Jewish camps take in refugee children

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shutterstock_328551707Do you know how you can identify a religious person?

It’s not the one who has the most impressive life cycle ceremony.

It’s not the one who is praying the loudest.

It might not even be the one who spends an inordinate amount of time studying sacred scripture.

It is really quite simple. It is someone who puts his or her religion into action.

I am a Reform rabbi. And I have never been prouder of my movement than I am today.


Here is my reason — at least, today’s reason.

With all of our national and international conversations about Syrian refugees, the United States faces another crisis in immigration. That is the flood of immigrants who are entering this country from Mexico. In particular, we are talking about kids coming into this country without their parents.

As many as 10,000 a month of them, entering Texas alone.

So, let’s talk about the Reform Jewish camping movement. I am a product of that camping movement, as are my two sons, and hundreds of thousands of other Jews.

The Union for Reform Judaism owns and operates 16 summer camps around North America. It is the largest and, arguably, the most successful Jewish camp programs in the world. The number of Jewish camps in general continues to grow — thanks to the activism and support of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. We call those camps for “living Judaism.”

Jewish summer camping is a major success in this country — and it goes way beyond the borders of the Reform movement. Conservative summer camps (Ramah), Orthodox summer camps, Zionist summer camps — all of contribute immeasurably to American Jewish continuity.

(Actually, the impact is quite measurable. Check out this study on Jewish camping, by sociologists Steven M. Cohen, Ron Miller, Ira Sheskin, and Berna Torr. Or, this study by sociologist Len Saxe and Amy Sales. Or, this history of Reform Jewish camping by Gary P. Zola, Gerard W. Kaye, and Michael Zeldin, among others).

Jewish camps are so successful in creating Jewish identity, that they have served as models for other religions and cultures that are interested in fostering continuity and identity among their young people. A number of years ago, Tibetan Buddhist monks actually visited Jewish summer camps in order to learn how to imitate the model and put it to work to strengthen Tibetan Buddhist identity.

OK. So, Jewish summer camps “work.” They create a sense of Jewish identity, community, and spirituality. They make Judaism fun. They make kids “more Jewish.” Are they good for anything else?

As it turns out, yes.

Back to Texas.

Remember those immigrant children who are entering the United States without their parents?

My old friend, Loui Dobin, is the director of the Greene Family Camp, a Reform summer camp, near Waco, Texas. He heard about the huge number of immigrant kids coming into Texas, and he said (basically): “No sweat. We have room for them.”

And so, nearly 600 immigrant children are enjoying temporary quarters at Greene.

As it turns out, this is not Greene Family Camp’s first time at the moral rodeo (a particularly apt metaphor for Texas).  In June, 2014, Greene Family Camp welcomed more than 1,000 unaccompanied children who came across the Texas border.

I am trying to imagine what it must be like — being a camper at Greene Family Camp, arriving on the first day of summer camp, plunking your duffel bag down in your bunk, and knowing that only a few months ago, an immigrant kid was sleeping there.

And knowing that the camp where you are about to swim, play soccer, sing, and hang with your friends actually had a small but powerful role in making the world better.

We were strangers in the land of Egypt, right? So, we do what we can for people who are escaping their own Egypt. Can we fix the whole problem, immediately? No. But, we can at least do a little bit.

After all, they do call those camps places of “living Judaism.” Places where Judaism is actually lived.

Imagine if other Jewish camps, like the Conservative Ramah camps, did the same thing. And then, Christian camps as well.

You don’t need a new version of the Statue of Liberty sitting on the Texas prairie, with the voice of Emma Lazarus saying: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses….”

All you need is the knowledge that you are living your faith.

Greene Family Camp is not alone. My Reform colleague in Vancouver, Canada, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom, has inspired his congregation to raise $40,000 to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.

In Phoenix, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz hosted a Syrian refugee family for Thanksgiving.

Why do we need these examples? Because, let’s face it: religion has been getting a bum rap. A lot of people see what religious fanatics around the world are doing, and they are saying: If that’s what religion is supposed to be, count me out.

Instead, we Jews should be shouting about these Jewish leaders, who are kicking serious Jewish ethical butt and walking the walk and talking the talk — the biblical walk and talk, that is.

As an anonymous black Baptist preacher once said: “A religion that ain’t no good on Monday, ain’t no good on Sunday.”

Or, as it turns out, Saturday as well.