What I Learned about Jewish Entrepreneurship at Interfaith Camp

There I was in the craft store parking lot. Twenty-four, clueless and trying to budget for enough tack and glitter to make this a day camp that was recreationally appealing, let alone worth attending.

But there I was. Dreaming of craft supplies and the opportunity to coordinate an interfaith children’s camp.

I was excited and terrified.

I had almost nothing and everything.

I spent that summer in a periodic haze of mucking up and making lemonade from my professional lemons. The task? Creating a viable day camp that taught peace education to pre- and early teens.  I was the Program Coordinator, who would build it in a room on a public university campus. Housed at one of its Christian colleges.  A camp not only conceived by people who had never created a camp, but now, made by a person who never coordinated anything, let alone a summer camp.  The odds were not exactly in our favor.

Did I mention I’m also a Jew? Though I was exposed to years of experiential programming during my time at Jewish summer camp,  I had never worked explicitly in a Christian setting. Professional Jewish mother that I am, I began (badly) by creating an eight page medical form.  Meanwhile, I got to explain to concerned colleagues that, at Jewish camp, our medical forms were quite literally the length of a Torah scroll because health, safety, and Jewish parents.

I also grappled with how to make a solid program. Youth-centeredness versus passive participation.  In my years working with immigrant and neighborhood youth, I had heard from these young people first-hand of the tendency for adults to command cities, streets and policies to the exclusion of the youth who lived here. Given these obstacles, I wondered if it would be possible to design a camp in which children worked in partnership with influential adults to design peaceable projects, all the while championing the right of children to think for themselves.

Still, I persisted, because the moral imagination of children is a frequently untapped – but instrumental source – of wisdom and change. So, I invited a Holocaust survivor and an aging yoga instructor to speak to twelve to fourteen year olds. And, the summer after that, an AIDS survivor. And a student studying Peace and Conflict Studies that was dying of cancer. I still remember how she read the notes the campers gave her after she received her terminal diagnosis, as if she knew her story would live on long after she had left this world.

The children listened, asked questions, confronted and dialogued, then they would design their own strategies, approaches and initiatives to make the community prosper. A multi-generational peace movement, that was ever-growing and grounded in continuous hard work and collaboration.

The miracle of this work was that surprise lurked around every corner. It was the place where I learned children should be trusted to teach. It was the place that I learned we all have a part to play in peace, from the design of our children’s programs to the feeling of welcome in all of our institutions and peace endeavors.

It’s ironic that it took two summers at a peace camp for me to understand the Jewish concept of justice (tzedek). Here, I learned that tzedek is about making the world right.  To do right by yourself, but also by your neighbors.  Because justice, as it happens, requires the just contributions of every last one of us. And the moral righteousness to listen and include.

This summer, the camp I was privileged to coordinate for its first two summers turns five-years old.

Though, at times, I wax nostalgic about that 24-year-old in the parking lot, camp, like Jewish entrepreneurship, is an enterprise that is bigger than any one of us, in which others should rightfully be at the fore.

I recall the time the mother of a camper came to me and shared that her daughter was badly bullied and hadn’t laughed in months. That is, until she spent her summer with us at camp. And another time, in which a former camper came up to me for a hug at the mall. At camp, he had discovered and was now pursuing his passion for human rights laws. And then another time in which  a Muslim student, moved our staff and campers to tears with the story of his grandfather’s decision to hide Jews during the Holocaust.

Five years later, and camp is flourishing.

It’s no secret: The success is in the campers and their stories.

 

Devon Spier
Devon Spier is a rabbinical student and spiritual entrepreneur. Over the last decade, she has made her home in the small suburban shtetl of Kitchener-Waterloo, where she supports the leadership of Jewish young professionals, children, new mums and donors so that they may lead in innovative ways that raise up the institutions to which they belong.