Can Adult Summer Camp Re-engage Jews With Their Faith?

October 26, 2017
David Noily holds a Havdalah candle during a Saturday evening service. Photo by Sara Knobel

Many Jewish kids experience their first kiss at summer camp. But the participants in a recent four-day retreat in Simi Valley, billed as a Jewish summer camp for young adults, came looking for something more lasting.

One of them, Molly Oberndorf, sat on the sidelines of a grassy field watching a spirited game of Ultimate Frisbee. “I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t always somehow looking for a companion, a partner,” she said. “Like, my person.”

On Oct. 6, Oberndorf, 26, traveled from Seattle to Camp Alonim on the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University to take part in the summer-camp weekend.

Campers came from as far as Boston and Baltimore, looking for community, romantic connection or campfire hits accompanied by acoustic guitar — and, in some cases, all three.

Trybal Gatherings, the nonprofit organization that hosted the retreat, hopes to offer a solution to a nagging concern for organized Jewry: how to capture the attention and buy-in of young Jews whose busy professional lives and tight budgets often keep them out of synagogues and Jewish Community Centers.

Michael Steinberg, 41, drove from Santa Barbara to participate in the gathering. He said he has lacked Jewish companionship since he moved to the West Coast from New York City’s East Village.

“I like to be in diverse environments, but it’s nice to be with a group of people who share certain Jewish values and traditions and understandings,” he said.

An ombudsman at UC Santa Barbara, Steinberg said he had difficulty meeting other Jews as a busy professional, particularly because he doesn’t live in a Jewish epicenter like New York or Los Angeles.

That predicament is at the heart of the challenge Trybal Gatherings is taking on. A 2013 Pew Research Center study on Jewish affiliation, often cited as a demographic alarm bell, indicated that millennial Jews were less likely than their predecessors to affiliate with synagogues and marry within the faith.

Trybal hopes to bridge the Jewish-professional gap with singalongs, arts and crafts, and designated bonding time. If summer camp can help inculcate Judaism in kids, the thinking goes, then why not in young adults?

Participants arrived on a Friday afternoon to Camp Alonim’s rustic slice of chaparral canyon swept by warm winds. The counselors — a team of Jewish camp professionals from around the country assembled by Trybal’s founder, 32-year-old Carine Warsawski — greeted the campers with beaming smiles and hugs as if they were meeting long-lost friends.

If summer camp can help inculcate Judaism in kids, the thinking goes, then why not in young adults?

The next three mornings, campers had the option of waking for “early riser” yoga at 8:30 a.m. or sleeping in until the 9:30 a.m. breakfast.

Warsawski, a former Israel travel guide and Reform summer camp counselor, is far from the first person or group to address the challenge of alienation among young Jews. As a graduate fellow in Jewish leadership at Boston University who has worked for Jewish travel businesses, she developed relationships with many of the myriad groups trying to reach out to young, predominantly non-Orthodox Jews, including the Union for Reform Judaism, the
Schusterman Family Foundation and Hillel International.

Since at least the 1990s, Jewish organizations in the United States have been spending millions of dollars every year to engage young Jewish adults with their faith and culture, whether with trips to Israel or through fellowships and conferences.

“Everybody’s sort of trying to tap into this group where the main focus of the group is primarily professional — you’re just getting started in your career, you’ve just graduated college, you’re trying to go ahead and make money,” said Mark Rosen, a professor of Jewish organizational behavior at Brandeis University.

When Jay Sanderson took over as president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles eight years ago, he insisted that engaging young people would be the No. 1 priority for Federation. (For the Camp Alonim weekend, Federation provided campers with a $100 reduction in the cost, which ranged from $625 to $1,050, depending on a participant’s choice of accommodations.)

Jeremy Hollander strums a guitar during the Havdallah service at the Simi Valley retreat. Photo by Sara Knobel.


Campers pose before a game of gaga, a dodgeball variant typically played at Jewish summer camps. Photo by Sara Knobel.


Campers form a circle and sing during Havdallah. Photo by Sara Knobel.


“The greatest challenge facing the Jewish people is that young Jews are not engaging and connecting in meaningful ways, and the community needs to address this,” Sanderson told the Journal. “Because if we don’t, 25 years from now the Jewish community is going to look radically different and radically smaller.”

For Sanderson, addressing that challenge has meant creating programs that aim to meet young Jews where they are — in activities and spaces they already attend — including through Federation initiatives such as Young Adults of Los Angeles and NuRoots.

“More young Jews these days are taking yoga classes or SoulCycle classes than are going to synagogue,” Sanderson said. “How do we connect those experiences to the Jewish community?”

In studies by researchers such as Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Jewish summer camp has been shown statistically to be successful in inspiring Jewish participation among kids and teens. Whether Trybal Gatherings or other programs like it can crack the nut of Jewish engagement for adults in their 20s and 30s is unclear, but Cohen is optimistic.

“It has all the markings of a successful intervention, in that it brings people from a similar demographic together for an extended period,” said Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy. “As my bubbe would say, ‘What’s not to like?’ ”

The only thing resembling a bubbe at Camp Alonim was a 3-foot-tall doodle of a Jewish grandmother on the sign for Bubbe’s Beer Garden, a plastic kiddie pool in the shape of a flamingo filled with ice and stocked with beer and hard cider.

Between camp activities such as horseback riding, archery and tie-dying, participants sipped beers at picnic tables or reclined in the nearby sukkah — camp coincided with the ancient Festival of Booths, and the spacious hut served as a venue for intention-setting exercises and a discussion of the seven ritual species of Sukkot.

Jeremy Hollander sat on a pile of cushions in the sukkah, practicing a song he wrote on the guitar, his long, red hair falling in a ponytail down his back.

“Let these moments drip by like honey down a jar,” he sang. “Breathe the air, make time to care — take life slow.”

Camp was going well so far, said Hollander, 33, an aerospace engineer who lives in Hermosa Beach and plays in a bluegrass band in the South Bay. About 24 hours in, he already felt he was beginning to bond with fellow participants.

“It’s not just that it’s a cool vacation that’s easy and fun,” Hollander said. “What I want to do is connect with people in a really meaningful way.”

Later that night, he played the musical accompaniment for an outdoor Havdalah service along with another camper and Rabbi Adam Allenberg, the camp’s freelance rabbi, as other participants lit braided candles they had made earlier. After they put out the candles, the group stood swaying in a circle in the pavilion that the night before had served as an impromptu dance hall, with Israeli music and popular b’nai mitzvah songs from the 1990s.

Warsawski designed the experience after analyzing survey data from 37,000 Birthright alumni on what they would like to see in a follow-up program. “Overwhelmingly, people wanted three- to five-day, all-inclusive experiences within a three-hour driving radius of home,” she said.

The Simi Valley retreat was within a two-hour drive of most of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Trybal’s previous retreat, its inaugural session in The Berkshires region of Massachusetts in August, was a 2 1/2-hour drive from New York City.

“It’s not just that it’s a cool vacation. What I want to do is connect with people in a really meaningful way.” – Jeremy Hollander

For this West Coast retreat, Warsawski brought in local Jewish professionals such as Morris Panitz, a rabbinical student at American Jewish University and director of the Brandeis Collegiate Institute, a three-week immersive summer program at Camp Alonim in which Jews between the ages of 20 and 29 explore their Judaism through art and community activities.

At the Trybal camp, he taught small groups how to turn cucumbers into pickles with just water, salt, garlic and pickling spices. As his session wound down, he explained his “Pickle Torah.”

“Like preserving cucumbers requires changing them to pickles, so too preserving Judaism requires changing the culture to speak to our times and to our challenges and our present-day identity,” he said.

Similarly, Warsawski said her goal is to “reimagine the way that young adults gather and plug into community.”

“People are here searching for all sorts of different things,” she said. “And I think that, above all, they’re looking for their people.”

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