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Encouraging religious and spiritual identity: steps camps can take.

Developmental psychology teaches us that life offers stages of readiness for certain activities. Spiritual and religious identification emerge in early adolescence, a time when young people have a heightened level of awareness. Rapid changes occur within their social, physical, and intellectual worlds. They begin to think abstractly and show a greater interest in finding systems that can help define their place in the world.

Camp offers young people an optimal level of personal and social freedom in a healthy community. Spiritual and religious development occurs naturally. Campers can experiment with ideas and values, and practice them daily.

Spiritual development is a personal, inner sense of the world and our role within it. Youth need to discover and develop their own spirituality. With a modicum of encouragement, young people can build their spiritual identity through life experiences, modeling, and personal growth. Such development gives them a perspective on life and can help them understand their relationship with a supreme being. Religious development differs from spiritual development because it occurs within organized religious bodies and institutions.

Camp's role in developing spirituality and religion

Alumni of UAHC Eisner Camp often report that camp helped them discover their connection to spirituality and religion. Many are now professionally involved in religious life and credit their camp experiences with being pivotal in their spiritual development and religious identification. There are many ways your camp can offer an environment that helps campers develop their spiritual and religious identities.

Instill a sense of purpose in your camp community

All camps have the ability to influence campers' spiritual development. Institutions that choose to focus on religion should define themselves as such. This action tells everyone - campers, staff, and parents - about the camp's mission. The camp must then define its goals, develop a model for incorporating them, and create a method of providing feedback to campers. Camps should develop a plan appropriate for their campers' developmental stages and individual needs.

Set goals

Set goals for transmitting values. Many of us hope that our campers will take care of the world around them. If we set this as a goal for our camps, we must articulate it to the entire community. Spiritual goals also need to be articulated. One spiritual goal might be for campers to learn how they relate to the world. In camp, it is natural to discuss relationships with one another. It takes a committed effort to take that perspective beyond camp.

Implement goals

Develop a time and a way to implement your goals. As youth gain a sense of who they are, they need to discover ways to express themselves. When can this occur during camp? Who can help make it happen? Which camp programs reflect the goals for the camp? Which goals represent the values of the camp community? A camp's effectiveness will probably depend more on how well its values and ideals affect the camp community than on how much time is specifically devoted to the topic.

Provide feedback

Create a system that lets campers know what they have accomplished and how important their efforts have been. Camp staff should recognize groups and individuals who represent the camp's values. Eisner Camp recognizes campers for helping keep the camp clean, visiting campers in the infirmary, and for taking on specific responsibilities.

Provide role models

Communities with purpose need members who practice the community's values and ideals daily. Young people from these communities can look to adults and actually see them living the stated goals of the community. Values and ideals are worthwhile concepts, but seeing them in action is what really makes them come to life.

Staff need to share the camp's ideals. Keep a clear sense of the institution's goals when hiring staff. As you interview, tell potential staff about what your camp hopes to accomplish and ask them how they see themselves helping to achieve these goals. It is vital for those who work at camp to know, understand, and be able to transmit the camp's values to its clients.

Many people, including the director, counselors, and administrative staff, serve as role models. At Eisner Camp, many staff are alumni. In addition, professionals within the community, including rabbis and educators, actively participate. The camp staff's diversity significantly helps campers and adults develop their own spiritual and religious identities.

Plan activities that incorporate values into camp

Camp is an ideal setting for children to test values and incorporate them into their lives. Camp helps define certain values and provides opportunities to practice them.

Eisner Camp wanted its campers to learn to care for the needy. The campers started caring for infirmary patients and volunteered at a local community nursing home and a food pantry, and worked on a river-front improvement project. The camp also operates an exchange program with a nearby camp for senior adults. Campers know they are applying the camp's values. This knowledge translates into the campers' personal lives as they care for family members and relate to grandparents and others. These values and activities transcend the summer.

Accept the individual

Camp provides a supportive place where young people can test and experiment with values. While the camp supports a value system, the campers remain free to discover how and if that value system applies to them. Open discussion of the camp's values allows campers and staff to present ideals that everyone can consider and perhaps incorporate. Not every camper will become an ambassador for the camp, but all will know and understand the camp's values.

Camp provides campers with an environment dedicated to self-development, while offering a plethora of opportunities to learn about living and sharing responsibly with others. It is at camp that campers learn how to manage their relationships with others and to put some perspective on the world. Traditionally, camps have excelled at teaching campers about social responsibility, independence, regard for others, and challenges. By incorporating values into your camp's program, you can have a lasting impact on campers' religious and spiritual identity, too.

RELATED ARTICLE: Draw Campers into Community Projects

To successfully recruit campers for service projects, follow these steps:

Step 1: Help campers become aware of community and service opportunities.

* Invite a homeless person, your local mayor, or an AIDS victim to speak to the group. Allow time for questions.

* Show campers movies, news specials, videos, and documentaries highlighting community needs.

* Photocopy newspaper or magazine articles that mention service opportunities and distribute them to campers.

* Schedule a tour of a community agency, such as a shelter or food bank.

Step 2: Make campers more aware of ministry or service opportunities. A one-time event requiring about three to four hours helps campers commit to the project.

* Contact the director of a soup kitchen or homeless shelter to have the campers serve a meal and help clean up afterwards.

* Spend an afternoon cleaning up an older person's yard.

Step 3: Have campers commit to longer-term community projects. Whether it is helping build a school or helping with an environmental clean-up project, long-term endeavors increase campers' commitment to serving others.

Step 4: Discuss and analyze the service experience with campers. Help them affirm their commitment to a service lifestyle.


Case, S. & Comforth, F. (1995). Hands-On Service Ideas for Youth Groups. Loveland: Group Publishing, 10-13.

David Friedman CCD, is the director of UAHC Eisner Camp and the Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues youth programs. The UAHC is an umbrella organization serving Reform Jewish congregations in North America.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Camping Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on recruiting campers for service projects
Author:Friedman, David
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Previous Article:Coaching emotional skills at camp.
Next Article:Curative factors in the camp experience.

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