by Rabbi Abram Goodstein
As the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Anchorage, Alaska I have experienced many wonderful opportunities to be part of a beautiful and tight-knit Jewish community. Alaska is far away from the rest of American Jewry. But I have discovered that distance doesn’t matter when it comes to being a creative and compassionate Jewish community. I believe that if Judaism can thrive in Alaska, it can thrive anywhere.
However, Judaism in a place like Alaska is not without its complications. For example, Jewish kids growing up in Alaska spend much of their lives in non-Jewish spaces. This often forces them to become Jewish ambassadors, whether they want this role or not. Jewish kids in Alaska practice customs and live lifestyles that don’t match up with their friends or even entire institutions like their schools. This comes at a cost to their wellbeing, mental health, and sometimes even their safety.
That is why Jewish camps in Washington, like Camp Kalsman, are such a unique opportunity for Jewish children who live in small or isolated communities in the PNW and Alaska. At camp they don’t have to explain themselves. They don’t have to explain their customs, or their lifestyle. They get a break from being ambassadors and they get a chance to be their Jewish selves. This break is important; it’s an opportunity for them to recharge. Recharging along with experiencing the incredible programming, friends, and role models that camp has to offer is a huge benefit to their wellbeing, identity, and mental health.
But something else important happens at camp for children who come from small or isolated Jewish communities. They come back home equipped with more tools to define Judaism. They come back more assured of their Jewish identity and with a better understanding of their place in the Jewish world. They come back as better ambassadors. Kids from Alaska are used to explaining Judaism to a non-Jewish world, and Jewish camps provides for them a language to be more confident in describing it. This is why Jewish camping is vital for children who live in places like Alaska. This is how Jewish camping makes such a positive impact on all children.