Three weeks ago, my beloved mother, Shirley Eskind Fingerman z”l, passed away at the ripe old age of 100. I hope you’ll allow me the opportunity to share a personal story inspired by her life and legacy.
First, a little background. At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, we see the first mention of the Hebrew word “machane” — camp. When Jacob continues on his way to meet his brother Esav, the angels of God encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob recognized he was not just in any place, but rather “Machane Elokhim zeh — this is God’s own camp. And Jacob called the place Machanayim.” (Genesis 32:2)
The commentators note that the correct grammatical form of many camps is machanot, rather than machanayim, and wonder what we can learn from this differing conjugation in the text. Rashi (the ancient commentator known for pointing out the significance of grammatical nuances) explains that Jacob uses the word machanayim to signify two different types of camps, one outside the land of Israel and one within it. Others believe it references a pair of connected camps, perhaps one camp on earth and one in heaven.
Similarly, Jewish camps today also operate on many levels of pairs. First and most obviously, Jewish camps light a spark for today’s campers, providing a joyful and immersive Jewish environment and creating a love for and sense of belonging to the Jewish people and forging a connection with Israel. Additionally, many have noted that Jewish camps’ most important audience is their college-aged counselors, who grow into accessible role models and leaders, transmitting their energy and ruach for Judaism to their campers. Camp becomes a center for creating mensches in pairs — among both campers and counselors.
Camps also operate as a pair in time. They care deeply about their immediate impact — how has a child developed and matured as a result of being away from home? How has that child forged a positive connection to Jewish life? And they also care deeply about their impact in years to come. They think intentionally about their impact today, and also, simultaneously, how participants form lifelong friendships and build a lasting Jewish identity well into the future.
During our observance of shiva, my siblings and I recounted many stories, examined countless photos, and recalled family events. We also heard many stories, some for the first time. I happened to have found a book we had never seen before, Songs of Zion, buried in one of our mother’s dresser drawers. Inside that book, we found pictures and inscriptions from her summer in 1944 at Brandeis Camp Institute in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.
Dr. Shlomo Bardin, a noted experiential Jewish educator, created BCI to train college-aged Zionist youth leaders. He brought in outstanding guest lecturers, promoted a meaningful Shabbat experience — celebrating it as a day distinct from the rest of the week — and emphasized the importance of singing as a central component of the daily schedule. Bardin’s intentional program cemented my mother’s Jewish identity and ardent Zionism, just as our Jewish camps — and their inspired professional leaders — strive to accomplish for campers today.
Mama had always reminisced about her camp years, and made sure that each of her kids benefited from attending camp. In finding and reading this book, we were mesmerized by descriptions of her friendships, her southern charm (she came from Nashville), her dancing eyes, and her participation in the boys’ choir (as a female tenor). She experienced her own “machane Elokhim” many, many years ago, and she transmitted her inspiration to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Machanayim. Camps. Such holy places to learn and grow. For campers and counselors. For today and tomorrow. For this world and the world to come.
May the memory of my mother, Chaya Sarah bat Yaakov v’Malka, inspire us to make Jewish camps flourish and thrive as together we continue to build a more vibrant Jewish future.
Jeremy J. Fingerman has been the CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp since 2010, and he is a vice president of JPRO Network, the network of North American Jewish communal professionals. He lives in Fort Lee with his family. Write to him at Jeremy@jewishcamp.org.