Monday, July 30, 2018

The Unconventional Kiruv of Agudah

Camp Nageela 
Yakov Vinnik is a pretty smart fellow. Over Shabbos I had a discussion with him on a variety of issues and found him to be bright and knowledgeable. Including on the subject of religion in general and Judaism in particular. While admitting that he was not religious he nevertheless had some very positive things to say about Judaism.

What makes this significant is that Yakov is only 12 years old. I met him at Camp Nageela Midwest, over Shabbos. He was wearing blue jeans, a blue tee-shirt and a baseball cap with a pro USA slogan on it. More about him later.

Nageela is a summer camp for elementary school age children (through 8th grade). It caters to boys and girls in separate periods. Campers come from non observant homes and operates under the auspices of the Agudah. I was there last Shabbos during the boys session.

Nageela also has a teen division where the campers continue their encounter with observant role models. Many of them end up at NCSY at their suggestion.)

What I found quite astounding (beside the fact that Agudah is not known for Kiruv) is that none of the campers were asked to be religious even while they were there. Aside from the fact that they ate Kosher food provided by the camp they were left to their ‘own devices’ from a religious standpoint. 

For example most of the boys did not wear a Kipa. Nor were they told to. I was surprised to see a Dvar Torah given by a boy whose head was uncovered. Chilul Shabbos was practically ignored. No one said a word unless they were specifically asked. Which would be responded to with an honest answer. Otherwise they were left alone.

The counselors (from high school and beyond) are all volunteers - mostly from right wing Lakewood type Yeshivos. But you would not know that to look at them because they dressed the same way the campers did. They wore blue jeans or shorts, polo shirts or tee shirts, and a variety of hats not associated with Judaism. Like baseball caps worn backwards. The only telltale sign that they were Charedi was the black velvet Kipa they wore when they weren’t wearing a cap, cowboy hat, or the like. 

Counselors are not allowed to wear their ‘uniform black hat look’ except on Shabbos - clothing that is ordinarily de rigueur  for these young men. Most of them had nothing to do with secular Jews of any kind. For the most part they associated only with people like themselves - other Charedim. All of a sudden they are placed into an environment unlike anything they were used to – or had ever experienced.

As if that weren’t enough, secular music could be heard all day long blasting through a loudspeaker. Even during the three weeks (including the 9 days!). Nageela even had live music during that time. All, (I assume) with the approval of the Agudah Moetzes.

One might wonder how this was in any way a Kiruv camp if this was the attitude and atmosphere? How could the Agudah Moetzes allow this kind of camp or participation in it? What is gained if the campers go home and continue their non observant ways as before?

The answer might surprise people who see the right wing as caring only about themselves. The goal is continuity of the Jewish people. By instilling in these campers a love of Judaism they might just decide that it is important to marry a Jewish woman someday when that time comes. While this may seem like a drop in the bucket in the face of a 70% intermarriage rate by 90% of the Jewish population, every Jew counts.

This is what Camp Nageela is about. Instilling a love of Judaism into these young campers. By providing them an experience heavily peppered with Jewish culture – a culture based on Halacha and tradition, the hope is that they will end up with a positive association to Judaism to the point that when they become adults and seek marriage - they will not want to end their line of Jewish descent by marrying out. If there is more than that - all the better. But even in those instances they have to be careful.

Sometimes they are even more successful than they  want to be. One staff member told me that a bunch of campers started asking for Tzitzis. I guess they like the way it looked wearing them out and the sense of Jewish identity it gave them. Counselors were told to advise them against it in most cases. They feared it might produce a backlash from the parents if their children came home looking like that. That would be counter-productive to their goal.

Nageela is not only about the campers though. It benefits the counselors too by exposing them to a world they did not experience. One where they can be inspire - and be inspired! They learn a lot just by interacting with these campers. When camp ends many of the staff are overcome with emotion after their experience. And return each year for more the following year. All without any pay or even tips!

What about the campers themselves? Do they come back? I was told by camp director Ari Strulowitz that they have an over 70% retention rate! Many of those kids come into camp not having a clue what Orthodox Judaisms is all about and leave with a positive attitude about it.

I saw this for myself in my discussions with Yakov. Even though he is not religious he has a profound respect for Judaism and he determinedly expresses it. He wears a baseball cap in public school as a means to cover his head. He calls it his Kipa and refused to remove it when asked by his teachers. His belief in God as the Creator  is based on his own rational thought. As are his beliefs of how the Torah's narrative of the 7 days of creation is compatible with scientific theories on the subject. I was truly impressed by this youngster. I asked him why he keeps coming back (this was his 4th year at Nageela) and he told me he loves it and said that they must be doing something right if he keeps coming back.

One might wonder how Agudah was able to devise a program that deals effectively at a Kiruv level - never having done so before. That’s where NCSY comes in.  When the property was donated to Agudah it was on condition that at least part of the time it would be used for Kiruv. So they turned to NCSY for advice. (NCSY was part of the program at first as a joint project. But Agudah wanted its own stamp on the project. So after Nageela learned some of NCSY’s methods they parted ways.) 

 What they have learned they have successfully integrated them into their summer camp program. I saw a lot of it there last Shabbos. In fact some of those campers end up in NCSY which is recommended to those who are felt will benefit from it. 

I cannot speak highly enough about what I saw at Nageela Midwest over Shabbos. If only there a lot were more summer camps like it.

Updated: 7/31/18