Adult summer camps offer immersive, diverse experiences

While summer camp has traditionally been a rite of passage for children and teenagers, two Chicago-based organizations offer unique Jewish summer camp options for adults.

Mishkamp image
At Mishkamp, campers participate in a variety of activities, ranging from archery to arts and crafts. Photo credit: Aleya Cydney Photography.

While summer camp has traditionally been a rite of passage for children and teenagers, two Chicago-based organizations offer unique Jewish summer camp options for adults.


While she worked at a day camp as a teenager, Ellie Spitz, Mishkan Chicago's Director of Community Engagement and Wellness, never had the opportunity to attend camp as a kid. When Spitz started working at Mishkan, she met others who had never gone to camp and felt like they missed out.

Those conversations led Spitz to create Mishkamp, a three-day retreat hosted by Beber Camp in Mukwonago, Wisc.

"Mishkamp is a taste of Jewish summer camp for those who have never been or are missing that experience and want that taste of camp again," Spitz said. "Retreat and immersive experiences are things I care about, and I think there's magic in taking people out of their daily routine. It can be transformational."

The camp attracted 45 campers during its second year of operation in 2017, including Lilia Rissman. "I didn't go to camp as a child, but I know it was a really formative experience for my dad, and he felt sad that we weren't in a place financially to send me and my two siblings to camp growing up," Rissman said. "One of the themes of Mishkamp was opening up spaces that are separate or exclusive in Jewish life, demystifying them, explaining them, making them something that everyone can share in."

 Throughout the weekend, campers participate in typical summer camp activities, ranging from musical jams to recreational time at the lake.  "It's the whole summer condensed into one weekend," Spitz said. "Instead of going to rock climbing every day, you go once."

Like Mishkan's services and events, Mishkamp strives to be inclusive and accessible to all, regardless of someone's background or familiarity with Jewish texts and traditions.

"We wanted to create a space where people feel safe and revert back to their younger self and appreciate the camp vibe," Spitz said. "It's about thinking through when you do Shabbat or Havdalah , asking, "How do you make it inclusive for people of all backgrounds?' We want someone who is fluent in Hebrew and someone who has only done Shabbat once to leave with the same feeling."

Queer Talmud Camp

SVARA, a "traditionally radical" yeshiva, offers Chicagoans the chance to study Talmud in the original Aramaic and Hebrew through a variety of classes across the city. Each summer, SVARA brings its beit midrash (house of study)  to Perlstein Resort in Lake Delton, Wisc., for five days of Talmud study as well as a variety of traditional camp activities.

"Because SVARA is a queer-normative yeshiva, everyone at the front of the room is queer and many of the students-although not all-are queer, so they nicknamed [the retreat] Queer Talmud Camp," said Rabbi Benay Lappe, founder and rosh yeshiva (dean) of SVARA. "I liked the name and the feeling so much. It captured the right gist so well that we branded it Queer Talmud Camp after that."

While SVARA is led by queer-identifying teachers, participation is open to students of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

"SVARA understands Queer as shaping the effort to move towards a more just, inclusive, and accessible world in which all people are able to live out their most fully human lives. Queerness is about thinking, living, learning, and studying in radical ways," according to SVARA's website.

At Queer Talmud Camp, participants are immersed in Talmud study for six hours each day. Many campers choose to continue their studying independently with their chevruta (partner).

"There are two beit midrash blocks in the day, and then there is what we nicknamed the 'late midrash ,'" Lappe said. "Learners are there until 2 or 3 in the morning. It's an intimate but exhilarating atmosphere. It's where people have this unique experience of empowerment and healing and insight into tradition and themselves. So much happens in the beit midrash."

Outside of the beit midrash , campers can also participate in singing, swimming, dancing, and other traditional camp activities, according to Laynie Solomon, SVARA's director of educational initiatives.

The experience of Queer Talmud Camp is one of "radical positive vulnerability," according to camper Jorge Sanchez.

"Queer Talmud Camp is a safe place," Sanchez said. "It was safe because everyone was brought into the conversation. There was no part of me that couldn't be expressed."

Sanchez had previously participated in SVARA's S&M Bet Midrash and wanted to take his Talmudic knowledge to the next level.

"I thought it was an amazing way to take some of the skills and knowledge I had acquired-my language skills, interpersonal skills, my ability to interact with text-and instead of having 15 hours over six weeks, I'd [study for]  25 hours in four days," Sanchez said. "I wanted that kind of intense focus for a few days to be away from my typical responsibilities and be immersed in this process that's become really important to me."

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