‘I can’t believe it’s Jewish!’

‘I can’t believe it’s Jewish!’

When I went to Hebrew school in the 1970s, we were still using textbooks from the 1950s. The girls in the illustrations wore short dresses and Mary Janes; the boys wore pie-sized yarmulkes, shorts, and neckties — in their homes!

Somehow I grew up to live a highly engaged Jewish life, but not until I shook off a perception that Judaism was for, well, prim little girls and nerdy boys with neckties and gigantic yarmulkes.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Lately I’ve noticed a number of Jewish organizations and individuals marketing themselves in part by addressing negative perceptions like mine. An ad promoting Jewish camping, from Greater MetroWest’s One Happy Camper program, features two kids in a sailboat, and the tag line, “Funny, they sure don’t look like they’re exploring their Jewish heritage.”

The Foundation for Jewish Camp has a similar campaign, this one declaring: “They see total blast. You see tradition.” And the Forward recently ran an essay by local writer Jordana Horn titled “A Jewish Summer Camp That Doesn’t Feel Like One.”

The approach reminds me of how Richard Joel, former head of the international campus Hillel movement, once described his mission: to transform an organization that had a reputation for attracting “the nerds, the dweebs, and the geeks.”

It’s an interesting selling point — essentially, “I can’t believe it’s Jewish!”

In my teens I worked at a camp that was ostensibly “Jewish” but, except for a Friday night blessing and the preponderance of Lacoste alligators, was indistinguishable from a nonsectarian camp. That’s the old-wave version of “I can’t believe it’s Jewish!”

In the new wave, the point is to offer effective Jewish programming that doesn’t remind the kids (and, perhaps more importantly, their parents) of synagogue, Hebrew school, or wherever else they had a less-than-ideal Jewish experience. Horn’s essay is about Eden Village, a Jewish environmental overnight camp in the Hudson Valley. According to its website, campers focus on farming, food, and wilderness to “deepen their sense of personal purpose, contribution, and Jewish identity.”

And it’s not just camps. Last week the Times profiled Rabbi Dovi Scheiner and his wife, Esty, a Lubavitch-trained couple who run the non-Lubavitch Soho Synagogue. The Scheiners are known for “hosting buzz-filled downtown parties without obvious religious content.” The article describes an event at an “art-filled loft on Bond Street in Lower Manhattan” attended by “a stream of stylishly dressed young Jewish professionals: financiers and investors, designers and artists.”

And yet the approach is not “Jewish-lite” or “Jewish without the Judaism” — or at least it doesn’t have to be. Robert Lichtman, who oversees One Happy Camper as executive director at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, says the goal of its marketing plan is not to water down or disguise the Jewish content of Jewish camps. Rather it is to overcome perceptions of people who, unaware of a revolution in Jewish camps, still associate them with aging facilities, musty equipment, or ladled-on ideology.

Today’s Jewish camps, said Lichtman, find effective ways of connecting Jewish learning with camp life. “If you have the right informal educators, you can find teachable moments on a sailboat or around a campfire,” said Lichtman. Camps can be laboratories for Jewish lessons about nature, community, and conduct.

But first you have to convince the kids and parents, like those who told a marketing firm hired by the Partnership that they don’t want a camp that’s too religious, or too much like “Hebrew school.” Even religious families are looking for Jewish camps with top-notch athletics or arts. “My colleagues and I are competing with a lot of other entertainment and educational options,” says Lichtman. “Our programs need to compete at the same level of quality and attractiveness.”

Apparently, it’s working. One Happy Camper has given out over 800 $1,000 “camperships” for first-time campers. Tracey Levine, who manages the program, has had over 900 consultations with families exploring the idea of a Jewish camp.

I have two reactions to the movement to hippify Judaism, if a movement it is. First, smart marketing doesn’t have to come at the cost of tradition. In the competition for hearts and minds, you have to understand your audience to remove the obstacles that keep them from becoming “customers.” Chabad has proved this over the years, and One Happy Camper is proving it now.

On the other hand, Judaism needs its nerds. Jewish life is a counterculture, and thrives when it offers a critique of the mainstream. If you remove everything that makes Judaism distinct — its languages, its rituals, its texts — you’re left with a pretty thin gruel.

“I can’t believe it’s Jewish!” marketing promotes Jewish communities to people who could never see themselves as part of a Jewish community. Overdo it, however, and you end up not with a Jewish community but with little more than a place where Jews go. The challenge is to make tradition relevant to folks who may have doubts that it is, and to keep it vital for those who never had such doubts to begin with.

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