaspora would gather together — usually hosted at the estate of a wealthy Jewish patron — to collectively learn, discuss, and debate all aspects of Jewish law and life.

Studies on the topic now suggest that these ancient gatherings may have included more than 100 rabbis. They were veritable professional conferences, a chance for rabbis in far-flung, minority-Jewish locales to experience life and discourse as part of a larger Jewish community.

As I’m writing this column, I am currently working as part of GUCI’s rabbinical faculty to help ensure that our children — our Jewish future — have a chance to experience their own variety of kallah. As with the ancient rabbis, GUCI creates a temporary, mini, Jewish-majority community. Additionally, like those kallot, it gives our children a chance to energize their Jewish identities.

I am with the kids now as they are in the midst of a three-day wilderness trip (in the middle-of-nowhere, Indiana) for which they have prepared the last couple of weeks. In the last 24 hours, I have been able to observe our Jewish youth engage in two significant programs that are worth recognizing.

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First, the children with whom I am working (14 to 16 year olds) learned about the Jewish concept of leadership (manhigut) and how they can serve better as leaders in their Jewish and secular communities. Second, we joined together in a beautiful lakeside service led by our own Grant Halasz. His model of Jewish leadership serves as an excellent example for many of our children. I only wish we could have t’filah as picturesque and inspired as this all the time!

If you have a child who is at an age that makes Jewish camping possible, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you provide them with the chance to experience Jewish identity in this way, at a Jewish summer camp. To borrow language used in Genesis, it will give them a chance to “yi-nafash,” to let their Jewish souls be filled with energy.

I imagine that for many of the rabbis 2,000 years ago, a kallah would have provided the inspiration to remain steadfast in one’s faith and to remember why all this Judaism “stuff” is worth it. From almost 20 years of experience in the Jewish camping world, I know this to be true with our modern-day parallel camping “youth kallot“: They make Judaism feel more real and more pervasive than anywhere else in the world.

The camping experiences such as what I’m currently sharing with our students are remarkable chances for our kids to live out Jewish values, in Jewish communities, 24/7. From the ancient rabbinic kallah, to the modern Jewish summer camp in the middle of Indiana, these experiences have helped individuals to forge stronger Jewish identities; they made and make a great difference in how we can build Jewish life and community.

From the midst of this campsite, I wish you all a good summer!


Rabbi Ari Ballaban