Yair took this photo of nighttime Jerusalem as seen from Armon Hanatziv where the beautiful Jerusalem promenade overlooks the city (I lost the link and don’t know Yair’s last name, so if you happen to know Yair, please send me the link).

This week has been a nothing week. Nothing to report because we don’t really know what happened between Israel’s PM and the President of the US.

On other fronts, however, the news is somber. Jewish day schools are closing or in serious trouble, Jewish overnight and day camps are seeing drop-offs in campers, a variety of Jewish charities of all sizes are experiencing severe difficulties and are either closing, laying off staffers, teachers, principals and even their clients who are receiving fewer services if at all. Decades of infrastructure that has provided services to the Jewish community in the USA, Canada and to some degree Israel are coming apart before our eyes.

The problems are many. Wealthy individuals who have been living off their investments and trust funds have found their assets halved and sometimes worse. They aren’t able to live the same way or give as they have in the past. Charities with funds that were directly or indirectly invested with Madoff are essentially broke or bereft of funds. Active businesspeople are wondering whether their businesses can survive and have had to curtail charitable contributions and other forms of support they may have provided in the past.

It is already hurting and will hurt even more.

But there’s a silver lining, in my opinion.

There is going to be some pain for a while, but out of this we will evolve into a much leaner community that can do as much with less. There have been numerous redundancies in the Jewish charitable world as every Sam, Adam and Harry decided to fund their pet charity. As a result, charities were fighting over scarce resources and frequently stepping into each other’s domains. That has enabled an entire cadre of professionals to work as employees and has bloated organizations to a degree that may have been unnecessary.

Now, as some of the weaker charities die and the survivors learn to provide the same services with fewer dollars and fewer employees, Jewish benefactors will also become much more prudent and choosy about their giving. As a result, the best and most important charities will survive and those whose mission may be peripheral will not.

However, what I really hope for is that all of this turmoil will lead to one result: more giving to education.

The most important charities today in the Jewish world are not Holocaust museums and they are not Darfur missions. The most important charities are the Jewish day schools, the Jewish afternoon/Sunday schools and the Jewish summer camp network. In reality, short of those charities that care for the poor and the elderly, nothing in the Jewish world comes close to the importance of providing HIGH QUALITY, AFFORDABLE, ACCESSIBLE JEWISH EDUCATION TO OUR CHILDREN and STUDENTS. Nothing comes even close. Nothing.

If you are a benefactor to charities, an officer of a key Jewish organization (i.e. Federation) or someone who operates a charity, consider the importance of this issue. Instead of supporting some Jewish professionals, funding another university building that carries your name, supporting some Jewish political or social movement, giving money to Israel which last I heard had a government that was far richer than our Jewish community, or giving money to an organization that ultimately only benefits a small number of recipients, consider an alternative.

Consider that this money could and should go to a Jewish Day School, afternoon/Sunday school or summer camp. In doing so, you will be providing the lifeblood this community needs to survive well into the future. You will be ensuring that Jewish traditions, values, history and our shared heritage are passed on to our youth and college students. You will make a truly relevant contribution so that your children and grandchildren will have a sizable and vibrant community to live in and with. You will be ensuring the future.

Really, it’s insane that they’re asking Jewish families to pay $15,000-$20,000/year to send children to school, $5000/month for summer camp and providing few services to campus students. Everybody except for the richest and the poorest members of the Jewish community are forced to make impossibly difficult choices if they can find the funds to pay. This is where funds are needed. Your local museum needs a new wing? Give the money to a Jewish school. Your local classical symphony needs a few million? Listen to CDs and give your money to a summer camp with a demand they subsidize their programming. That university president keeps bugging you about that new building program he’s developing? Fund a chair that will benefit Jewish students and use the remaining money to ensure the sunday/afternoon schools can offer excellent classes for free to their students.

There is nothing more important as far as the needs of our community are concerned.

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  • Well said, Middle. Quality education is key, but orgs should also make sure that if they start granting considerable funding to education, they won’t just hire about any nitwit that crosses their path.

    As for the summer camps, they have always been a rip-off. (Best would be to ditch them altogether if the parents could afford to take time off for a family summer vacation. Summer camps mostly benefit only and tough-luck children, but I also recall an old psychology prof of mine cringe in disgust at the thought of American summer camps and their impact on families.)

    I volunteered at not-for-profit integrative summer camps (i.e. “regular” kids and handicapped kids) over here. Even without subsidies, $100 / week per person would constitute as a generous budget for a kid at a sleep-over summer camp, and that would include wholesome meals, snacks, beverages, playing & crafts materials and trips, accommodation etc. If you re-structure the whole matter, get actual student or young professional volunteers (as is common here) instead of people in need to make money from it (education and special-ed students here are often granted an internship credit for volunteering at summer camps), you’ll have not only generally more motivated but also better qualified instructors. Some organisations here offer a small allowance (about 10 Euros per day) to instructors as a little reward for their work, but always definitely little enough to only lure people that are into what they do.

    It was also never difficult to find sponsors as long as you could present them something concrete and did not just ask for money: as for examples of sponsoring, we got a daily delivery of plenty of fresh, sweet pastries from a bakery that belonged to the grandfather of one of the kids, a generous supply of beverages by two of the local mineral water companies, ice cream by the two biggest political parties, a large trunk full of toys and the busfare for a day’s trip by a local bank, a BBQ party together with a play-day organised by a local middle class party and the local police (who brought in drug-sniffing dogs for a playful presentation on police work, much to the kids’ delight as drug-sniffing dogs must be playful, young dogs), a day’s trip to a former power plant including rides with the plant’s fire engine, competitive games with water hoses the fire brigade had prepared, a special kids’ lunch at their cafeteria and a trip to the zoo by the largest electricity supplier over here. All it took were a few phone calls. Companies are shy to give cash to something vague, but if you’ve got something to show for in return – some press release with mention of the generous contributors is a must – then you get a lot if you only just ask.

  • I have to disagree because I know many graduates of Jewish summer camps in North America. Generally, the counsellors tend to be students or older teenagers who have been through the camp themselves. Generally, the atmosphere is lively, positive and creates a great deal of camaraderie. This is an environment where the kids can let loose and have fun in moderation but without parents around and specifically surrounded by a Jewish community in the fullest sense. Many of the affiliated Jews I know speak warmly of their Jewish summer camp experience while nowhere near as warmly of their Jewish day school experience. These summers can be formative in very positive ways. In fact, I would venture that if a family has to choose between sending the child to camp or to school because they are facing budgetary issues, the camp should probably win out if their goal is to have the child form Jewish identity. The child may not learn as much, but he will form a bond with Jewish life and community that will last a long time.

    The weakest link of the three options I list above is the afternoon/Sunday school usually housed at a synagogue that is offering an education to its members’ children who don’t attend day school. The teaching is not always the greatest and the leadership is often amateurish. It interferes with the the kids time off school so they grow to resent it. The solution is to have better programming and teaching, but this requires additional funds and considering the restrictions already facing most synagogues, this is just a hard thing to fund properly. On the other hand, those synagogues that do this education right, are usually rewarded with families that are more active in the synagogue, kids that actually stay on past their bar mitzvah year and a greater likelihood that the child will identify as a Jew when an adult.

  • Middle, the question is not so much whether kids enjoy summer camp but what summer camps mean to family structures and dynamics, and to that professor of psychology who has been researching in children’s development for decades, the idea of children spending their vacation time without their families seemed questionable (as those days ideally should be used for family bonding), a last resort for when the parents can’t spend vacation times with their kids themselves.

    I know a few people who have worked as Jewish camp counselors as well as religious school teachers. In no case, they were particularly qualified to deal with the developmental, educational, nutritional and health needs of children, none of them had ever attended a first aid-class, particularly not one that was designed to teach how to deal with (a group of) children in medical emergencies. None of them was more qualified to teach about Judaism than just about anybody you could pick up on the streets. I know what you’re getting at, but the nostalgia-ladden, yay-we-are spirituality, togetherness-celebrating atmosphere of summer camps is not Judaism and does not pave the way to Judaism either once those kids see that fond nostalgic camp-day memories are shared by their non-Jewish peers as well. In terms of religious education, I find such feel-the-energy spiritualism shady. It reinforces identity through a combination of bonding and exclusion, not through actual reflected learning.

    Jewish identity, Jewish unity and community should be experienced in the homes with the families and taken from there. That is Judaism. Religious education should be a proper subject at any school.

  • Middle,
    These are excellent points, but I would go one further to say that not even summer camps and Jewish schools are the most important to forming a Jewish identity, but the family, as Froylein suggests.

    This education is free and not reliant on any funding from charities. Additionally, also as Froylein says, at these camps (which I haven’t attended but many friends in college did and relayed their experiences) they tend to gently brainwash you through exclusion.

    Start in the home, as with anything else, and then slowly extend to community.

  • One problem is that, for a very large percentage of American Jews today, Jewish identity is not central to daily life. Limited knowledge, and a large part of Jewish life is going to shul 2-3 days a year, and giving presents for 8 days in December, are symptoms of all too many Jews today.

    Clearly, this is probably less true for Jewlicious readers, but this means that the family is not always capable to provide the next generation with a strong Jewish identity.

    Froylein is right that camp counselors are generally underqualified, both as a counselors (but that is probably true for the non-Jewish camps, as well), and most know all too little about Judaism. I remember working at a certain camp, and without bringing denomination into this discussion – there was not a critical mass of knowledge, and the topic wasn’t even raised of any Jewish days during the summer (Tisha B’Av was observed by handful of people out of hundreds).

    Jewish day schools often succeed in instilling a Jewish identity of sorts. However, as mentioned, they are ridiculously expensive, and the Jewish education provided is subpar for those sums. Basic religious knowledge is imparted – but what kind of system spends half a day in Hebrew for 13 years – only to graduate students who can barely order at a restaurant in a language in which they ought to be bilingual by then?

    themiddle is right about afterschool programs, and repeating their weaknesses is redundant.

    I’m not sure there is a solution. One step, however, would be to actually teach Hebrew at “Hebrew schools,” not to mention day schools. I don’t know how the denominational breakup of summer camps, but I have a feeling that those go to Ramah and Moshava are not the weak links in the next generation of Jewish identity. Maybe the others could actually have real Jewish content, actual (informal) education, apart from just (incorrectly) calling the dining hall “Heder Ochel.”

  • the golden mosque really is beautiful and is a masterpiece

  • Sorry kids, psychologists or not, summer camps remain a key ingredient in forming the Jewish identities of many Jews. Maybe I should say “forming” because of course families form that initial relationship. But we are all social animals and we need the approval and the support of a community. At summer camp, young Jewish teens find that community and get to share experiences that support what they do or don’t get in the home.

    And your psychologist friend is a party-pooper. My psychiatrist friend is planning to send his son to overnight Jewish day camp because he thinks its a great way to be around other Jewish kids and to forge that identity that is so hard to impart to your kids in a world that’s 98% non-Jewish and deems all faiths and all lifestyles equal.

  • My former psychologist professor is not a party pooper but makes valid points. From a religious education point of view, there is no better place to forge an identity than when being exposed to and challenged by other identities and concepts. As Vicki correctly noted, exclusion paves the way for brainwashing. “Community” with a lack of profound teaching is what you find among charismatic Christian denominations, e.g. Pentecostal ones; at that it’s not significantly Jewish in any more fundamental way than could be gained from an interfaith summer camp (I dare say even less so).

  • No, the camp environment supports the identity of the kids. If you’re looking for profound teaching, you send your kids to school or a tutor or you teach them yourself. The summer is their time off, where they do different activities that are fun and exciting. Jewish summer camp is fun and at the same time provides surroundings and an environment that strengthen ties to other Jews.

  • So basically, as a few of my married-young, divorced-young Jewish friends in the US lamented, they are just brainwashing into intra-marriage by cultural exclusion (my oldest friend in the US, it turned out, went to the same camp as Esther). That is not identity. That is preserving a weak flavour by not mixing it with other flavours. The overpriced fee adds a dash of exclusivity. (Good school lessons are also fun and exciting.)