A few years ago, I wrote the blog post below for the Foundation for Jewish Camp about the important role of Jewish summer camps in the process of liberation for teenagers. This year, as every year, we are all in the need of liberation from the Mitzrayim of our times. The Hebrew root of the word Mitzrayim refers to a narrow, confining place. As we approach the 75th summer of Tel Yehudah, we are preparing to build a community for teens that fosters healthy liberation from: the market place, technology, Jewish confusion, family (for teens and their parents), and themselves.
As we approach Pesach, I have been thinking about one of the names of this holiday – z’man heiruteinu – the time of our liberation. For our teenagers, what does it mean in these modern days to really feel and experience liberation? From what do our teens need or seek liberation? Where is Mitzrayim (Egypt) and where is the (possible) Promised Land(s) in their lives?
I would certainly not want to compare the lives of our teenagers to the hardships our ancestors endured in Mitzrayim. However, we might want to also think about the idea of Mitzrayim from its Hebrew root which refers to a narrow, confining place. It also refers to straits or distress. We know that the teenage years are challenging with difficult pressures from school, peers, family and society. Compounding these pressures are the physical, emotional and intellectual changes our teens experience. These pressures and changes can sometimes create feelings of being limited, trapped, shuttered and distressed – in a sense, being in a state of Mitzrayim.
Just as we experience Pesach each year, we know that the process of moving from Mitzrayim to liberation is a perpetual one – we always exist between those conditions and circumstances in our lives that confine and limit us and those forces and experiences which liberate us and allow us to live to our potential. The challenge is to continually see ourselves as if we went out of Mitzrayim and to do the hard work of actually participating in our own liberation.
Jewish summer camps like Tel Yehudah, an intentional community of Jewish teens, offer important possibilities of liberation for Jewish teens. There are reasons that so many Jewish teens from all different camps, are counting down the days until camp, and not all of those reasons have to do with being done with homework or the great food at camp. The following are some of the forces that our teens might feel liberation from this summer:
Liberation from the Market Place: Our teens are constantly bombarded with messages about what they need to buy, wear, look like, download, etc. Camp offers a break from the perpetual pressures of an economy and society driven by the need to always have the newest gadget or fashion. Besides buying a soda or ice cream at the canteen, our teens have an opportunity to put away their wallets, avoid television commercials and exist with the material items they brought with them. It is a time where our teens can be freed from the pressure of feeling that they need something new and can appreciate the community and natural environment in which they live at camp.
Liberation from Technology: In these days of social media and cell phones, I am continually surprised at how little complaining we hear from our campers about missing Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, SnapChat, Instagram, or their cell phones. (We remain blessed with practically no cell phone reception at Tel Yehudah.) According to the Keiser Foundation (2013): Eight to eighteen year olds in the United States spend more than eight and a half hours using recreational media content. While we know our campers miss their friends and family with whom they are used to being instantly connected to through technology, at camp they have the opportunity to un-plug and live within a more natural, real-time community of their peers. Deep and rich conversations take place under apple trees on Shabbat or in bunks late at night. This liberation from following the news feeds and tweets of hundreds of friends provides the opportunity to form meaningful and long-lasting friendships built on a set of common experiences in a shared community. (Of course when summer ends, these technologies will help keep them in touch until the next summer together.)
Liberation from Jewish Confusion: For most Jewish teens growing up in North America, it is challenging to understand when their “Jewish lives” start and end. They might feel Jewish when they are in Hebrew School or Day School, or in synagogue or sharing Shabbat dinner at home. But does this sense of being Jewish extend to the basketball court, science class or their community service project? Often Jewish identity is confined to those times of the day and week when are children and teens are “doing Jewish” but it does not seem to pervade their lives as a whole. Camp offers a break from this split between their Jewish lives and everything else. In a community built on Jewish values and Jewish time, we are living Jewishly at camp whether we are celebrating havdalah on Saturday evening or if we are in the brecha (swimming pool). Our teens never have to stop what they are doing to go somewhere to be Jewish. It is built into the very fabric of their lives at camp.
Liberation from Family: As a parent of teens, I appreciate that we play a critical role in the healthy development of our children. But as our children grow up, they also need opportunities to step out on their own, build new relationships, make mistakes, and sharpen their judgment, all not under the watchful eyes of parents and family members. This is part of the process of maturing into responsible young adults. But this is not a Lord of the Flies experience. Our campers are blessed with madrichim (counselors/guides) who are slightly older but are further along in this process of self-actualization and can provide guidance, support, fun and humor as our teens make their way along their individual journeys. (I am also sure that most parents don’t mind a little liberation from their own children in the summer time as well. We are happy to provide that service.)
Liberation from Themselves: Camp provides an opportunity for our teens to shed some of the personality and characteristics they have developed at home and in school. They are liberated from certain expectations that others have of them outside of camp and can “try on” new ways of being and acting in the supportive environment of camp. Campers who struggle socially at home often make deep and meaningful friendships at camp. Our teens “try on” new ideas – social, political, Jewish, Zionist, activist, ideological – which might never have felt comfortable outside of camp. Camp provides liberation from feeling trapped and the opportunity to grow and change.
I am looking forward to celebrating Pesach with my own teenagers (now in their 20’s) but I am also thankful that they will have the opportunity to experience the liberation of camp during the summer. As we sit at our seders and talk about liberation past and present, let’s remember that our teens are desperately in need of it themselves. Those of us who work with Jewish teens each summer at Tel Yehudah and in other amazing teen programs, are excited for the opportunity to once again create communities and experiences that will give our campers a taste of the Promised Land.