September 21, 2018

New Jewish sports camp pairs prayer with play

On a recent summer morning, about 30 campers sat surrounded by posters of elite Jewish athletes: Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson, figure skater and Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen, and Major League Soccer player Kyle Beckerman. 

As a group, they recited the Birkat ha-Mazon, with the words projected on a screen. Then there was a short “SportsCenter”-inspired presentation on the subject of wellness that included allusions to the Talmud and Maimonides.

After that, the kids grabbed their rackets and gloves and headed out to the soccer field, the baseball diamond, the tennis court or the gym for several hours of intensive training.

This is Jewish summer camp? It is at 6 Points Sports Academy California, where about 100 kids ages 9 to 15 are getting a serious sports fix this summer. Held on the campus of Occidental College in Eagle Rock, the residential camp is offering three two-week sessions — the last is July 19-31 and space is still available — in its inaugural year on the West Coast. The fee is $3,100 per session; some financial assistance is available.

The 6 Points camp — the name refers to the number of points on a Star of David — is run by the Union for Reform Judaism, which operates 15 other residential camps in the United States and Canada, including Camp Newman in Northern California and another 6 Points Sports Academy in Greensboro, N.C. The latter, now in its seventh season, welcomed some 750 campers this summer. 

“Sixty-five percent of the families [from the Greensboro camp] indicated that their child would not have gone to Jewish overnight camp if it wasn’t for the sports,” explained California’s 6 Points camp Executive Director Alan Friedman, formerly director of the Greensboro campus. “It’s really about specialty camps and campers accessing a camp that speaks to them.” 

The vast majority of campers at Occidental are from Southern California, but at the first session, there were also a handful from Seattle, one from Texas, another from Ohio and a Jewish boy from Japan, whose father apparently found it in a Google search. Boys far outnumber girls, but on the fields and courts, they train together. (In the camp’s dormitory, each gender has its own floor.)

Harrison Stone, a soccer player from Beverly Hills, ran in a Tikkun Olam 5k.

On a typical day, the campers spend a couple of hours in the morning honing their skills in their “sport major” under the supervision of a head coach and a minimum of two assistants. So you might find soccer players stretching on the field in picturesque Jack Kemp Stadium, then working on a series of dribbling and passing drills in 90-degree heat. (Don’t worry, they take frequent breaks.) 

Nearby, a small group of tennis players, including one assistant coach from Israel, warms up with groundstrokes. In the gym, the coach runs passing and shooting drills while the lone girl in the basketball program has her foot and ankle taped courtside by the camp’s full-time athletic trainer. (There is also a nurse on staff.)

Up on the baseball diamond, Tyger Pederson— Joc’s brother, who played infield in the minor leagues for the Dodgers — and a cadre of other coaches run fielding drills while pop music plays in the background. 

The camp is intense. Kids spend two additional hours working on their sport after dinner, often participating in scrimmages and games. And in the afternoon, following lunch and an hourlong rest period, campers choose two electives for the day — maybe flag football, volleyball, Zumba or swimming.

“It’s rigorous instruction,” said Friedman, 51. “It’s for kids who have experience in their sport and are really looking to break into the next level.” 

He said he hopes to significantly increase enrollment next year, having had little time to promote the camp since the agreement with Occidental wasn’t signed until late last year.

Coaches are given talking points by the camp’s director of Jewish life as well as visiting rabbis and educators so they are able to reinforce on the field Jewish values such as kehillah (community) and kavanah (intention). 

“So when a coach sees a camper on the sports field — let’s use work ethic (musar avodah) as one of our values — if you see a camper really pushing themselves, they will give the camper a value bracelet based on that,” Friedman said. “If our rabbis or educators see campers being great sports, they can take it back to a Jewish text.”

Among the rabbis and educators spending time at the camp this summer are Stephanie Schwartz of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles and Cantor Yonah Kliger of Temple Judea in Tarzana.

Friedman is the first to tell you 6 Points isn’t for everyone. When he gets a call from a parent whose kid has only a casual interest in a sport — and he does get those — he is honest with them. 

But for Jewish kids who live and breathe a game, kids such as Eli Nissenbaum, the new 6 Points Sports Academy seems to fit like a well-worn baseball glove. Or in Eli’s case, soccer cleats.

“Before I got here, I was barely flexible,” said Eli, 11, of Beverly Hills. “My [soccer ball] juggling has improved a lot,” he added. His shooting, too. But most of all, his goalkeeping. 

Eli, whose family worships at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, said he appreciated the prayers before mealtime, even though it isn’t something he does ordinarily, and he wore the value bracelets he had earned in recent days proudly. He was especially pleased about the one for perseverance given to him by his soccer coach, and another reading “role model,” which he received after giving an impromptu motivational speech to his team during an all-camp color wars-type competition. 

Harrison Stone, 14, another soccer player from Beverly Hills, had a similarly positive experience. 

“It will definitely increase my odds of getting on my high school team,” he said. He recalled one particular scrimmage when, “something clicked and I saved every goal.” 

But perhaps his most memorable time at the camp took place off the field during siyum, which is when the entire camp gathers before bedtime. They say the Shema and the Hashkiveinu, and on one particular night, Harrison borrowed a guitar and played “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz with a counselor.

Friedman said that night epitomized the camp’s purpose.

“For us, it was what Jewish camp is about: having a camper help lead an event,” he said. “But also what happened that night [was] Harrison gave a gratitude bracelet to the head soccer coach publicly. It was a very emotional moment. It was so meaningful. It was everything we work toward. Harrison got this whole concept of why do we live our Jewish values and he presented his coach this gratitude bracelet for being this great role model and for helping him.”