Why Jewish Camp Is Different From All Other Camps

Photo courtesy J Camp; eJP archives

y Natasha Dresner

In the spirit of Passover and, in general, at least once a year, we all should be asking ourselves “How is this _____ different from all other ____?” Just substitute the word “night” for “project,” “experience, ” etc. or, in my case, most recently, “conference.”

I just returned from a trip to Baltimore, where I attended the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly – a biannual conference for Jewish nonprofit camps. So how was this conference different from all other FJC conferences I attended in the past dozen years or so? For the first time, it had in attendance a delegation of Jewish Camps from Israel and Europe, including the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Of the 20 + people from roughly 10 countries, 14 or so were what we here in America call RSJs – Russian-Speaking Jews. I was beside myself with excitement. Why?

I’m originally from Kiev, Ukraine, which is part of the FSU (one of the 15 former Soviet republics). Growing up, I didn’t even really know I was Jewish until I was about 15 years old, at which point my sister and I got “religiously” involved with pretty much everything Jewish. In 1991, Reform congregation Ha-Tikva, which is still there and thriving, became our Jewish home. In 1993, the first Jewish summer camp for the entire FSU, organized by the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Uzhgorod, Ukraine, became our Jewish community. And in 1995, I went to work for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Kiev, which – along with the congregation and the camp, became my Jewish family. In 2001, I moved to America and, since 2005, have been working with Jewish day and overnight camps here in the U.S. and Canada through the JCamp 180 Program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. So how excited would you have been if you were me?

However, this is not a story about me. The story I want to share with you is about two wonderful people I met at the FJC Assembly who inspired me, and further solidified my belief that Jewish Camps are “Mensch Incubators.”

On the very first day of the conference, I met Tatyana Resnik, an energetic red-headed 40-year old director of program development for The Family Center in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, which runs camp Simcha. A mother of two, she was so hungry to learn what she could from the North-American Jewish camps. Despite the 7-hour time difference, she was fully present, networking with people, and passionately sharing her camp story and doing all of it in English. I was so impressed with her and, truth be told, with all of her international camp colleagues.

On the last evening of the conference, I met David Shapiro, a calm, trust-inspiring gentleman with soft brown eyes filled with curiosity and – what we FSU Jews call – “all the sadness of the Jewish people.” A father of three wonderful girls, David is an established Baltimore lawyer and chair of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Center for Jewish Camping Advisory Committee. His family came to the U.S. from Lithuania more than 100 years ago, and he wanted to know more about my background. To continue talking, we sat together for dinner at the same table as Tatyana.

After the official dinner presentations, the three of us resumed the conversation, focusing on Tatyana and her story.

“Are you going back to Russia from here?” David asked.

“No, I’m going first to New York and then to Boston to see some friends, then to Philadelphia, and then home,” Tatyana replied.

“Wow, New York and Boston first to then pretty much come back here to go to Philly! What’s in Philadelphia?” David exclaimed.

“I’m going to meet my father whom I haven’t seen for 30 years,” said Tatyana in one long exhalation.

“A person who contacted him for me years ago said that he doesn’t want to talk to me, but I have to see him!”

David and I looked at each other in astonishment.

“I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. I don’t usually share this with others,” said Tatyana, a bit embarrassed and with tears in her eyes.

“It’s the haimish family-like camp atmosphere (and wine:) that are probably responsible,” added David and I trying to lighten the mood.

“How are you getting there? Do you have your father’s address? What if he doesn’t open the door?” and other logistical questions like that followed.

She answered, and it was clear to David and me that it wasn’t going to be easy. Tatyana wasn’t even sure that the address she had for her father was any good.

Most stories like this one end here with listeners sympathizing and wishing good luck to the storyteller.

But not here…

David had Tatyana write all of the information she had on a piece of paper, and a few days later, after doing some digging, he texted her a current address for her father. He also contacted a colleague of his, John Scharf of Baltimore, who agreed to drive to Philadelphia for Tatyana’s early morning arrival at the 30th Street station in Philly and took her to her father’s address.

Tatyana texted later that day to report that she and her father had met and talked. She shared a picture of the two of them and said how happy she was that her dream since she was 14 to find her dad had come true. She was so grateful for David’s help, without which it almost certainly would never have happened.

David didn’t have to do what he did, but he did it because of his Jewish values, the same values our Jewish camps teach our kids so well. Did I mention David went to Jewish sleepaway Camp Airy in Thurmont, MD? Jewish camps teach our children Tikkum Olam not in a theoretical way, but by acting and helping other people in a practical way, the way David did. Jewish camps help our children grow into adults, like David and John, whom we, as parents and people, can be proud of.

So, the next time someone asks you if it is worth it sending our children and grandchildren to a Jewish day or overnight camp, give them this article and do the most Jewish thing you can do – answer their question with your own “So, is it?”

Natasha Dresner is a nonprofit development consultant and mentor with the JCamp 180 Program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam, MA. She can be reached at Natasha@hgf.org

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