When Dave Finkelstein, then both a rabbinic and an MBA student, phoned his parents to tell them he wanted to be ordained as a rabbi, his father thought he was joking.
“Who is this? WHAT do you want to do?” his father, an attorney, stated evenly and calmly.
In 1982, Finkelstein’s plan was to return to his hometown of Memphis to go into real estate with his Uncle Bernie.
“I think I want to work with kids,” Finkelstein explained to his parents. Since the age of 19, he had led campers at Shoresh, which was then a fledgling Jewish day camp on 107 acres of farmland in Adamstown, near Frederick.
“It’s just a passion, and I think I’m pretty decent at it,” he told them.
“Finish your master’s degree,” advised his father. “If you still want to become a rabbi after you graduate, we’re supportive and happy. You know where you’re headed.”
Shoresh, Hebrew for “root,” started as a three-week summer camp with 19 kids in 1980. There were several founders, including Dave’s brother, Sam, and Sam’s father-in-law, the late Rabbi Morris Kosman of the Conservative Beth Sholom Congregation in Frederick. Dr. Robert and Marjorie Edelman were also founders.
“Rabbi Kosman wanted something to be done for the youth in the Frederick community that really didn’t know a lot about Judaism, customs and practices, to be able to have kids grow into their Judaism,” said Finkelstein, now 61.
By the age of 24, Finkelstein — known more informally by campers as “Rabbi Dave” — became the head of Camp Shoresh. Under his direction, the day camp expanded to two summer sessions and branched out to year-round programming for adults, college students and youth throughout Maryland and Virginia.
“From baby to bubbe,” he said. “That’s our camp motto.”
Shoresh is not affiliated with any one movement in Judaism. “There are so many things that connect us as Jews, and I don’t like to talk about a few things that separate us,” said Finkelstein, who studied at Ner Israel Rabbinical College, a haredi Orthodox seminary outside Baltimore. “I’m a bridge-builder. I want to have a place where all Jews are welcome and feel at home.”
Finkelstein said Shoresh reaches out to 1,500 people, young and old, each year with more than 430 attending the summer day camp.
The facilities are used for weekend retreats and holiday events year-round.
Teens travel every winter break on trips sponsored by the Fidler Teen Tourist Center. They’ve been to Israel eight times.
Among the many entertaining and educational destinations are some serious excursions. The teens traveled to the Flight No. 93 Sept. 11 memorial near Shanksville, Pa., and to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the site of the mass shooting of Jewish worshippers during Shabbat services in October 2018.
Shoresh is in the middle of an online fundraiser that has netted $450,000 from some 885 donors for operating expenses, reported Finkelstein, who has overseen $8.5 million in building projects at the camp. He added that Shoresh distributes more than $100,000 annually in camp scholarships.
“Thank God, we’ve had over 4,000 campers and 900 staff over the years. We’re like a very big family, and that’s what it’s all about.”
“You have this magic going on here,” continued Finkelstein, who described the day camp as having a sleepaway feel. “The kids call it ‘Jewish Disney World,’ the happiest Jewish place on earth.”
He has been quoted as saying, “The Shoresh children have brought back the beauty of Judaism to their parents and, as my rabbi, the late Rav Nota Greenblatt, who was a giant in the Torah world, would often say: ‘Children take parents to a place that they never would have gone on their own.’ ”
One of the rewards of his avocation comes by way of “nachas calls,” he said. “’I just want to tell you I got engaged.’ Then another call: ‘My wife and I just had a girl.’ It’s like that here every day.”
Finkelstein affirmed that has no regrets over his choice to become a teaching rabbi.
“We’re body, mind and soul here, and therefore I needed to know enough, and I needed to be inspired myself and keep growing,” he explained. “I knew enough to become a rabbi that I could then go ahead and teach. If you don’t stimulate their minds and teach them where our Jewish customs came from, then it’s just fluff — and we’re not fluff. We run the full gamut of trying to expose our families to beautiful, positive Judaism.” ■
Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.