A day in the life of Jewish summer camp


Think summer camp is all fun and games? It is those things, but there’s a lot more to it. Just talk to some of the many veterans — from a camper to a songleader to a yoga instructor — of JCA Shalom’s residential summer camp in the hills of Malibu. 

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Boker tov!

“Every morning we all wake up to the sound of the gong,” said Maya Rosen, an 18-year-old counselor from Westlake Village. 

The gong is an old oxygen tank that gets smacked with a hammer at 8 a.m. and prior to every meal. Depending on the age of her campers — whom she has dubbed, per camp tradition, everything from the Polka Dot Princesses to the Biceps — the morning routine can involve encouraging younger campers to put their shoes on or coaxing teenage campers to drag themselves out of their bunks for breakfast, followed by nikayon (cabin cleanup time). 

“At the end of the session, if your cabin had the cleanest cabin, you [and the winning campers] get this thing called the golden dustpan and get treated to a special lunch.”

Rosen spends the day with her campers, then likes to finish the day with a game of Roses and Thorns. She offered an example: “My rose for the day was going on the ropes course. Or I made a new friend. My thorn today was, I fell while playing basketball.” Then she might sing the kids to sleep or do guided meditation to help wind them down around 9:30 p.m. (Older campers stay up later.) 

Finally, she heads to Hillel, the staff hangout, to visit, snack and check email until the 1 a.m. curfew — unless she is on shmira, or guard duty, which requires her to check bunks every 15 minutes during that time. 

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Brandon Marks, 11, loves the variety of camp days. He and his cabin mates are usually up around 7 a.m. playing card games quietly. (Lucky Bee, which he learned at camp, is his favorite.) Then they get dressed and head to mercaz, the center of camp, where they sing camp songs before a family-style breakfast.

The San Fernando Valley resident has been coming to JCA Shalom for two years, and last year a morning swim session was followed by a rotating slate of activities. 

“Sometimes it’s art. You could have nature — that’s really fun with this guy named Tigger. We grind cornmeal and make corn pancakes, or go on hikes and he’s explaining things. One time, we even went fishing. We used a net and caught little fish.” 

At Pioneer Living, he said, “We throw tomahawks, play Indian games. You can pan for gold.” Later, he might do an elective of archery or photography.

Menucha (rest) follows lunch, and Brandon might write a letter home or read a book. Things pick up again with free time — pingpong! gaga! basketball! — and don’t let up after dinner, when there could be a night hike or a team-building challenge, such as: “Can everyone in your group stand up at the same time without using your hands?”

But Saturday is completely different. 

 “There is more resting. You don’t have nikayon. You go to this service outside,” he said. And in the afternoon, there is “inflatable fun time,” featuring a giant water slide or obstacle course, followed by popsicles. 

“Saturday is my favorite day of the week,” he said. “It’s just a fun time and a relaxing time.”

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Prior to every meal, the entire camp belts out their signature “Medication! Take Your Medication!” song outside the dining hall. That’s when Maralyn Weaver, manager of the health center, and her colleagues, generally three or four other nurses, carefully oversee the entire process of dispensing medications to campers and staffers at a large picnic table, where they are treated  for conditions ranging from headaches to asthma, diabetes, anxiety and depression. 

Weaver does it all, treating campers for coughs, allergies, cuts, sprains and bee stings. She or someone on her staff, all of whom live on campus, are on call 24/7. If a child has a temperature over 100.5 F, he or she is admitted to the health center, which has four rooms. It’s then generally up to Weaver to call Mom and Dad. 

“We give the parents the option of picking them up,” she said.

The camper can return when well or wait it out at the health center, where the nurses do their best to keep them entertained, Weaver said. It helps that — unlike the rest of the camp, which is screen-free — health center patients can watch movies on DVD. 

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Joel Charnick, camp director, begins his day meeting with the senior staff in his office in what is affectionately known as The White House. (Old-school TV buffs might recognize it as Lassie’s house.) Over copious amounts of coffee, they talk about the day ahead and any camper or staff issues.

Much of the rest of his day, though, is spent responding to parents’ calls and emails. Nearly 300 photos of staff and campers engaged in the day’s activities are posted daily, and he might get a call from a mom who noticed her son wearing the same shirt two days in a row or a dad wondering why his third-grader isn’t smiling. If a parent is especially concerned, Charnick has been known to tape a brief interview with the child, asking about their favorite activities and their best friends at camp. He’ll then email this to the parent. 

“It can make a parent go from crisis mode to ‘camp is awesome’ in a minute,” he said.

Charnick, who has been director since 2003 — he was a camper from 1988 to 1991— pens a daily email to parents to fill them in on some aspect of camp, such as what Shabbat is like. And typically, twice a day, he’ll do an extensive walk-around of the sprawling campus, making sure everything is running smoothly, that safety precautions are being observed at all activities and checking in with counselors. 

“With 400 to 500 people at camp [including campers and staff], someone is always having some kind of little crisis,” he said.

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Midmorning, Jewish educator Sacha J. Kopin usually can be found teaching a yoga class with an improvised script that is tailored to her camp audience. She might talk about the strict dietary regimen of yogis, and connect this to kashrut and why observant Jews care about what they are putting in their bodies. Or she may introduce some Hebrew.

“I’m sprinkling a little Jewishness here and there,” she said. “If we were outside on the deck, we might do more tree poses because we are underneath trees, under etzim.” 

Next, she might meet with a cabin to discuss a Jewish prayer or concept. In the afternoon, Kopin works with bar and bat mitzvah students, as well as with campers and counselors she has “gently coerced” to chant Torah or haftarah at the Shabbat service. 

“I’m trying to find lots of ways for people to get involved,” she said. 

In the evening, she might pair up with another counselor doing a stargazing program and talk to the kids about the role of stars and nighttime in Jewish tradition. Then she puts her young daughter to sleep, works on programming for the days ahead and eats chocolate — “if possible.” 

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Around camp, Robb Zelonky is known simply as Robbo. Before breakfast, the songleader and drama director leads the Modeh Ani prayer on guitar: “I make it fun. I make the girls stand up, then the boys stand up.” Then he sees who can be louder. 

He spends a good part of the day working on the Musical Extravaganza Summer Spectacular, an original show which he writes and campers perform. A past production, “The Rabbi of Oz,” included this ditty, sung to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain”:

“I could study so much Torah, even learn to light menorah, sing prayers out in the rain. I would jump, I would holler. I would become a Jewish scholar, if I only had a brain.”

In the evening, he leads the all-camp song session in the dining hall. Some tunes are Jewish, such as “Hine Ma Tov” and “Pharaoh, Pharaoh.” Others are folk and pop classics: “Puff, the Magic Dragon, “You’ve Got a Friend” and the like. After dinner, tables are pushed aside to create ample space for everyone to move and dance, and Robbo rocks out on his guitar. 

“I consider song session to be Jewish exuberance,” Zelonky said. “It’s this incredible rush of energy and love and connection. It’s very spiritual. It’s like heaven on earth right there in the dining hall.” 

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