“The Dream of Sending Our Own Children to Camp”: Supporting Jewish Fertility Journeys

By Becca Shimshak

In 1985, I was just beginning my first summer at Camp Yavneh. Naomi Less was deep into the ruach at URJ OSRUI in Wisconsin and Dalia Davis was attending Kindercamp at the YM-YWHA in New Jersey.  For all three of us, being deeply entrenched in Jewish communal theory, ritual practice and spiritual healing at camp began a lifelong love of Jewish community. So too did a dream develop to one day send our own children to Jewish camp. The education and energy that we embraced has now blossomed into something that is impacting the future generations of our people through our collaborative creation of Uprooted: A Jewish Communal Response to Fertility Journeys

Our interconnected story began over two decades after our camp days, when Naomi hired me at Foundation for Jewish Camp to carry on her legacy of the Cornerstone Fellowship, enhancing the Jewish experience at camp through the core leaders: third year bunk counselors and senior leadership. Camp people understand that Jewish life doesn’t just live in the synagogue or even at the Shabbat dinner table. Jewish life happens on the sports field, in the swimming pool, in the bunk and under a tree. While revisiting the intended program outcomes of Cornerstone, I jump-started the team by creating pluralistic cohorts of educators, advisors and event staff that explored Jewish life inthose spaces, including Dalia Davis and  her incredibly powerful choreography as well as Jon Adam Ross (a proud Camp Ramah Wisconsin alum also known as JAR) who brilliantly uses theater and immersive experiences to build communal change. 

During my time at Foundation for Jewish Camp, I learned about expanding the definition of Jewish practice, deepening our communal ability to be pluralistic and strengthening the inter-denominational national network that is the foundation of all Jewish social change. At FJC, anything seemed possible — the interconnected web of national Jewish leaders who modeled communal gathering for social change made it all palpable. With the deep commitment to the social-emotional growth of our national camp community, it was clear to me that my core values of relationship building and principles of professionalism resonated with so many others across the country. I was not alone.

This professional and cultural growth empowered me, Naomi, and Dalia to create Uprooted. 

Imagine one decade later (and roughly three decades or more since our camp careers began), the three of us met on a hot summer day in New Haven, Connecticut to establish the vision for Uprooted: A Jewish Response to Fertility Journeys.  Naomi was a strong advocate for those struggling with fertility, taking on the incredibly brave and challenging task to put herself in the public eye during  her own fertility journey. Naomi navigated medical treatment options and — through egg donation — built a beautiful family. I began to advocate only after becoming pregnant with twins through IVF and feeling I had value to add to the journeys of others. Concurrently, Dalia was on a journey with secondary infertility. As the wife of an Orthodox rabbi, Dalia faced the challenge of navigating the tension between her public and private life. While keeping her story private during her journey, she noticed the deficits and room for growth in how the Jewish community relates to this issue. 

Dalia, Naomi, her music producer husband Glenn Grossman, and JAR proceeded to develop an incredible performance piece, devised in partnership with The In[HEIR]itance Project entitled TRYmester: Jewish Fertility Journeys Out Loud (thanks to a generous grant from the UJA Federation of New York) that articulates the depth of the emotional struggle with fertility challenges.

What we are aiming to do at Uprooted is create a community of healing for those challenged while trying to conceive by replicating the kind of community we experienced at Jewish camp — one that I believe is deeper than the traditional social bonds of our modern day society. At camp, people understand one another; people let down their guard to show that they are human by sharing communal space as well as personal space, setting healthy boundaries while keeping lines of communication open. 

That is what we are aiming for at Uprooted, and that is what we believe we can achieve by bringing all of you, our fellow Jewish camp lovers and compassionate people of our community, to help us carry one another, empowering individuals to get up after feeling defeated and try once more to achieve their dream: a dream that one day they too will have children who they can send to Jewish summer camp to experience the magic and immerse themselves in that ruach that we all know and love.

While at FJC, Becca Shimshak led the Cornerstone Fellowship and the Camper Satisfaction Insights program. Currently, Becca directs the Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy at the Jewish Community Relations Council. Becca received her undergraduate degree from Harvard University in Psychology. She and her husband Steve live in Needham, MA with their twin daughters Zoe and Isabella and their dog Lucy. 

To learn more about Becca’s story, check out her blog posts on JScreen, Reform Judaism and Jewish Boston on loss and on Purim