The songs and silly moves of summer camp linger deep in memory’s recesses, invoking wistful recognition. When those tunes and traditions reflect religious faith - for instance, the post-meal prayer "Birkat HaMazon," a part raucous, part soulful Hebrew blessing - camp connects to a larger spiritual tradition.
"If you play it for the right people, they’re going to get this intense feeling of nostalgia and it will transport them back," Mike Mason said of iconic camp songs.
Mason, an educator at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, vividly remembers his own summers spent at Camp Eisner, in Great Barrington, Mass.
Spending time at a religious camp can help shape, or even generate, a sense of identity for young people. Mason sees the experience as laying a foundation for "having a meaningful Jewish life" - a concept that might be different, in application, for every participant.
"They can see that they can experience their Judaism in a way that is authentic for them," he said. "Opening the door to that kind of exploration for a kid is really cool. Information is at our fingertips all the time, but real, tangible, face-to-face experience with people who are like us is really important."
Congregation Beth Am refers its families to opportunities at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa and Camp Tawonga in the Stanislaus National Forest, and last year the synagogue also started its own weeklong camp.
"There’s about three hours of learning content during the day, but it’s done in a way where it’s more experiential - it is not classroom learning," Mason said. "There are everyday applications of Jewish things they may not know about - there’s a blessing you say when you wash your hands, there’s a blessing you say when you eat. They’re exposed to prayer in an upbeat, musical way."
Weaving religious learning into the adventurous athletics, arts projects and other "camp stuff" in the summer experience lets religious camps cater to young people’s interests while also packing in theological and cultural learning. In a 2011 study, the Foundation for Jewish Camp found that as adults, former campers were more likely to donate to a Jewish charity (25 percent), attend synagogue (45 percent) and light Shabbat candles (37 percent).
"Our agenda is to have our campers come out of this with a lifelong love of Jewish learning and feel connected Jewishly and feel like they have friends here," Mason said of Beth Am’s program. "Our educational programming is built around this idea that we want these kids to interact with each other."
And his campers extend the summer idyll beyond camp week.
"Our sixth-grade students are taking Hebrew once a week in the summer, and we have camp reunions once a month throughout the school year," Mason added.
Lisa Conway, who directs the Vacation Bible School at Los Altos United Methodist Church, corrals more than 100 volunteers to run the weeklong local tradition. Teenagers return to lead in the classroom, and parents and grandparents volunteer in what Conway sees as an opportunity to grow "deeper and deeper in what our faith invites us to be."
"It’s not about getting good grades," Conway said. "It’s not about being the best of a team, the goals you score or striving to be perfect - it’s about living a values-based life that accepts everyone, accepts compassion. And learning about forgiveness, which is a big deal. We do it very simply, and they hear it."
She said approximately two-thirds of campers have an affiliation with the church, but many participants come from other faith communities to "learn a values-based lesson that is interpreted through a story in the Bible."
"We’re called to do it because we want the kids to know that a part of who they are is how they live life," Conway said of the church’s camp philosophy. "You just come and absorb and take away what’s going to be meaningful to you in that time, and it’s a gift that we get to give to children and the community. And it’s fun!"
The lasting effects of a religious camp experience can continue to pull even at campers who didn’t embrace the doctrine packaged in the prayers.
As a child, Los Altos resident Tanya Capuano found herself at a Seventh Day Adventist camp in Yosemite National Park - Camp Wawona - not through her own faith, but as a tagalong with a cousin. She didn’t join the religion, but she became a lifelong believer in the glories of the Wawona experience itself.
"The camp had a huge, positive impact on my life. I even worked there during my high school summers," she said. "Fast forward 25 years, my kids are now going to Camp Wawona ... as well as several of their friends from Santa Rita."
Capuano didn’t just appreciate the camp despite its religious aspects. She found that a faith-based structure itself held value even for those firmly outside the church.
"My home life was really unsettled at the time - my parents were going through a divorce and my father was an alcoholic," she said. "Camp was a place I could be myself, it was a nurturing, safe place to be. I looked forward to it because it was a very grounding experience, and it was a place like Yosemite, where the whole scenery was like a chapel - the chapel was literally benches outside. It could have been Catholicism or Buddhism - it was very grounding. The religious component provided that."
They’re "not trying to convert you," Capuano said of how she continues to view the faith camp experience as her children attend and learn prayers unfamiliar at home.
"Culturally, it’s important to know about religion regardless of what type," she said. "My job as a parent is to expose you to different religions and you can decide for yourself."
Capuano still returns to camp to drop off her children and attends the last campfire of the session.
"It looks exactly the same, the same songs," she said. "For me, it takes me back, and it’s such a warm, comforting feeling to go back to that place."
For more information on Beth Am’s program, visit betham.org/learning/youth/campbetham.
For more information on Los Altos United Methodist Church’s Vacation Bible School, visit laumc.org/children/summer.
For more information on Camp Wawona, visit campwawona.org.