In March, Young Judaea’s Camp Solelim made headlines for turning away a prospective camper because he’s not Jewish. Before having made their final decision, I wish they would have spoken to Aaron Ingram. A Winnipeg-based real estate and corporate commercial lawyer, Aaron is by all accounts a leader in the Jewish community. He sits on the board of directors of Camp Massad of Manitoba as well as the Shalom Residences; he is a member of the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Committee, he is a Jewish Federation donor and, as he describes it, is “a longtime supporter of the Jewish community and the state of Israel.”
Did I mention that Aaron is not Jewish?
Let’s back up to when Aaron was a chubby-cheeked, blond 5-year-old in 1989. That summer, he accompanied his mom who had taken a job as the head cook at Camp Massad in Winnipeg Beach, the Hebrew immersion camp that I also attended. Fast forward 18 years, and Aaron had logged 10 years as a camper and eight summers as a counselor, including two as assistant director. (His mom, Marilyn, is still head cook.)
A very agreeable kid with a big personality, as a youngster Aaron quickly landed leads in the camp plays. With no formal Hebrew background, his lines were transliterated for him. Soon enough, he acquired the services of a Hebrew tutor during the school year. By the time Grade 5 rolled around, he was enrolled in one of Winnipeg’s half-day Hebrew-immersion schools. In grades 7 and 8, he attended Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate, the Jewish high school, where he earned a spot in the highest Hebrew level. He recalls being able to finally read the camp play scripts in Hebrew letters as a “big moment” for him.
“As a child growing up in the disadvantaged North End of Winnipeg,” Aaron told me in an e-mail interview, “my experiences in the Winnipeg Jewish community, being immersed in the wonderful environment that is Camp Massad, a world of creativity and intelligence, and the lifelong friendships that I have developed … have heavily influenced me.”
I asked Aaron whether he feels Jewish. Not religiously, he tells me; he is an atheist. (That there are Jewish atheists is admittedly a bit of complexity we didn’t get into.) But he considers himself culturally Jewish, and certainly a part of the Jewish community. “I have cried tears of despair in the death camps in Poland,” he tells me, “and have cried tears of joy upon my arrival in Israel.”
And were he to meet and marry a Jewish woman who wanted him to convert, he says he would do so “without hesitation.”
Aaron recalls his early experiences with daily and Shabbat prayers at Massad. “When I was a young camper, participating in the daily prayers and Shabbat tefillah, it felt like being handed the keys to a secret world that was welcoming me. I loved singing the prayers. I still know most, if not all, by heart.”
For his part, Aaron thinks Solelim’s decision to bar access to Tyler Weir is seriously misguided. As a board member at Camp Massad, he personally extended Tyler an invitation to join the Camp Massad community and offered to personally fundraise to offset the cost of airfare from Toronto to Winnipeg.
It’s clear that there’s a value clash between the particularist and insular dimensions of Jewish programming, and especially Jewish camp – fueled, no doubt, by the fear of intermarriage. On one hand is the need to inculcate culturally rich and rigorous experiences in our youth. On the other is the desire to fit in with Canadian multicultural values of openness and pluralism. Even there, though, multiculturalism relies on robust transmission of cultural identity, something that can most easily be achieved in a culturally homogeneous context, some would argue.
Yet, people like Aaron – and I join him in this sentiment – would claim that opening the windows a crack to those who might have their own reasons for wanting to partake of our rich communal traditions may yield unexpected benefits not only for them, but also for the communities of which they may seek to be a part.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.