Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

Summer Camps and the Nine Days by Nathaniel Helfgot

August 3, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

As the summer months progress and we are in the thick of the Nine Days, I find myself returning to ponder the dissonance that sometimes lurks below the surface of the written guidelines of the halakhic texts and how we live life in the real social constructs that we experience. I refer specifically to the entire rubric of the Nine Days and how we navigate their essence in the contemporary reality of an important slice of Orthodox sociology of the summer months i.e.  the reality of the Orthodox summer camp.
In all segments of the American Orthodox community – right, left and center – summer camp has been a central part of the educational and social experiences of many if not most of the youngsters (and many of the educators) in our community for three and four generations.
What is fascinating is that while camps constantly struggle with many detailed halakhic questions such as allowing regular swimming or just instructional swim or allowing movies or not having movies, Jewish music over the loudspeakers during the day or not etc., these technical issues belie the reality that the entire essence of a camp experience and the Nine Days aveilut context are often in conflict. To put it in stark terms paraphrasing and using the Rav’s terminology on aevilut- camp can fundamentally be perceived as one big experience of simchat mereiut in the best sense of the term. It is an experience of shared fun and experience with hundreds of kids and adults (often with very positive anciliary Jewishly inspired educational purposes depending on the camp and context), meals with hundreds of kids shouting and laughing,cheering, night activities with no music but hundreds of kids and young adults having a positive fun experience, etc.

I still vividly recall that when I was the head of Camp Morasha’s Machon program twenty plus years ago, the camp policy was that the older campers did not watch movies for any night programs during the Nine Days, yet they would occasionally take the kids on an outing to a local mall and bowling, which to me seemed much more of a simchat meriut than sitting in a room quietly watching some action thriller. These paradoxes and dillemas are inherent to the social structure of camp which the late Ashkenazic rishonim who bequethed to us the extension of the restrictions of Shavuah she-chal bo into a Nine Day period could not have imagined or envisioned. And yet camp for so many kids in all segements of the Orthodox community, it is a critical educational and maturing experience that helps them grow as Jews and human beings. And so in the end it seems to me that we create a kind of symbolic “observance” of the Nine Days or the Three Weeks in which we don’t take haircuts or shave (depending on one’s custom), or in some camps have some kind of instructional swim or other changes, while in essence camp and its regular rhythms continue as the dominant culture that it clearly is. It is part of the real-life dissonance of navigating the push and pulls of conflicting Jewish and educational needs and desirata.

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