Joy, Community, Identity, and S’mores

Our hearts and thoughts are with the Miami community following the devastating building collapse in Surfside, FL. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation has established an emergency assistance fund to support those impacted by the tragedy.
Donations may be made here.

Friends,

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I brought our 19-year-old son to Jewish summer camp for counselor orientation. Jewish teenagers from around the country and the world have called this camp home for generations. In fact, I was one of those teens—as were my parents, my siblings, three of my four children, and several of my nieces and nephews.

After we got our son settled, I took my wife to the camp’s large community hall. I wanted to show her (again) where, as a 21-year-old counselor many years ago, I wrote my name on the rafters. Like so many camp alums, I felt compelled to leave my permanent mark on a place that had so profoundly left its mark on me.

As the summer begins and thousands of children arrive at Jewish camps in Greater Washington and across the U.S., I have been thinking a lot about the time I spent as a camper and counselor.

Jewish summer camps perform a sort of alchemy, deliberate and serendipitous in equal measures. They take kids and teens and immerse them in joyous activities steeped in Judaism and community. Camp builds a familiar yet radically distinct world, where Jewish life is fully integrated into everything rather than held off to the side. When the transformation happens, it’s magical. Love for Jewish life grows, friendships are formed, community is created, and Jewish identity is not only forged, but constantly reinforced by a sense of belonging. My friendships that began at Jewish summer camp have been life-long and sustaining; these are the people who have my back no matter how much time has elapsed since the last time we spoke or saw each other.

Over the past year, we have convened a group of leaders—lay leaders, rabbis, agency heads, and others— to ask how we can better forge a community where everyone feels they have a place. This work has been made even more vital by a pandemic that has isolated us from one another, changed our communal rituals, and exposed the weak spots in our safety nets. Now is the time to rebuild and, more importantly, strengthen the relationships that bind us to one another and to the Jewish community.

I believe one important starting point in this work is supporting people at critical life junctures—those transitions when we shape or reshape our identities and deepen our relationships with one another: adolescence, young adulthood, young parenthood, and when our nests empty. That’s why, as I shared recently, Federation invested $1.2 million in scholarships and financial aid funding to help more families send their children to Jewish day and overnight camps, as well as Jewish early childhood education centers and day schools. And as we move from a year marked by uncertainty into a brighter future, this work is only the beginning of what it will look like to strengthen Jewish life through immersive, identity-building opportunities.

I spent 12 summers at Jewish summer camp. That’s a full two years of my life—time that significantly defined the person I became in countless ways. As we look forward, we must consider and invest in those initiatives that today can similarly strengthen our identities and ties to each other. Through this process, we can truly build a community where everyone feels they belong.

Shabbat Shalom,

Gil