Avi Orlow: Judaism Unbound Episode 190 - Jewish Camps, Jewish Utopias


Avi Orlow, Vice-President for innovation and education at The Foundation for Jewish Camp, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation that explores summer camp as a site for Jewish education. This episode is the 4th in an ongoing series of podcasts on American-Jewish education.

Learn more about Avi Orlow   here  , and learn more about The Foundation for Jewish Camp   here  .

Learn more about Avi Orlow here, and learn more about The Foundation for Jewish Camp here.

(0:01 - 15:51): Orlow reflects on his experience working for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, [1] beginning with a brief history of American-Jewish summer camping. [2] Orlow explains that, much like the Israelites going on a holiday before escaping from Egypt, [3] summer camp can be an immersive, imaginative space for the development of Jewish identity and education — and not just for campers. Orlow discusses how each camp is actually two camps: both for campers and for counselors, who will become role models in Jewish life. Orlow underscores the importance of creating intentional camp experiences that imagine lifelong engagement beyond synagogue membership, especially considering how many young Jews may not have another touchstone for Jewish engagement beyond the summer. Orlow looks at ways in which camps (often implicitly) send educational messages about goals, success, and being “in” or “out” as Jews, defining a vision of a Jewish future.

(15:52 – 32:48): Orlow describes the youthfulness and playfulness of camp as fundamental components of what enables camp to be a place for imagining utopia. [4] He then talks about ways in which some camps have brought elements of their culture into the “real world” after the summer. He looks at how orthodox camps can provide teachings for other camps when it comes to using camp as a laboratory for various visions of Jewish life. In this way, Orlow says, camps must turn the corner from being a beneficiary of their communities to being a benefactor to their surrounding communities. Orlow pivots to talk about the importance of sending a message that “you matter”, looking at the different ways that synagogue memorial boards, on the one hand, and camp sign-boards, on the other, both say that loudly and clearly. He outlines how camp is different from school in ways that are transformative for both campers and counselors — while school environments tend to emphasize power dynamics and grades, camp is a space that subverts many hierarchies, allowing for people to influence each other in ways that aren’t possible in other places. [5]

(32:49 – 54:31): Dan asks Orlow to imagine the ideal summer camp of the future. For example, could a Jewish summer camp enable campers to experience the full calendar of Jewish holidays, even though the vast majority do not take place during the summer? Orlow brings examples of how some camps have found a way to teach about Jewish history, and/or portions of the Torah, from one year to the next. Orlow also mentions FJC specialty camps, which seek to fuse Jewish education with other interests, like art or sports. [6] Lex asks Orlow to explain how summer camps influence American-Jewish culture, discussing how influential camps have been in making Tisha B’av (the 9th of Av, a fast commemorating the destruction of the 1st and 2nd temple) back on non-Orthodox Jewish calendars. Orlow adds the example of Jewish music as a realm in which camps have had a major impact on the “real world.” Dan speculates on what a Judaism Unbound Summer Camp might look like, referencing a previous conversation with Rebecca Milder. [7] Orlow closes by positing that camps can offer us new perspectives on power and culture. [8] At camp, Judaism is a dominant culture. What does it mean to be part (or not part) of a dominant culture? He adds a call to action. Camps enable and empower campers to be the leaders of tomorrow. Camp can be a place of play and education – so, Orlow says, Jewish communities must invite and demand that camps show up at the educational table with other Jewish educational institutions.

[1] Check out the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s website and read more about Avi Orlow here.

[2] Read more on the founding of Camp Ramah by reading this paper that Dan references in the episode.

[3] Before Moses demanded that Pharoah “Let my people go!”, he asked if they could go on a three day holiday first, which Orlow calls (accurately, in our view) a “retreat.” Read that text on Sefaria here.

Image Credit: Camp Tawonga

Image Credit: Camp Tawonga

[4] Orlow says that Jewish Camp offers us the opportunity to envision utopia. For campers outside of the gender binary, Camp Tawonga offers all-gender cabins, envisioning a place where kids of any gender can belong. Read about this camp’s vision of a better world.

[5] Read up on Orlow’s idea of Excellent Experiential Education here.

[6] Curious about specialty camps? Learn more about FJC/Jim Joseph Specialty Camp Incubators here. Some of the camps referenced include those specializing in sports, technology, and art.

[7] Listen to our episode with Rebecca Milder, which dovetails nicely with this conversation, and focuses in on the idea of child-centered Jewish education.

[8] For another podcast that explores the topic of Jewish summer camp, see this episode of The Schmooze, a podcast of the Yiddish Book Center, which features Sandy Fox, a scholar of education and religion.