EARLY ON IN the book of Genesis, we are told that “it is not good for man to be alone.” While this quote refers to Judaism’s desire for every human to find his or her life partner, there is a deeper meaning. The quote also points to the importance of human beings surrounding themselves with a community of others.
“One of the great blessings of Judaism is that it mandates our interactions with a community,” writes Rabbi Bill Jacobs on myjewislearning.com. “Wherever Jews have lived, they have built synagogues, established communal organizations and created systems of communal governance. A Jewish community is a place that offers one a cultural home, a place where one can learn and grow, and a place where one can find friendship, support, comfort, acceptance and respect.
Jewish life is very much the life of a community – so many activities and rituals depend on the community. The concept of peoplehood has long been the defining characteristic of the Jews. The central experience of Jewish history is the exodus from Egypt. While the event focuses on an encounter with divinity, the exodus was primarily an experience of national liberation, rather than a moment of religious awakening.
Today with Jewish populations greatly dispersed the concept of community has changed. Communities are no longer geographical. “Though the precise structure of Jewish communities has changed according to place, time and current interests,” writes Jacobs, “membership in a Jewish community has always demanded a sense of shared destiny, manifested in the obligation to care for other members of the community, as well as in the joy of partaking in others’ celebrations.”
To find and create a Jewish community has become the focus of synagogues and Jewish centers. Yet, as Ron Wolfson point out in his book,” Relational Judaism,” it is the relationship between people that keep them active and involved in a synagogue or community organization. Since communities have become intentional, it all starts with the individual. For the Jewish community to survive and grow people must have a desire to play an integral part in its function. People are drawn to a community because it offers relationships first, and programs and activities second.
While it is often challenging to attract adults, in one area of the Jewish community, we are doing quite well. For many young people it is summer camp. Jewish camp has become a “factory for young Jewish leaders.” Whether it be at day camp or overnight camp, young people begin to build connections with other Jews of their own age and often these relationships continue into adulthood. It is where they are surrounded by the beauty of Jewish life and share it with others.
Jewish camps bring Judaism and fun together in the summer, and by doing this, helps to shape a positive and joyous Jewish identity. I can honestly say that my experience at camp solidified my connection to Judaism. That connection led me to study more, become involved in the Jewish community and synagogue life and eventually attend rabbinical school. Today families have a choice; there are day camps as well as overnight camps. As written on the jccmanhattan.org, “Camp fosters a sense of community, encouraging relationships to develop and build between campers, staff and families. Statistics have shown that youngsters who attend Jewish summer camp have a greater connection to Judaism and that connection extends into their later life.” And that’s where community begins.
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.