These two words, and the time off from school, evoke very strong feelings from most people in America.
The emotions depend on your age: If you are a school child or a teacher, these words represent freedom, fun, and vacation. If you are a parent, it represents some vacation and much planning – and budgeting – for camps, babysitters, and leisure trips.
While having so much time off never really made sense to me as a child, and I knew that my relatives in Europe and Israel had much less time off, I never questioned the logic and origin of this long break and just enjoyed myself at camp. But as I got older, I began to research the origins of summer vacation.
There is a widely accepted myth that the summer break originated with the farming cycle: that the children are needed then, to help their parents on the farm. Years ago, because agriculture was the main occupation in America, and farming was not as industrialized as it is today, the children’s help was vital in the summer.
As nice as this reasoning sounds, it is simply not true. Researchers point out that farm fields were planted and harvested in the spring and fall, respectively, so the children were actually in school all summer. School records show that in 1842, the school year in Detroit, Michigan, was 260 days; that’s 52 five-day weeks.
The real reason is related to the social and economic differences among Americans. Historically, when school attendance was not yet regulated and there was no air conditioning, wealthier families escaped the city heat for the cooler vacation spots. This created chaos in the school system, so they just gave a summer vacation to all children. They argued that the brain is a muscle and that it could suffer injuries if overused.
So, while the summer-was-meant-for-farming explanation will remain a myth, there is a certain truth that can be learned. The Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 20:19), “A person is like the tree of a field.” If the person is the tree, the education the child receives is compared to the planting and nurturing of a tree. A child’s mind and heart are very fertile ground. They are open to being educated and directed toward a brighter future. Every idea that they are taught or even exposed to is like a seed that is being planted. Sometimes we will not see the growth right away, just as a seed can take years to grow into a tree.
A farmer that plants a tree takes special care of the saplings to ensure that they grow correctly and are not damaged during this vulnerable period. Even the slightest injury in the early stages can have long-term effects on the mature tree. Similarly, a child’s education requires special care and attention from the parents, to ensure that our children grow straight and strong, maturing into beautiful fruit-bearing trees.
If this is true regarding the child’s education in general, how much more so regarding their Jewish education. Great care and emphasis must be exercised that each child be given a Jewish education and a true appreciation for their Jewish identity and heritage. The summer is an ideal time to focus on this aspect of their lives. During the school year, there is so much that the child is busy with on a daily basis. But in the summer, the child is free from their regular obligations. We now have the opportunity to add positively to their Jewish education.
There is no better way to instill in a child a love and a warm feeling for their Jewish identity than enrolling them in a Jewish summer camp. Many children – to whom their Judaism is taught in a synagogue classroom after a long school day – get a feeling that Judaism seems dry and boring. The summer camp experience, where they are learning and being engaged in a creative and fun way, can truly change their whole perspective.
There are many local Jewish day camps that give the children that positive experience as well. Let’s use this unique summer opportunity to plant the seeds of Judaism in the minds and hearts of all of our children.
You can email Rabbi Gerson Avtzon at email@example.com.