Jewish Ecology at Camp

By Rabbi Yonatan Neril

“That frog camouflaged in the log is so incredible,” said one camper.

“I can’t see what you’re talking about,” said another. Then suddenly: “Ah! Now I see it!”

As other campers gathered around in excitement, we began a conversation about frogs and the Jewish value of caring for all creatures.

Based on a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Avi Chai Foundation, I engaged with over 200 campers and staff at three camps during 23 sessions during Summer 2018.  My goal was to help campers and staff emerge with an awareness of the relevance of Jewish wisdom to ecological sustainability. For many campers, concerns about the future of our common home deeply resonate. The programming presented a unique opportunity to explore nature in a Jewish context and empower campers to lead more Jewish ecological lives.

Jewish camp is the ideal setting for exploring Jewish-ecological concepts in relation to biodiversity, animal welfare, food and trees. It’s valuable and impactful to take campers on nature walks through the unique ecosystems on camp property, which allows them to appreciate their surroundings in a new – and newly Jewish-inspired – way.

At Camp Zeke in Pennsylvania, for example, the programming took place next to the lake and involved creating a string web representing interdependence. Then campers were guided with eyes closed as a group, walking in nature like a caterpillar. At Camp Interlaken in Wisconsin, we explored the boardwalk within a peat bog, one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in North America and the world’s most effective carbon sinks.  And at Camp Newman on the San Francisco Bay, which last year lost its home to wildfires, we learned how Jewish teachings relate to sustainability. As record wildfires burned two counties north of camp, we connected Jewish values of stewardship to curbing climate change.

It was a privilege to help campers understand how ecology is a meaningful expression of Jewish values. As Lori Ginsberg, Teen Director at Camp Zeke wrote, “I was delighted to see the teens engage in a thoughtful and meaningful discussion, particularly outside of a classroom setting.  Your presentation was thought-provoking and timely, giving our next generation of Jewish leaders information that will inspire them to help protect our precious earth.”

With so many of us living in cities and suburbs, it can be easy to forget our connection to nature. Just like the camper who was at first unable to see the camouflaged frog on the log, we sometimes fail to notice the many wonders of creation that surround us. My hope is that we will all be like that camper and do what Judaism and ecology both demand of us: look closer. By retaining a sense of wonder and curiosity, a whole universe of complexity and beauty is revealed right before our eyes – one to be cherished, nurtured, and protected.


Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and its Jewish Eco Seminars branch. Raised in California, Yonatan was a camper and counselor at Camp Tawonga. He completed an M.A. and B.A. at Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He has spoken internationally on religion and the environment and co-organized ten interfaith environmental conferences. He is the lead author and general editor of two books on Jewish environmental ethics including Uplifting People and Planet: 18 Essential Jewish Teachings on the Environment. He lives with his wife, Shana and their two children in Jerusalem.

Jewish Eco Seminars (JES) offers programming connecting Jewish values, ecology, and Israel. JES (www.jewishecoseminars.com) accesses a cohort of dynamic Jewish environmental educators who command a mastery of Jewish teaching, deep familiarity with guiding groups in Israel, and extensive experience in outdoor experiential education.

Photo credit: Camp Interlaken JCC