What Makes Prayer at Camp So Special?

Open your heart. Open to Me. Let My Presence rest on you.

The question of what makes prayer at camp so special has peppered both camp and synagogue innovation literature over the past few decades. There is an apocryphal tale of the camper returning home and insisting they could not celebrate Havdalah without a lake. Sales and Saxe (2004) suggest a few ideas: campers taking leadership roles, the presence of the Torah, creativity and kavannah. My own take comes out of the observations I have been able to make working at URJ Eisner Camp these past two summers; I came as someone with a background in Jewish education with an interest in the phenomenon of camp as well as someone who did not grow up at a URJ camp or any other Jewish overnight camp except for a few years in elementary school.

Recently I have had a new insight into this question. This is just a personal reflection; I invite your reactions on whether or not this resonates with your experience. Of course, prayer at camp is not always a positive or impactful experience. But when it is, it seems transcendent.

Camp has given me the opportunity to participate in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s educator initiative, Educating for a Jewish Spiritual Life. Through this experience over the past year, I have learned that cultivating an open heart is a core concept of Jewish mindfulness. Through our practice we explore how an open heart feels, physically and emotionally. We pay attention to the behaviors and attitudes which open our hearts, such as awareness and gratitude. An open heart leads to authentic prayer, genuine empathy, equanimity, and a capacity to love one’s self and others.

It seems to me that camp primes one’s heart to be open. The environment of camp, when it works, is one of safety and love. Campers move about confidently and freely. They know they can be themselves, whatever that means to them. Rules about how we treat others are front and center. Lifelong friendships are formed. Counselors offer unconditional love and care to their campers. In this environment, we can enter prayer with an open heart. Perhaps this is what Splansky (2006) is getting at when he says, “The sense of community precedes the praying.”

Jewish mindfulness also cultivates the capacity to provide a loving and safe environment for one’s self. As we sit, we concentrate on the phrases inspired by the Priestly Benediction, “May I be loved. May I be safe.”, as we envision those feelings and the people or places who have contributed to experiencing those feelings in our lives. This capacity is especially important when we face something unpleasant. When we have negative feelings, we try to hold ourselves with compassion through the experience. Similarly, there are times that camp life is dramatic or difficult, and camp holds you in those moments and helps you recover.

In my experience, the meaningful power of camp prayer comes through the elements of love, safety, and holding with compassion; the setting, music, and logistics of the services alone do not have the power to open one’s heart. In these crucial ways, camp exemplifies what we try to do for ourselves through Jewish mindfulness practice.


Sales, A. L., & Saxe, L. (2003). “How Goodly Are Thy Tents”: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences. Hanover: Brandeis.

Splansky, D. M. (2006). Creating a Prayer Experience in Reform Movement Camps and Beyond. In A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping (pp. 151-172).

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2 thoughts on “What Makes Prayer at Camp So Special?

  1. I am one of those baby boomers whose sense of spirituality really developed at Jewish camp. I went to URJ Camp Coleman for 8 years, typically for both 4 week sessions.

    For me, Coleman gave me a community of acceptance and support that allowed me to be myself,without the need to be responsible for the emotional well being of others. A community that taught me resonsibility to the community, acceptance of others, and individual responsibility for my own emotional well being. It was a community that provided a safe place for me to explore who I am.

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