When a Reform summer camp in Mississippi invited an Orthodox summer camp for a Fourth of July celebration, the get-together became national Jewish news. The onslaught of publicity caught both camps off-guard.
“To me it seems like a normal event,” said Rabbi Avichai Pepper, camp director for the Orthodox Camp Darom. “There’s no reason to think this is anything different… Most of the people who work at the camp are used to not seeing a difference: a Jewish child is a Jewish child.”
“I think all of the cultural or practical differences may exist [when] we’re talking about 60 kids coming together,” explained Jonathan “JC” Cohen, camp director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp. “It’s kids being with kids at camp”
The two camps are roughly three hours apart from each other; Camp Darom, an arm of the Orthodox Baron Hirsch Congregation of Memphis Tennessee, is in Grenada, MI, while the much larger Jacobs camp is in Utica. Cohen said that both camps in the deep South have similar goals.
“You live in the Bible Belt and you get comments by your Christian classmates who don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish,” Cohen explained. Jewish camps offers a place where Jewish campers “get to be in the majority instead of the minority.”
Camp Darom is the only Orthodox camp in the Southeast United States and, with the exception of a small camp in Arizona, the only Orthodox camp in the entire south. The camp, which rents a piece of land owned by the United States Army Corp of Engineers, serves roughly 50 children. The Jacobs camp, which is run by the Union for Reform Judaism, serves close to 230. Both camps were founded in the mid-1970’s.
The day for the get-together was chosen for a specific reason.
“Unlike any other part of our 3,000 year history, the U.S. has really been very good to us,” said Rabbi Pepper. “I can’t think of celebrating a better day. Here we are in the same area as [the film] “Mississippi Burning” and we’ve got a nine-foot Israeli flag hanging under an American flag.”
Cohen said he was cautious about the programming and ensured that no lines would be crossed. Camp Darom would be bringing its own food, since Jacobs does not have a kosher kitchen, but the two camps would be eating in the same dining hall.
“It’s a good Jewish thing for people to eat together,” said Cohen, adding, “We’re not going to pray together.”
There will be a carnival and a parade and a concert by the Jewish musician Dan Nichols. Given the Orthodox prohibition on mixed-swimming, URJ is having separate swimming hours for its water slide. The URJ also ordered a snow cone truck to come in the evening and asked the operator to provide a kosher syrup. Cohen said that an event last year fell through, but this year funding help was provided by the Foundation for Jewish Camps.
“It was a small investment on our part to create this program and we hope this will inspire them to find other ways they can work collaboratively,” Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp explained. “More of the Jewish world should follow the camps… They’re modeling the way we should act as a community down the road.”
The organization holds a series of conferences for camp directors across the United States from all spectrums of Judaism — from Reconstructionist to Agudah-like camps.
Both camp directors agree that growing up in the South breeds a specific type of Jew.
“There’s not a lot of Jews, and because the Christians in the south are very verbal in their Christianity you have to fight to be Jewish,” said Cohen. “If you’re really fighting for your identity, you generate a more passionate Jew.”
Macy Hart, the CEO of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, said that Jewish life “isn’t lived in the shadows.”
” Jewish life in the South has been one of true commitment to Jewish identity,” he said.
Hart was also the first director of the Jacobs camp, a camp he said that initially the Reform leadership was not so keen on.
“Never underestimate the determination of Jewish parents in the South to expose their children to a Jewish experience,” he said.