Her name was Cheri. She was engaged to Keith and they were planning to marry. I met them in a Conversion to Judaism class that I was teaching. A relationship ensued between Cheri and Keith and me, in that they were totally dissatisfied with their Rabbi and asked if I would “sponsor them” on the road to Cheri’s conversion to Judaism and ultimately officiate at their wedding. Other than the fact that Cheri broke her leg two weeks before the wedding and walked down the aisle with her leg in a cast, I will always remember a story Cheri told me about her childhood.
Cheri was raised in Brooklyn by a single parent. Her father abandoned her and her mother when Cherie was an infant. Cheri’s mother was Catholic. Yet, when Cheri was ready to attend Summer Camp, not one Catholic Camp in all of Brooklyn was prepared to respond to any and all pleas on the part of Cheri’s mother accept Cheri, in that Cheri’s mother didn’t have the necessary funds. Despite all attempts, virtually every Catholic Summer Camp in Brooklyn slammed the door in their face. There was, however, a Jewish Summer Camp in Brooklyn that did not slam the door in their face. This Jewish Summer Camp would in no way deny a young girl a camp experience. Her religious background and upbringing was not a factor.
I recently thought of Cheri when I read about Camp Nefesh based at Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Louis, Missouri hosting refugee children. Regardless how many of us might feel about the current debacle taking place at our southern border, there are those in St. Louis who feel that the children of these refugees should not be denied a (day) camp experience. Nor are they alone. Jewish Day Camps in Washington State, as well as in California, have adopted a similar approach toward the children of refugees.
However effusive our Yasher Koach is to these Jewish Day Camps who possess such concern and neshomeh (soul) for children of refugees in this country, I would also hope that Jewish Day Camps open their gates, their arms, and their hearts to children born into Jewish families who are in dire financial straits. The Jewish Day School I attended no longer exists. The memories, however, live on. Among those memories are contemporaries of mine, born to Holocaust survivors who struggled to put food on the table. Yet, those contemporaries of mine were not in any way denied a Jewish education. And those contemporaries of mine had clothes to wear, even if those clothes were “hand-me-downs.” If a Jewish Day School can do this, there is no reason why a Jewish Day Camp cannot. Until Moshiach comes, the reality is that there will be those among our people who are living in poverty.
I have no idea if color wars and other similar activities are still in vogue at Summer Camps. I would hope however that the praiseworthy efforts of Camp Nefesh and other camps become a learning tool for the campers. Five years ago, a documentary was produced titled, “50 Children-The Rescue Mission of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus.” Very much attuned to the storm clouds brewing over Nazi Germany, the Krauses undertook to wrest 50 Jewish children from Vienna in the Spring of 1939. I believe that this documentary ought to be shown to campers – particularly on Tisha B’Av when the inyana d’yoma (Aramaic for topic for the day) ought to be discord among Jews – so that they be made aware of an antidote for the much too pervasive enmity that exists amongst Jewish groups. Shouldn’t the tenet Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la zeh (all Jews are responsible for one another) be inculcated into the minds and souls of the upcoming generation?
Last but not least, embracing the stranger must not be a 4 or 6-week mitzvah. I would hope that on Parents Day, the parents of the campers be sensitized to this Jewish value. To have a refugee family at your Shabbat or Festival family is meritorious; to have a “have-not” Jewish family at your Shabbat or Festival table is one beautiful mitzvah.
Kudos to Camp Nefesh for showing us that what they offer is more than “child’s play.” Perhaps Jewish families will follow suit throughout the year to show that Nefesh and Neshomeh are virtually interchangeable.