What’s Happening at Ramah
Summer camp for the soul: Programs mix activities, outdoor fun with emphasis on religious principles
by Faith Dawson, February 2007
(This article first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 10, 2007)
Even though kids remain wrapped up in schoolwork and layers of wool and fleece, some already are planning for summer camp. This summer, more than 11 million youngsters will swim, sing around campfires, tackle crafts and sharpen their archery skills at camp.
But some of those also will take to the woods for prayer services and reflection on their faith. Thanks to an increase in faith-based camps that's rising quicker than a pile of dirty laundry on a bunk bed, many camp experiences are becoming rich with spiritual experiences. These camps still come with the lake, the pine trees and the mosquito bites but also are trimmed with religious significance.
"We try to integrate the values and the teachings into almost everything that we do — in the way we act, the way we eat, the times that we do prayer," said Fred Levick, CEO of Ramah Darom, a Conservative Jewish camp in Clayton that serves about 900 campers from 11 states. "It's not only about having fun, but it's also about learning how to be a responsible person and a responsible Jewish person and building community."
The American Camp Association, a national organization that accredits camp programs, estimates that 17 percent of U.S. camps offer religious studies, though the extent and intensity vary. Such faith-based camps have increased 14 percent since 2000. They continue to grow, especially in the Midwest, according to an American Camp Association study.
Faith-based camps enjoy some of the highest retention rates — up to three of every four campers return for another season, said Rhonda Mickelson, executive director of the association's Southeastern section."Parents realize that providing their child that opportunity to go to camp helps provide them with skills that allow them to be that productive adult," Mickelson said.
February typically is a time when cold-weary parents and children start to consider which camps are for them. Camp Web sites eagerly count down the days (and sometimes the hours and minutes) till the summer sessions welcome their first participants.
Kristen Shook, a 10-year-old in Stockbridge, returns year after year to Camp Pinnacle in Clayton, run by the Woman's Missionary Union of the Georgia Baptist Convention. She swims, boats and hikes. She studies music and drama — and prays and reflects every day at the girls-only camp. "You get to learn about God, and you do a whole bunch of fun activities. ... I think it's much more fun than the other camps I've been to," she said. The family atmosphere appeals to the fifth-grader: "Everybody's nice, and it's just like having your cousins or something in the cabin."
The camp earns further praise from Shook's father. "What it really offers, " said Mike Shook, "is the same kind of things as you'd get in the secular [camps] but with an emphasis on Christian principles, which, even if you're not a Christian, are still good principles to live by: loving others, being kind, friendly competition."
Sydney King, a 12th-grader from Athens, has attended Camp Pinnacle every year since second grade. She said it's encouraging to be in an environment where the counselors and staff are open about their faith and where girls her own age can be passionate about their beliefs. "I base my whole summer around Camp Pinnacle, so that's the first thing that goes on my calendar," King said.
Sometimes a summer program comprises the bulk of a child's religious instruction. For instance, Huma Faruqi organizes the five-week summer program at the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta in Fayetteville and advises the eight-week summer program at Masjid Al-Ihsaan in Riverdale. She calls the programs "summer school" — they're daytime only — but students have a field trip, arts-and-crafts projects and occasionally sports sandwiched between prayers and Arabic and Quran lessons.
The programs are optional but immerse young Muslims into Quran study, well beyond the faith lessons they learn year-round. "It is a very academic program. We have tests, we have competitions, we have memorization, quizzes ... there isn't a single activity that isn't religious-based in this school," Faruqi said.
Dr. Jelunder Clark, a family practitioner who lives in Peachtree City, appreciates the academic environment of Islamic summer school, which her 8-, 9- and 11-year-olds attend. She said she considers them too young to go to overnight camp but has sent them to summer sports camps. "This is the age where they're like sponges. They're taking so much in. If you're going to learn a second language, this is the time to do it," she said.
Camp outreach is growing beyond the summer session, too. Faruqi's summer-schoolers held a bake sale and raised $1,000 to benefit Iraqi orphans. "We encourage them doing things for people other than themselves," she said.