Camp: With social media, campers now stay connected through an endless summer

For 12-year-old Sophie Golden, camp is “kind of like a different world,” where electronics are a no-go and her bunkmates feel more like sisters than friends. When she misses that feeling during the year, there’s an easy way to get it back, even if just for a fleeting moment — by checking her phone.

That camp feeling “is coming back a little bit, but the second I stop texting, it goes away,” said Golden, who attends Beber Camp, a Jewish summer camp in Mukwonago, Wis. She said she never worries at the end of the summers about losing touch because she and most of her camp friends stay in constant contact in group chats and on Snapchat, the photo messaging application.

Though camp has traditionally been a summer-only experience, the increased use of social media and technology by kids is changing that — and camps are catching on.

“For our campers, that camp experience of being connected to your camp friends never ends, it doesn’t just last eight weeks of the summer anymore,” said Jamie Lake, who serves as marketing manager for the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago’s two overnight camps and nine day camps.

That’s a positive as Lake sees it.

“I think it’s fantastic,” she said. “Anything that we can do to keep the positive feeling of Jewish overnight camp going longer than just the summer is a benefit, not only to our camp programs, but really to our campers and their families.”

And the JCC Chicago camps rely on social media, too, in keeping campers connected, such as using Facebook’s live streaming service in order to broadcast reunions to campers who cannot attend.

Social media also provide a way for campers to hang out — virtually, that is.

Camps Airy & Louise, Jewish brother-sister overnight camps in Thurmont and Cascade, Md., organize year-round events that campers can attend by logging onto Facebook and Instagram. During Chanukah, the camps ran a scavenger hunt in which campers were asked to photograph themselves wearing their camp shirts in various locations, and submit the pictures to the camps’ social media pages. Camps Airy & Louise also run online fantasy football leagues and NCAA men’s basketball March Madness brackets.

“If they’re going to be in a fantasy football league — some of them are probably already in three or four — why not be in a fantasy football league with camp?” said Jonathan Gerstl, the executive director at Camps Airy & Louise.

Golden’s Beber Camp organizes virtual events once a month during the year, such as “Where in the World is Beber?” when campers on winter break post photos of themselves around the world.

Brad Robinson, manager of customer experience and marketing at Beber Camp, said that anywhere from a few dozen to 200 kids — the latter representing nearly a third of all campers — participate in the events.

Although Golden communicates with her camp friends on her smartphone at least once every other day, she makes time for in-person meet-ups. Still, asked to imagine a world without cellphones, Golden said her relationships with camp friends would probably suffer.

“I think we wouldn’t be as close in the summer and have as much to connect to,” she said.

Robinson of Beber Camp echoed Golden’s experience.

“I think [social media] definitely allows for deeper relationship building, because they are just a few finger taps away from communicating with their friends,” he said. “It has allowed campers and staff to really further build those relationships, where in the past, it was only when they saw each other in person, or they were maybe writing some slower mail or emails back and forth.”

And parents are catching on too, using group chats to share letters they received from their children or to ask one another questions.

“Parents find out who’s in their child’s bunk and they exchange phone numbers and they start a group text to everybody,” Rabbi Joel Seltzer, executive director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Conservative Jewish camp in Lakewood, Pa., said.

For other parents, social media provides not only a way to connect with their children’s camp experiences but also to the camps they attended in their youth.

This summer, Sophie Golden’s mother, Davina, will be attending a reunion for Herzl Camp in Webster, Wis. — her first reunion since she worked there as a counselor 25 years ago. Davina Golden said she probably would not be attending were it not for having connected with old camp friends on social media.

“I lost touch with a lot of my friends,” she said, “but then, since Facebook, we all got in touch with each other.”

Camp: Security first: fun and adventure in a safe setting

Chicagoan Christie Tate isn’t one to be easily cowed.

A lawyer and writer, Tate lives with her husband and two kids on the city’s South Side, which has seen a surge in violent crime over the past year. Last year, her kids got a day off from school because of an active shooter threat. Over the summer, someone was murdered in her alley.

But while Tate doesn’t want to change her lifestyle out of fear, the recent spate of bomb threats at Jewish community centers across the country gave her pause as she considered whether to send her kids back to a JCC camp this summer.

“I don’t believe that we should go running and alter our lives and our summer plans because of threats,” Tate said. “But then, when I was doing my research, I saw the pictures of the kids standing on the sidewalk during a bomb threat, having been evacuated — it just became more real. I just thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I was swayed by that, which is probably a problem.”

Despite the wave of recent threats against Jewish institutions, coupled with a surge in anti-Semitic activity in recent months, no one has been seriously injured by a security breach at an American Jewish summer camp. The worst incident many camp leaders could remember was in 2012, when a group of intruders drove through a religious camp in Pennsylvania yelling anti-Semitic slurs and damaging property.

But many Jewish camp leaders aren’t taking any chances.

“The foundation of our success is all about the sacred trust that exists between our parents, our campers and our communities and our camps,” said Paul Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs for the Union for Reform Judaism, which operates 16 summer camps across the country. “Parents have to have confidence that the people and place to where they’re going to send their children, in whom they’re going to entrust their children, has as their highest priority their child’s welfare.”

As with many Jewish summer camps, the Reform movement’s security efforts were beefed up significantly  after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The movement launched a security manual for their camps, created specific job requirements for camp safety personnel and established protocols for responding to a range of threats. It also retained the services of an Israeli security firm, which recommended security improvements from entrance gates to lighting and video surveillance. The camp’s security protocols are reviewed and updated annually.

Many involved in security at Jewish camps say that training and advance preparation are key — perhaps even more important than guards or barriers, both of which are increasingly common.

Among the preparedness steps camps are taking: the development of protocols that determine who does what in the event of an emergency. Preseason security training for camp staff has become commonplace. Camp leaders also are strengthening their relationships with local law enforcement, and many law enforcement agencies conduct annual site visits to familiarize themselves with the camp environment and provide advice.

“In the end, it’s all about training,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Training itself builds awareness. You can never train enough. By continuing to train, you’re building that sort of level of awareness.”

Security at summer camps presents a number of unique challenges not faced by urban Jewish institutions, which typically have a defined perimeter and controlled access points. Camps are open, their borders often marked by little more than a tree line, and everyone involved in their security acknowledges the need to strike a balance between safety and preserving the sense of freedom and openness emblematic of the camping experience.

They also have to contend with an evolving security climate. While radical Muslims presented the foremost security challenge in the wake of 9/11, that is no longer the case. Many camp leaders noted the case of Anders Breivik, who gunned down 69 Norwegians at a summer camp on the island of Utoya in 2011, as well as the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut in 2012.

“My concern is not just from jihadists anymore,” said Paul Goldenberg, the director of the Secure Community Network, the organized American Jewish community’s security arm. “We’re starting to see a real uptick from the white supremacist side of the house right now. Some of these people are calling for death to the Jews. It’s pretty serious.”

Goldenberg stressed that he knows of no specific threats against Jewish camps and would not hesitate to send his own grandchildren to one, a sentiment shared by many other Jewish camp directors. And while most directors contacted for this story were hard-pressed to name a single serious security breach at a Jewish summer camp, a handful of recent incidents have raised the alarm.

In the summer of 2012, several intruders drove through Camp Bonim, a religious boys camp in rural Pennsylvania, according to local police who later arrested five suspects. In 2015, it was Camp Agudah Midwest, a religious camp in Michigan, where two vandals spray-painted a swastika and damaged a building, according to The Associated Press. That incident came two weeks after an attack at upstate New York’s Camp Karlin Stolin, in which three teenagers threw bottles and coins at campers and staff.

Officials at all three camps declined a request for comment. But security experts say the incidents only serve to highlight the dangerous level of unpreparedness at some Jewish summer camps.

“If anything, the risk has continued to rise,” said Joshua Gleis, a security consultant who works extensively with Jewish institutions. “I do think that camps certainly need to continue to button up security as you see schools, houses of worship, community centers doing right now. Many camps are not taking the actions that I think they should. While many have been improving, I know many camps that have still not changed their security structure significantly.”

Camp Seneca Lake in Honesdale, Pa., isn’t one of them. On the advice of the State Police, camp owner Irv Bader now has guards check all trucks entering the camp for deliveries. The camp has also hired 24-hour armed security — “not rent-a-cops,” Bader said — and installed a network of security cameras that are monitored around the clock. At night, the camp is illuminated with high-wattage lighting.

“It looks like daylight in the camp,” Bader said.

“I do it because it’s necessary,” he said of his security precautions. “The world is crazy today. And you’ve got too many crazies around. It’s a deterrent.”

Despite the heightened sensitivity, many camp directors say the most common threat to the well-being of campers comes not from violent attack, but from the weather.

Jamie Simon, the director of Camp Tawonga in Northern California, said she is far more concerned about an earthquake than an intruder. (In July 2013, her camp was hit by tragedy when a counselor died after a tree fell on her.) Still, the camp installed a video camera last year at its front gate so it can screen visitors remotely.

Camp Tamarack in Michigan is taking the camera tool even further. New technologies enable surveillance systems to learn about normal movement in an area and send an alert when it detects something anomalous.

For a camp like Tamarack, that sort of assistance is invaluable. The facility is among the largest Jewish residential camps in the country, covering more than 1,000 acres and 400 structures.

“It’s a force multiplier,” said Gary Sikorski, the director of communitywide security for the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. “You can monitor areas that would be almost impossible to monitor with an individual.

A counselor at Simi Valley’s Camp Alonim sits with some of her campers. Photo courtesy of Camp Alonim

So, you want to be a camp counselor

While some Jewish sleepaway camps start accepting staff applications as early as September for the following summer, most camps are still looking to fill at least a few spots as late as April.

So, if you’re a high school senior or older, it’s not too late to apply. Some camps also hire high school seniors-to-be.

More-established camps tend to hire their own camp graduates in high numbers, but most value new hires as well, for their fresh ideas.

The Journal contacted a handful of directors of Jewish residential camps throughout California to find out what they are looking for in camp counselors, whether bunk counselors who spend the day with a group of kids or specialists who run a specific activity. Here are five key characteristics.

You want to work with kids

Dan Baer, director of Camp Mountain Chai in Angelus Oaks, said a desire to work with kids is a must. After all, counselors are often with them all day, and many sleep in the kids’ cabin at night.

Beyond liking kids, counselor candidates with childcare experience have an advantage, and it doesn’t need to be anything formal. Maybe the candidate has baby-sat, Baer said, or taken care of nieces and nephews, worked as a day camp counselor or lifeguard. Perhaps they are involved in community theater and often work with the youngest actors.

That said, Baer and other camp directors recognize how demanding high school and college is. Taking advanced-placement classes and playing in the school jazz band or similar activities might not leave time for much else. So long as the passion for working with kids is there, that’s sufficient.

“Regardless of your specialization at a camp, your main role is to be a counselor and take care of kids,” said Mara Berde, associate director of JCC Maccabi Sports Camp outside San Francisco. “Counselors are serving as parents, older siblings, role models. They are supervising kids all day long.”

You are willing to learn

Young adults should not be discouraged if they lack expertise in a traditional camp activity such as archery or arts and crafts.

“For positions that depend on a certain skill set, applicants that have those skills have an advantage — for example, lifeguards or horse wranglers,” said Josh Levine, executive director of Camp Alonim in Simi Valley. But “for a number of positions, we can train our staff before they get to camp in the summer. If they don’t have an archery certification from a governing body, we can train them and get them certified.”

Being open to a position you hadn’t originally considered might land you a job.

You’re in it for the right


Although the idea of spending summer in the great outdoors with a bunch of other collegians might sound like terrific fun, being a camp counselor is demanding work, said Dalit Shlapobersky of Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa near Big Bear.

Ariella Moss Peterseil, associate director of Camp Ramah in California in Ojai, added, “I always say, Jewish summer camp and the Israeli army are the only two places where, as an 18-year-old, you are given the lives of people in your hands.”

Not only does camp staff need to take its responsibility seriously, members need to understand “what an amazing opportunity they have to impact, because they are 24/7 role models,” she added.

“It’s totally legit: You want to be with your friends. But be ready for the additional step. We always say it’s about creating new memories for these kids and not about reliving your memories.”

You have empathy

For their interviews, candidates should anticipate questions about various scenarios. For example, what if a camper seems withdrawn? Or maybe a kid in your cabin isn’t showering — what would you do?

“It’s less about, ‘Do they have the right or wrong answer?’ and more about their approach,” Berde said. “Are they coming to their answer from a caring place?

“A lot of kids are coming to camp for the very first time,” she added. So there might be a sixth- or seventh-grader who has never been away from home and other campers who are on their third or fourth year. Berde said she wants staff members who are “able to empathize with kids in that situation.”

You connect with kids — no matter your personality type  

Although many may hold to the image of a kooky camp counselor onstage in some ridiculous camp skit dressed in an equally ridiculous costume, all camp counselors need not be extroverts.

“We hire a wide variety of personalities to match the wide variety of our campers,” Baer said. “That includes shy and goofy and loud and quiet and all of it. It’s our job to make sure we have a balance.”

Camp directors recognize the strengths that more introverted candidates might bring to the position. Yes, they need to be able to hold a conversation. But, Berde said, sometimes the more reserved candidates are the most thoughtful and end up as “silent leaders.” Berde calls them “the glue.”

Often, she added, these are the staff members with whom campers connect on a deeper level.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

A direct connection for a Holy Land education

Aviv Mussali believes there’s one surefire way to effectively teach American Jews about the Holy Land while they are at camp: introduce them to native Israelis like him.

“Bringing Israeli education to camp can’t be done better than bringing Israelis to camp to do that,” said Mussali, who became a senior scout at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu in the summer of 2009. “Israelis come with passion for education, especially after finishing the army. They have seen the conflicts, and they have lived through rough times. Speaking about their stories, and even just being there as friends, is a great tool.”

His role at camp involved hosting Israeli activities, integrating costumes and props from the country and rewarding campers with Hebrew T-shirts. Mussali had such a great experience that he went on to serve two more summers there, leading its Israel Day and giving a weekly update on events in the Jewish state.

This approach to Israel education is by no means unique among local Jewish overnight camps, many of which offer special programming, hire Israeli staff members and integrate Israeli education into regular activities.

For example, this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, and Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles’ summer camp in Running Springs will be commemorating it with special art, dance, music and cooking programs. It will focus on the traditions of the different ethnicities — Russian, Ethiopian and American — that have immigrated to Israel.

According to Executive Director Menachem Hecht, this program will be “a really integrated, immersive, holistic educational experience. It brings to life our heritage and our relationship to Israel.”

A number of the Bnei Akiva staff members are Israeli, flying in to work for the summer. Often, when campers or staff go to Israel to visit or study, this helps provide them with a social network there and a place to spend Shabbat, he said.

At the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps (WBTC) in Malibu — Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp — staff from Israel teach attendees about their country and serve as role models. Campers who are at least sophomores in high school also have the opportunity to go to Israel for four weeks with WBTC and the North American Federation of Temple Youth, according to the WBTC website.

“Bringing Israeli education to camp can’t be done better than bringing Israelis to camp to do that.” -Aviv Mussali

Camp Ramah in California in Ojai is another camp that offers opportunities to learn about Israel by actually going there. It sends campers to the Holy Land through the Ramah Israel Seminar, a six-week exploration and study trip for former Ramah campers entering the 12th grade.

According to Rabbi Joe Menashe, executive director of the camp, there are currently 12 campers on a semester-long program in Israel called Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY). Students in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades go to Israel to learn secular and religious studies, participate in simulated army training and do community service.

These campers may be inspired to travel because of the 30 Israeli emissaries who work there every summer. Ariella Moss Peterseil, an Israeli who is associate director of Camp Ramah, started out at Camp Ramah in Canada in 2000 right after she finished her army training.

She said that in Ojai, the camp has a Yom Israel (Israel Day) each session that’s run by the Israeli educators: “They choose a topic and the campers and staff have an experiential day all around camp, which includes food, music, educational programming, dress up, ceremonies, activities, debates and sometimes social action for a cause in Israel.”

Peterseil emphasized that in order to gain a real education on and relationship with the Holy Land, campers need direct contact with Israelis.

“Our kids cannot have a positive connection or real knowledge about this place we call home unless they get to have real hands-on experiences and relationships with Israelis,” she said. “We achieve this by bringing a group of 30 young Israelis every summer and believe that the friendships and relationships are the most important part of the shlichut [mission].”

During the weeks that Camp Alonim in Simi Valley is in session each summer, campers there also have the chance to interact with Israeli staff members. According to Executive Director Josh Levine, the camp has an extensive Israeli folk dancing program, and kids are taught how to broadcast Israeli music over their camp radio station. An Israeli song plays as a signal to campers that it’s time to clean their bunks. 

Levine said it’s important that the campers gain an Israeli education because the country is “a major fact of Jewish life today, not only for Israelis but also for Americans.”

“We want campers to learn about Israel and the diversity and vibrancy of the life and culture there in a short amount of time,” he said.

Camp JCA Shalom offers single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms and showers and installed gender-neutral signs on the doors about a year ago. Photo courtesy of Camp JCA Shalom.

Spirit of inclusion for transgender students prevails

Amid the national debate over transgender rights and the use of school bathrooms, a number of local Jewish summer camps quietly have been adjusting their policies to accommodate transgender students.

People who are transgender typically identify with the opposite gender to their birth sex, although some feel they are neither male nor female. Just under 1 percent of teenagers — almost 150,000 youths ages 13 to 17 nationwide — are estimated to identify as transgender, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

The Jewish Journal spoke to four area camps about their approach to transgender campers. All the camps said they sought to be inclusive spaces for all types of campers, although some had more clearly defined policies toward transgender students than others.

Camp JCA Shalom, Malibu

Just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed people from all walks of life into their tent in the Bible, Camp JCA Shalom strives to accommodate campers and staff from a variety of backgrounds, according to camp director Joel Charnick. He calls it “Big Tent Judaism.”

“We like to find ways to be more inclusive and less exclusive,” he said. “We are welcoming of people with all different backgrounds, all different self-identities, and that includes kids and staff who are gender-questioning or transgender or gender-neutral.”

Camp JCA Shalom offers single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms and showers, located prominently at the center of the campus, Charnick said. The bathrooms and showers have been there for some time, but the director said the camp put up gender-neutral signs on the doors about a year ago to make it clear they can be used by anyone.

The camp also allows transgender campers — fewer than 10 have attended so far — to sleep in cabins that correspond to their gender identity rather than their birth sex, Charnick said. He said sometimes parents have questioned this philosophy while touring the camp, but he is not aware of any who have chosen to send their children elsewhere because of the issue.

In the spirit of inclusion, the camp added a 10th core value to its list of philosophical principles last summer. Kulanu, meaning “all of us” in Hebrew, is a concept discussed with campers and staff, Charnick said. Staff and campers are instructed to be respectful and welcoming to everybody and must sign an anti-bullying pledge.

“Camp relies on this concept of being a safe place for people,” Charnick said. “Once people feel safe, then they’re going to want to try new things and they’re going to grow in all sorts of different ways. But they have to feel safe first; that has to be the foundation.”

Camp Alonim, Simi Valley

Transgender campers are welcome at Camp Alonim, it’s as simple as that, said executive director Josh Levine. The camp, located on the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University, has had only one transgender student so far, he said, but the doors are open to more.

“They’re human beings like you and me, and if they want to come to camp, then of course they should be allowed to come to camp and be welcomed when they’re at camp, like any other kids,” Levine said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. It’s all about respect and inclusion and equality.”

Levine said initially he was uncertain about how to best accommodate a transgender camper when presented with the request in 2015. He said he sought advice from other summer camps and from the national organization Keshet, which advocates for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.

The camp director said the student was allowed to use the cabin and bathrooms that corresponded with his gender identity. Levine said prior to camp, he also contacted parents of other children in that age group to inform them of the situation and to ask them to remind their kids that the camp is an inclusive place. He said he probably wouldn’t send that kind of notification again because it doesn’t seem necessary.

“Kids just want to make friends with other nice kids, and that’s what happened. That might sound surprising, but kids were just happy to get to know this really nice, creative, funny kid,” he said. “People coming to camp in 2017 should not be surprised to see kids of all different kinds of backgrounds at camp, including transgender campers.”

Camp Ramah in California, Ojai

Executive director Rabbi Joe Menashe declined to comment on whether Camp Ramah has a specific policy or approach when it comes to transgender campers. He said the topic had been discussed during staff training and the camp is “aspiring to be maximally inclusive.”

“It’s not about a topic, it’s about people,” he said. “It’s clearly something that, as we seek to honor the dignity of every individual, is on our minds but … I would prefer not to speak about individual people or specific policies because I think that gets complex in the public sphere.”

Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa, Big Bear Lake

Last summer, Camp Gilboa followed the lead of the national Habonim Dror youth movement by making changes to how Hebrew suffixes are used at camp, with the goal of making the language more inclusive. Instead of using the masculine suffix –im when referring to a group of people that includes males and females, the camp now uses –imot, a combination of -im and the feminine suffix –ot. For example, the age group known as Chotrim is now referred to as Chotrimot.

The camp also has incorporated a gender-neutral prefix for people who do not want to be referred to as a specific gender. For example, in addition to madrich for a male counselor, or madricha for a female counselor, a counselor also can be referred to as madrichol.

Executive director Dalit Shlapobersky said the campers adopted the changes immediately and without any problem.

“It’s a good educational opportunity to raise awareness about how language is used,” she said. “Not only with this [transgender] aspect of it, but just educating campers, making them more aware of gender roles … of how language enforces or makes gender roles more concrete in daily lives.”

Shlapobersky said the camp also has a gender-neutral bathroom in the dining room, the result of a decision made by campers many years ago. Currently, the camp does not have gender-neutral showers or locker rooms, she said, but that’s because it has never had a transgender camper at Camp Gilboa.

“We are prepared to deal with it when the need arises,” she said. “We are a totally, fully open community and everyone is welcome. So when someone is transgender … then we are ready to accept them and make sure that it works.”

Two girls use a Bunsen burner at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy in Massachusetts. The camp is the model for the camp that is coming to California. Photo courtesy of URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy

Science and technology camp coming to California

Parents who want their kids to have a Jewish camp experience but also a summer of science learning soon won’t have to choose between the two.

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) is planning a science and technology camp in California, the Union’s first such camp on the West Coast. The 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy is set to open in the summer of 2018 at a site to be determined, with organizers expecting several hundred campers in fifth through 11th grades for two-week overnight sessions.

The camp will be modeled after URJ’s science and technology camp in the Boston area, which began in 2014 and now attracts about 500 students each year. Campers explore a variety of scientific fields, such as robotics, video game design, computer programming, forensics and environmental science, all within the context of Jewish practices and values. Each student picks an area of study, along with two electives, each week.

The West Coast camp is being funded by grants from the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jim Joseph and Avi Chai foundations.

“We’re so excited to be able to bring this to California,” said Miriam Chilton, the URJ’s vice president for youth initiatives. “We think it will be a really powerful fit for the Jewish community.”

The URJ is exploring locations in both Southern and Northern California, Chilton said. Once a site is found, the plan is to design a camp curriculum that draws on the expertise and industries in the surrounding area: animation and film in Southern California, for example, or computer technology if located closer to Silicon Valley, according to Chilton.

“We’re still looking for the perfect location,” she said. “We’re searching for an environment where the camp can feel very intimate, where [the campers] have freedom of movement, where the facilities are top-grade, and where they can experience both the advantages of technology equipment and labs but have a wonderful outdoor space.”

Chilton said the URJ expects to have a site for the camp identified by March.

Jordanna Flores, a former assistant director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Education, Los Angeles campus, is serving as director of the West Coast camp. She has a wealth of experience leading educational and youth programs.

Flores said she hopes the science camp will appeal to kids who might not be interested in traditional Jewish summer camp.

“The idea of specialty camp is that we can reach kids who just wouldn’t find enough stimulation at a general camp and reach them through the specific thing that gets them excited and shows them how that thing can intersect with their Judaism,” she said. “A kid who loves robotics or designing video games can do it through a Jewish lens and see how those things can be Jewish.”

A goal of the camp is to bring in scientific experts — particularly Jewish ones — to talk with kids about cutting-edge research and take campers on field trips to see science at work, Flores said.

Campers will gain not only new scientific knowledge but also an understanding of how science and technology relate to the Jewish faith and people, Flores said. She cited examples such as how astronomy ties into the Jewish calendar and how biotechnology innovation in Israel prevents tomatoes from going bad during shipping.

“Education and creativity and approaching problems in a different way is part of our Jewish history, it’s part of our Jewish culture,” Flores said. “The way that the State of Israel was founded and all of the technological innovations coming out of Israel, it’s a very [Jewish] thing to approach something in an innovative way.”

A science camp in Southern California would be URJ’s second in the area, operating in the style of 6 Points Sports Academy on the campus of Occidental College, and its seventh speciality camp overall. The per-camper cost for the California Sci-Tech Academy is projected to be similar to the $3,100 cost of the sports camp, Flores said. Scholarships also will be made available, she said.

Chilton said she hopes students who attend the science camp will leave with “a sense of curiosity to want to continue to learn, and also very much a sense of pure joy. An understanding of how they themselves fit into the larger world, not only in terms of
the skill acquisition … but also how those skills help build out a strong and vibrant community.”

For more information about the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy in California, visit

When choosing a sleep-away camp, ask (lots of) questions

Sleep-away camp is a rite of passage. In Southern California, we are fortunate to have many wonderful Jewish residential camps to choose from. But how do you choose the camp that is best for your child? 

Seek recommendations from friends, for sure. In many cases, you can even tour camp facilities. During your research, it’s vital to ask the right questions, even the ones that may seem trivial or silly. 

The Journal reached out to officials at a variety of Jewish residential camps from San Diego to the Bay Area who suggested 10 important questions to ask when considering a camp, or simply when looking for reassurance about the one you’ve chosen. 

1. What activities do you offer and does my child get to choose them? 

It’s a basic question, but if you have a child who lives and breathes basketball or photography, you’ll probably want to seek out a program that offers those. And since overnight camp is all about building the independence of a child, how much freedom there is to choose is significant. 

“It’s the opportunity to explore,” said Dan Baer, director of Camp Mountain Chai in Angelus Oaks. “Camps are trending more toward an elective model where campers get to choose. Everybody has a choice built now into the schedule. But every camp’s balance is a little different. Kids love the ability to choose.”

2. What is a typical day like at camp?

Learning the specifics about the daily schedule can go a long way toward determining if a camp’s activities, program and structure are right for a particular child, said Josh Steinharter, director of JCC Maccabi Sports Camp in the Bay Area. Some camps are highly structured with little or no choice for campers, while others are based around free choice and tailored to a camper’s individual needs. This is important, he said, because some campers thrive on structure while others are more comfortable being able to do their own thing. 

3. How are the counselors trained, and where do they come from? 

The return rate of staff and the retention of campers into the staff corps are important.

“Each Jewish camp that I know of uses their counselors and their staff to impart important lessons about how to live, how to relate to a community, and how to be better Jews and people … This happens best when the staff is stable, and has grown up in this type of mission-based community,” explained Doug Lynn, director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps, which runs Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop in Malibu.

4. What is the ratio of campers to counselors in each cabin?

Some parents feel that smaller ratios of counselors living with their children is the way to go, as it provides closer supervision and can foster closer connections between campers and counselors. Others, according to Lynn, feel that a smaller ratio is stifling to campers interacting with other campers and that it leads to overbearing supervision. 

5. What kinds of financial aid are available?

It’s no secret that sleep-away camp can be expensive. One Happy Camper, a partnership between the Jewish Foundation for Camp and Jewish communities across North America, offers grants of up to $1,000 to eligible first-time Jewish sleep-away campers. Also, many camps provide significant needs-based scholarship assistance.

6. How can I learn about how my child is doing while at camp? 

It used to be that the only way for parents to find out how their child was doing at camp was through snail mail or by calling the office and requesting an update. But parents, many of who are accustomed to their child being a cell phone call away, are asking for more. 

“Camps are responding to this desire while keeping the special bubble of sleep-away camp intact,” said Josh Levine, director of Camp Alonim in Simi Valley.

As a result, many camps employ photographers whose sole job is to take hundreds of pictures, which then get posted to a website every day for parents and loved ones to see. Some camp directors send out general emails looping parents into the highlights of the day’s activities, and at least one local camp, JCA Shalom, does camper-led morning radio broadcasts that parents can listen to online.

7. How is Judaism defined at your camp and infused into the day? 

When parents are choosing a Jewish camp, they are not doing so based solely on a ropes course or art program, as amazing as those might be. That means it’s important to learn about the Jewish ethos — that secret sauce that defines a camp’s Jewishness, said Ariella Moss Peterseil, associate director of Camp Ramah in California, located in Ojai.

8. What is the level of religiosity at your camp? 

It’s key that a camp reflect a parent’s value system, and religion and level of observance may be part of that. 

“Parents may choose a camp with similar rituals and observance level as in their home for the comfort of the camper and religious priorities of the family,” said Dalit Shlapobersky, executive director of Habonim Dror-Camp Gilboa in Big Bear Lake. “Or a family might prefer for the child to experience a summer at a camp that’s more observant, so that the child develops a stronger control of rituals they might not be practicing at home. Or a family might place as a priority the intellectual, social and emotional growth the programming provides, with a lower priority given to level of observance.”

9. Is your camp accredited by the American Camp Association? 

Yes, there are many good — and beloved — camps that do not have this accreditation. But the 2,400-plus camps throughout the country that do have it have met multiple health, safety and program-quality standards, so it’s definitely a plus. 

10. What makes you different from other camps in the area? 

There are a lot of Jewish camps in the area. They have a lot of similarities, but the camps also do a pretty good job of differentiating themselves, according to Joel Charnick, director of Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu. 

“The best way of ensuring a good match is to ask the camps. They should be able to articulate that pretty well,” he said. “In Southern California, we all know each other very well. We have a very friendly relationship. … So I think we are well equipped to talk about each other and each other’s camps. I still think parents should do their due diligence and call each of the camps they are interested in.”


  • How’s the food? Can you accommodate my picky eater and her allergies? 
  • What happens if my son is homesick, gets sick or bullied, or hurts himself? 
  • What is your camp’s Shabbat experience like? 
  • How do I prepare my child for a first time away from home? 
  • How much time will my child get to spend with siblings and friends in different age groups?

With launch of four new camps, specialty sector is booming

When his new camp opened last summer, Greg Kellner suspected he needed a morning ritual different from the traditional flagpole gathering at many Jewish overnight camps.

Kellner, the director of URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy in Byfield, Mass., a Jewish, science-themed camp in the Reform movement’s network, knew his campers were more interested in science than singing, so he devised what he calls the “Boker [Hebrew for “morning”] Big Bang.”

“Instead of singing a closing song [at the flagpole], we — well, we blow something up,” Kellner said.

That “something,” whether it is dry ice or a different element of a chemical reaction, is of course part of a controlled scientific experiment.

Six Points Sci-Tech Academy, which focuses on science and technology, is one of four new camps developed under the auspices of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s (FJC) Specialty Camp Incubator II, a program to help launch and grow new Jewish camps focused on particular themes.

The four — the others are JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, Camp Zeke (a health and fitness camp) and Camp Inc. (an entrepreneurship camp) — opened last summer, four years after the FJC’s first incubator launched five specialty camps, including ones focused on sports, environmentalism and outdoor adventures.

The thinking behind the incubator, which provides financial resources, mentoring and other support, is to encourage kids and teenagers, particularly those with special interests they could not have explored previously at a Jewish camp, to have a Jewish summer experience.

Early on, the new camps have been a success, with all but one (JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, which had a modest shortfall) meeting — and several exceeding — their goals for enrollment and camper retention. The new camps have also inspired several established Jewish camps to add specialty tracks and programs. For example, the New Jersey Y network of camps now offers multiple specialty tracks in the arts, science and sports, among them filmmaking, lacrosse and physics. Camp Ramah in the Poconos now has basketball and tennis “academies.”

The specialty camps have succeeded in recruiting people who might not otherwise consider Jewish camp: Of the more than 4,000 campers who have attended the FJC incubators’ nine specialty camps since 2010, half said it was their first Jewish overnight camp experience.

Comprehensive data on the second set of specialty camps have not yet been released, but the early numbers are promising: 520 campers enrolled in the four new camps last summer. Enrollment at the first five specialty camps, which launched with a total of 590 campers, has grown steadily, with 1,575 campers attending in 2014.

The second round of specialty camps benefited from lessons learned the first time around, said Michele Friedman, the FJC’s director of new camp initiatives, who noted that the first incubator was an “experiment.”

This time, camp directors addressed their business operations — from fundraising to building their boards — early in the process. While many non-Orthodox Jewish educational programs have trouble recruiting boys, two of the new specialty camps had the opposite problem.

At Six Points Sci-Tech, Kellner’s biggest obstacle was recruiting girls, which he said is also a struggle for most secular science camps. Of the 160 campers, only 27 were girls. However, 40 girls already have signed up for this summer, and it is still early in the registration process.

Josh Pierce, the director of Camp Inc. in Boulder, Colo., had similar trouble. He estimated that only 30 percent of his 85 campers were girls, but he pointed out that next year’s group will be closer to 40 percent female.

Camp Inc. is structured to culminate in a “Shark Tank”-like presentation: Last summer’s campers formed teams, worked on an idea for a business and then presented their plan to a panel of professional entrepreneur judges. The judges included “Punkass,” a founder of the popular TapouT clothing line.

Also, Camp Inc. attendees visited 16 local companies, including Google’s office in Boulder, Colo., and heard lectures from 59 guest entrepreneurs.

Directors of the new specialty camps say they plan to expand their offerings this summer in response to camper requests. Isaac Mamaysky of Camp Zeke said the camp will offer more frequent cooking classes and longer fitness electives.

“At a new camp, nothing ‘just kind of happens,’ ” Mamaysky said. “You have to make it happen.” 

Skills-focused camp program takes summer to the ‘Max’

Jewish summer camp is full of tradition, but that’s not stopping Kibbutz Max Straus in Glendale from rolling out Kibbutz Explorations, four special core programs designed especially for 21st-century teens and tweens.

Campers ages 12 to 15 enrolled in the program this summer will spend 12 days acquiring specialized skills in one of four areas: farm-to-table cooking, outdoor adventure, social justice/philanthropy, and technology and filmmaking. The idea is for them to deepen their intellectual and emotional connections with their Jewish backgrounds and communities. 

The program, based at Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles’ (JBBBSLA) Camp Bob Waldorf on the Max Straus Campus, is the brainchild of camp director Eric Nicastro. He said the endeavor was based on his own personal experience as a “product of Jewish camps and education,” and whose Jewish identity is based as much upon his experience in summer camp as it was with Hebrew school.

“Through summer camp, I experienced a different approach to feeling like a part of the Jewish community,” he said. “It wasn’t just services and books, but also interactivity, music, guitars, sports and being outside with my friends. All of this resulted in a feeling of Jewish identity building inside of me, which in turn … got me interested in going to Israel, and realizing there’s a whole country filled with people like [me].”

Nicastro was a film student involved in what was meant to be a part-time job teaching sixth-graders at Larchmont Temple in New York. However, it spiraled into a vocation of creating interactive educational programs that could potentially keep teens interested in Judaism after their bar and bat mitzvahs and connect unaffiliated Jewish families to their heritage.

Later, he launched into a career as an educational program planner. It ultimately brought him to California and positions with the Orange County Bureau of Jewish Education and Wilshire Boulevard Temple, before happening upon a position at the Glendale camp that was a perfect fit for his mission of helping teens literally keep the faith through enriching activities.

“The framework for the program was created by Eric’s involvement with experiential learning from his previous roles in other organizations,” explained Randy Schwab, CEO of JBBBSLA. 

“I think the inspiration for Kibbutz Explorations came about because we did not see this kind of programming fulfilled in a progressive way in the Jewish camp community here in Los Angeles, and when we brought Eric aboard a little over a year ago, we had somebody with the expertise to develop that kind of program.” 

Schwab and Nicastro both point to the Colorado-based Camp Inc., focused on cultivating entrepreneurship in a Jewish environment, and the URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy in Massachusetts as progressive camp models in terms of their ability to reconcile Jewish values, traditions and community with skill sets the current generation of teens and tweens are actively seeking out. (See story on Page 51.)

“We are taking things like farm-to-table cooking and putting them through the lens of Jewish cultures around the world and allowing kids to explore what makes Jewish cooking relevant in terms of today’s food culture,” Schwab said. “We built a new demonstration kitchen just last year to facilitate this program, so kids have their own work space with state-of-the-art equipment to explore this idea. It’s their kitchen, not taking over the camp kitchen for an hour.”

Nicastro described the film program: “We have a room with iPads, GoPro cameras, MacBook Pros and other gear that gives the campers the opportunity pick up new skills they can use right away, and also learn about how Jewish life and culture has been portrayed on film through the years.”  

Tuition for Kibbutz Explorations, which runs from July 29-Aug. 9, is $750 for each camper, who can apply online at Financial assistance is available.

In the spirit of sharing, and with the support of the The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Nicastro said he regularly talks with the directors of other area camps.

“I actually think this program is an evolution of tradition,” Schwab said. “While we are a beneficiary of the century-plus existence of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters and a camp that’s been operating for 76 years, the way to be relevant to today’s kids is to keep innovating.”

Summer camp for all

Like many children and teenagers, Michael Rosenbaum of Los Feliz sees going to summer camp as a highlight of his year.

He relishes the outdoor activities, cooking classes, swimming, dancing and games at Camp Ramah in Ojai. He enjoys connecting with his Jewish heritage through daily celebrations and songs, and he especially loves seeing his camp friends from previous years. And, since last summer, the 18-year-old has been thrilled at the opportunity to work at the camp as a cooking teacher’s assistant.

Rosenbaum’s trajectory from camp participant to camp helper is typical of many teenagers as they reach adulthood, but for him, the transition is particularly auspicious. Rosenbaum has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that makes it difficult for him to participate in many of the activities other children at summer camp take for granted. Yet, according to his mother, Rony Rosenbaum, he has been able to take part fully, thanks to Camp Ramah’s programs for special needs youth.

“It’s really one of the most incredible programs that you can possibly imagine for these kids,” she said. “The kids are not just integrated into everything that the whole rest of the camp does, they’re rock stars. Kids in the rest of the camp actually fight to be their buddies.”

Camp Ramah ( runs an umbrella initiative called Tikvah for children and youth with special needs, under which three programs are available: Ohr Lanu, a weeklong family camp in early June for special needs children, their parents and siblings; Amitzim, where special needs children ages 11 to 17 participate alongside regular attendees in Camp Ramah; and Ezra, a seven-week vocational training program for young adults. The goal is to make summer camp something that youth of all abilities can enjoy, and where they can find a welcome place as members of the Jewish community, Tikvah director Elana Naftalin-Kelman said. About 80 children with a wide range of disabilities attend the programs each year, mostly from the Los Angeles area, she said. 

The Ezra vocational program takes the participation of special needs teenagers and young adults to a new level. The program grew out of recognition at Camp Ramah that there needed to be opportunities for young people with disabilities to continue their camp experience after they turned 18, even though they are unable to become counselors, Naftalin-Kelman said.

Under the Ezra program, youth ages 17 to 23 live at the camp in Ojai and are given jobs, either within the camp or at businesses in town. Tasks at the camp include setting up and clearing tables in the dining hall, helping staff run the sports programs, working in the mail and supply rooms or running the staff store, where they make smoothies and sandwiches. Jobs in Ojai have included work at the local library, a grocery store, a senior living facility and an animal shelter.

In addition, participants receive daily life-skills lessons to help them become more independent, such as cooking healthy meals, setting up a bank account and using public transportation. Three times a week, they attend classes on Jewish holidays, keeping kosher, what it means to be a Jewish adult and other aspects of Jewish life.

Naftalin-Kelman said the experience helps them develop independence, self-confidence and a sense of belonging. She said many families have struggled to find acceptance in the communities they live in because of their child’s disability and often do not belong to a synagogue. 

“These families are more often than not feeling like they’ve been rejected from the Jewish community,” she said. “Camp Ramah is their Jewish community.”

That’s not the case for Rosenbaum, an Ezra program participant who is keenly devout and involved at Temple Israel of Hollywood, his mother said. 

“The Jewish aspect of Ramah is key to how much he loves it there,” she said. “[Jewish traditions] are really, really important to him, and for that reason it’s really important to us.”

Rosenbaum said he’s looking forward to attending Camp Ramah again this summer. The reason is simple: “It’s my favorite place.”

Amid increased scrutiny, risk, camps address teen sexuality

The counselors didn’t approve but preferred not to meddle. According to the bunk’s “hook-up competition,” each teenage girl was supposed to mark a space on the cabin wall with her name and date indicating when she had successfully kissed — or otherwise hooked up with — a boy.

Naomi Less, a rock musician, Jewish educator and longtime camp consultant, was approached for advice from the camp, which she preferred not to identify. She suggested painting over the wall.

She also advised that the counselors “bring in someone to speak with the girls about the idea of pressuring each other to perform acts they weren’t ready for — or didn’t want to do — and to reduce the heteronormative ‘hooking-up’ assumptions, as there will most certainly be girls within the bunks who will not ever want to ‘hook up’ with guys because they are lesbians.”

Although sexual behavior and boundaries on college campuses — particularly the growing number of reported rape cases — have been in the spotlight in recent months, these issues tend to receive less attention at overnight camps, in part because teens there are more heavily supervised and must adhere to strict no-alcohol policies.

Some have argued that Jewish summer camps should be more proactive about how they address campers’ romantic relationships, particularly given that some statistics indicate as many as one in three female adolescents is a victim of sexual assault.

Dana Fleitman, manager of prevention and training programs at Jewish Women International (JWI), recently developed a project focused on combating teen dating abuse (free materials available at, and believes that education should begin “early, from the time kids are young teens, long before they go to college.” The JWI program — which provides tools to help adults speak with teenagers about this sensitive topic — could easily be adapted into a counselor orientation program, Fleitman said.

Mara Yacobi, a New Jersey-based social worker and founder of JLove and Values, a nonprofit that provides sex education from a Jewish values perspective, has done staff training at several Jewish camps and has also spoken with campers. She recalls one eighth-grader who stated, “This summer, it was all about kissing and feeling up a girl’s shirt,” and that “next summer, it’s all about [a particular sexual act].”

The comment, made during a coed discussion, reflected a general sense that “sexual behaviors were about achieving one conquest after another,” said Yacobi, who reminded the group that “if you are being intimate with someone, take time to remember that you are sharing this experience with a person — not an object.”

“Summer camps have a unique opportunity to spend time on issues that schools do not,” Yacobi said. “Spending time simply reviewing the qualities of a healthy and unhealthy relationship are the types of conversations young people are yearning to have with the camp counselors they admire.”

One potential model for that is Tawonga, a JCC camp on the outskirts of California’s Yosemite National Park, which offers one of the Jewish camp world’s most carefully considered approaches to physical intimacy and relationships. Jamie Simon-Harris, the director at Tawonga and a former sex educator for United Against Sexual Assault in Sonoma County, leads several workshops about sexuality. The camp also starts each session with girls-only, boys-only and transgender campfire discussions about sexual identity. Later, Simon-Harris leads optional sessions in which Tawonga’s youngest campers learn how to be a good friend, middle-schoolers discuss relationships, and the teens delve into the physical and emotional components of safe sex.

“They love it,” said Simon-Harris, who said she’s been told by participants, “Camp is where I learned to say no,” and, “Camp is where I knew I could be gay.”

Sam Quintana, who is 25 and a “lifer” at Tawonga, said the camp’s “sex-positive” approach “validates rather than shames.” Now a member of the camp’s year-round staff, Quintana added, “The sexual values I learned at Tawonga have been incredibly transformative. It’s about the ability to relate to other people and treat other people with respect.”

Tawonga’s extensive examination of sexuality may not feel appropriate in all camp settings, particularly its “hugging and kissing with all clothes on” credo, which Quintana describes as a way to defuse “pressure to be in a relationship.”

Sheira Director-Nowack, associate director of Camp JRF in South Sterling, Pa., said she “would never say ‘kissing with clothes on is OK,’ because maybe the kid is not ready, and then it would make that the norm.” She has spoken with campers about the problem of overly provocative attire, however, inspiring a new slogan for the Friday night dress code: “No Shabooty. No Shabooby.”

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, the national director of the Conservative movement’s Ramah camping movement, emphasizes that the “most important thing is how to reduce social and sexual pressures on children.”

Despite their sex-positive approach, Tawonga leaders emphasize that the summer should be more about community than coupling. 

“If a camper chooses just friendships, that’s also totally accepted,” Simon-Harris said. “Dating can be part of camp, but it can’t be all of camp.”

Summer camp love

Every summer for the last three years, staffer Naomi Elman, 23, and her fiance, Mitch Gelfand, 29, have stood on the stage at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley, exchanged rings and said their I-do’s. “Every session at camp there’s a carnival, and at every carnival there’s a fake marriage booth,” Elman explained. “So we’ve gotten married five times on that stage already — three the summer we met, and one every summer thereafter.” 

Naomi Elman and Mitch Gelfand getting practice-married at the marriage booth set up every summer at Camp Alonim. Photo by Tracie Karasik.

Next spring, the couple will go for a sixth try, but this one will be significantly more official: Leo Baeck Temple’s Rabbi Ken Chasen will officiate, and the rings will be made of something a little more durable than plastic. 

Getting married at Alonim has been Elman’s plan as long as she can remember. “Luckily, the groom agreed,” she said. Elman even asked Chasen to officiate when she was 16 — a few years before Gelfand rejoined the summer staff after a hiatus and caught her eye during their orientation.

Camp romances are a hallmark of the American summer. The setting is usually beautiful and idyllic, and with a limited pool of people in constant contact, connections forged are intense and intimate. Not all of these romances last — Gelfand and Elman are both veterans of prior relationships that had succumbed to real-world pressures after the summer’s end — but when they do, the happy couple has a ready-made wedding venue.

The marriage booth at Alonim also played a role in Sara and Hyim Brandes’ 2001 engagement as well — or that was the plan, anyway. Hyim’s idea to get down on one knee with a real ring at the booth was dashed when he discovered that Sara’s coveted time off was scheduled during the festival, and her plan was to be anywhere but in the middle of her campers. Luckily, there was an easy plan B: He offered to accompany her on a hike, and proposed on the ascent.

“I think camp couples get married all over the place,” Sara said. But she and Hyim chose Alonim because of its role in their history as a couple as well as for their families, both of whom have strong ties to the camp. “That we chose to get married there just speaks to the centrality of the place in both of our families’ lives,” Sara said. 

During the ceremony, their rabbi talked about how “this place was created for just this union, just this moment,” she said. “We had that feeling, that it was appropriate in that it was a culmination.”

The camp romance is short-lived much more often than it turns out to be long term: The bonds forged in unusual circumstances and close proximity have trouble adjusting to the strain, distance and business of life in the outside world. But the relationships that do last are often the most resilient ones — and on their wedding day, many couples are thrilled to return to the fantasyland where they first fell in love. 

David Ross and Lauren Schmidt, for instance, said they considered other venues “for about two seconds,” according to Schmidt, before deciding on Camp Ramah in Ojai, where they had met briefly as staffers in 1992. The couple ran into each other again and again over the years, eventually connecting at a different camp, Camp Young Judea near Austin, Texas, nearly a decade later.

“Camp Ramah has always been a foremost source of my identity, my spirituality and my commitment to Judaism. What better place to share this passion than [at Ramah,] with my future bride, our family and friends?” Ross asked.  

One of the biggest threats to the camp romance is simply age — not many people end up married to the object of their tween affections, after all. Not so for Eric and Alexandra Spitz. They met at Camp JCA Shalom in 1993 as 12- and 13-year-olds, respectively, and were each other’s camp crushes — and eventually shared their first kiss. It took another 13 years before they reconnected, but when they did, the chemistry of those early summers was still very much alive. They started planning to get married on their second date. 

When they did, there was no question that the couple would marry at JCA Shalom in Malibu. They also incorporated a few fun camp traditions into the wedding, Alexandra said: “On Shabbat at camp, we would write ‘Shabbat-O-Grams’ to our friends. I found one from Eric from when we were in camp that was signed, ‘I love you.’ We framed it and displayed it with our guest book.” 

There were other festive camp touches as well: “Our tables were numbered as cabins, and each person’s place card was attached to a mini s’mores kit that could be roasted with the lanterns placed on each table. Our favors were flashlights, so everyone could return safely to their cars at the end of the night in the pitch-blackness of camp,” Alexandra said. 

The best of all, though, is when weddings beget more of their kind, as was the case when Rena Kates met her husband Max at the Los Angeles wedding of her cousin, Samantha, to Mike Auerbach in 2009. Mike and Samantha had met at Ramah; Max and Rena, being two years apart, had never had the opportunity to connect at camp. Not so this time. 

“Max saw Rena hanging out with [her brother] Ethan, and casually asked Ethan who she was. Ethan said, ‘Oh, that’s my sister Rena’ and moved on to another topic. But Max didn’t forget!” the couple wrote in an email.

Three years later, Max’s day-long proposal involved printouts of emails he had sent Rena over the course of their relationship, a tour of their favorite places — which, of course, included Ramah — a slice of strawberry shortcake and the joyful blessings of family and friends. When it came to venues, the Kateses agree with Ross and Schmidt: “It was a no-brainer,” Rena said. “What other place has gorgeous mountain views, a special place in our hearts and can accommodate 400 people?”

Jewish summer camps grappling with murders of Israeli teens

On the morning of June 30, the children began arriving at Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Wash., ready for a fun-filled summer.

But shortly before the first little feet descended the bus steps, the sleepaway camp’s Israeli counselors learned from back home about the discovery of the bodies of three teens kidnapped in the West Bank 18 days earlier.

The news about the teens’ fate challenged administrators at Jewish camps like the Conservative movement-affiliated Schechter to deal with the tragedy: what information to present, how to tailor their words to campers’ varied maturity levels and how to mourn the youthful victims while not alarming children for whom camp represents happiness and escape.

Then there was tending to Israeli campers and counselors, for whom the trauma was more personal.

At Schechter, the dilemma for administrators was compounded by the campers being so young — second- through seventh-graders. The teenage cohort wasn’t due until later in the summer.

So nothing was announced that day and no mention appeared on the camp’s website.

“It’s not really a great topic for kicking off camp and having a great summer,” said the camp’s executive director, Sam Perlin. “Getting off to a good start is extremely important.”

Only at the next morning’s daily assembly at the flagpole to sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, did Perlin tell campers that the three missing yeshiva students had lost their lives.

“I didn’t say ‘murdered’ or ‘killed,’ ” he related. “I didn’t say how or why.”

Across the country, Camp Moshava, a Modern Orthodox overnight camp in Honesdale, Pa., took a different approach.

Campers arriving on June 24 were greeted at the front gate with placards hung by Israeli counselors featuring the faces of the kidnapped boys and a message in Hebrew praying for their safe return.

The news of their deaths broke nearly a week later at lunchtime, when each shift of children finishing the meal headed to another building for the daily afternoon prayers, youngest group to oldest. At the Mincha service, the fact of the boys’ death was conveyed at an age-appropriate level.

Moshava’s website the next morning showed images of three Israeli flags arrayed horizontally across the screen above the words “Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet,” the traditional utterance upon learning of a Jewish person’s death. The left column presented news of the deaths of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach.

“We’re a religious Zionist camp. This is what we’re all about,” the camp’s director, Alan Silverman, said when asked about his guiding principles for handling the situation.

Upon hearing the news, he said, “we and the camp psychologists made a plan for each group” that included telling Israeli staffers and campers first. Others were dispatched to share the news with two groups of adolescent campers off site on organized hikes.

Moshava campers of all ages are learning sections of Mishnah in memory of the slain teens. Three eighth-grade girls initiated a project to collect campers’ letters, poems and drawings for albums to be sent to the grieving parents.

“They should feel we are connected, even though we are thousands of miles away,” said Davida Krauss, one of the girls, who is from the Bronx, N.Y. “We wanted to do something for them.”

Krauss said she and two friends came up with the idea because “we saw everyone so sad that they can’t do something — but we really can do something.”

The campers were offered the opportunity during their mid-afternoon free period to gather on the grass outside the dining hall to speak with mental health professionals or with each other, which some did.

Otherwise, swimming, ballgames and the rest of the recreational schedule carried on normally, Silverman said.

After hearing of the deaths of the Jewish teens, several former staff members drove to Moshava in solidarity.

“In a sense, [the camp] is the best place you could possibly be,” said Silverman, who lives most of the year just a few miles from where the Israeli boys were kidnapped in the West Bank’s Gush Etzion settlement bloc and has run the camp for 29 years. “Here you’re with a large community that is grieving together.”

The same impulse hit Israeli staffers at the Schechter camp.

Bar Bamani, a counselor who had flown in recently from his Tel Aviv-area hometown of Tel Mond to work at the camp, said his mother texted him the news just as some of the other Israeli staffers were hearing what had happened.

One of the Israelis began crying, “so we sat together and talked a bit about it, to make sure everything was OK,” said Bamani, 21. “Campers were coming, so there wasn’t much time to sit and breathe and digest the situation.”

During crises, “we feel united and close to Israel,” he said. “That’s the safe place, the family. You can feel the mourning of everyone.”

Bamani expected campers to raise the subject of the tragedy, but said he won’t initiate such conversations.

The camp’s rabbi, Yohanna Kinberg, is helping to launch conversation on the topic. She laminated a photograph of the Israeli victims for display in the synagogue alongside battery-operated memorial candles.

Someone moved the photo to a central walkway outside, where it has prompted discussions among campers and staff, she said.

“This is real, and it’s important to talk about if it’s framed in a thoughtful way,” she said, “not a terrifying way.”

Days after the discovery of the Israeli teens’ bodies came news of the murder of a Palestinian teenager from eastern Jerusalem, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and later of Israel’s arrest of six Jewish suspects in connection with his slaying.

The killing of Khdeir came up at Moshava in discussions among the high school-age campers, Silverman said. At the Schechter camp, staff members spoke about it informally over Shabbat, Perlin said.

Referring to the aftermath of the killings, along with the rocket attacks launched on Israel from the Gaza Strip, Kinberg said the situation is “spiraling and it’s scary, and it’s very upsetting.”

“I think we’ll have a lot of discussions with the teens on what’s happening in Israel,” the rabbi said. “Since we have so many Israelis here, it’ll be a much richer conversation.”


Camp advice for parents: FAQs

Every year in the months prior to the beginning of camp, I get numerous phone calls from parents who have a variety of concerns about sending their children to camp for the first time. If you’re one of these parents, allow me to offer some advice.

First of all, know that you are not alone! Most parents and children have concerns about sending kids away for an extended period of time. It’s perfectly normal to have those concerns. I always think of it as part of the camp experience. It’s like a ropes course — a little scary at first, a thrill when you are doing it, and when you are done you want to do it over and over again. That being said, here are the most common concerns I hear from parents, and my responses:

I won’t be able to talk to my child while he is at camp.

Yes, that’s true. If I’ve learned one thing over the last 12 years of being a camp director it’s this: the experience is harder on parents than it is on kids. While the kids are at camp, they are busy going from activity to activity. Camp is packed with fun, adventure and games. The days at camp fly by, and for the most part kids are having the time of their lives. 

The truth is that separation does affect children … but in a good way. At camp, kids develop great coping mechanisms that will stay with them for a lifetime. There’s great value in campers becoming more independent by having their own experiences. Kids who go to camp year after year are more prepared to handle the challenges of being independent when they are on their own at college. 

The fact that you can’t talk to them affects you a lot more than it does them. And don’t worry; there are still ways to be in touch. Most camps have Web sites where you can send your kids daily e-mails. We print them and give them to the kids. Also, we post hundreds of pictures. 

And look at it this way: If you don’t have any other kids at home, this is your time to enjoy yourself! Go see movies, read books, catch up with old friends — this is your summer too!

So much is being discussed about bullying these days. How do you handle the emotional safety of my child?

Camps take the emotional safety of their campers extremely seriously. I personally consider it just as important as their physical safety. Because we have children and staff in residence, camps are often better equipped than many schools to handle the emotional safety of their campers. We’ve developed our staff trainings with the assistance of social workers, school counselors and other camp professionals. We train our counselors to identify the signs of bullying before it happens. At my camp, we have every camper and staff person sign an anti-bullying contract. Campers know in advance that bullying is grounds for being sent home. Honestly, we seldom see cases of bullying at camp. Most of the time kids are really sweet to one another. 

Who is taking care of my child all day?

Our counselors are fantastic. Most of them grew up at camp. They are enthusiastic about camp, love their Judaism and are excellent role models to their campers. What I have observed is that they take the responsibility of supervising campers extremely seriously. Also, because we’ve watched the majority of them grow up at camp, we’ve known them for years. We choose the cream of the crop to be counselors. Every summer I am reinvigorated by the next generation of young leaders.

My child doesn’t know anyone else going to camp. I’m concerned that she won’t make any friends.

Every camp gets its healthy share of newcomers each summer. It’s part of our culture. We are the experts in icebreakers, name games, and team-building activities. The first day of camp is filled with these activities. At our camp, we give the first day a theme that every staff person knows, “Every Camper Has a Friend.” By the second day of camp, it’s nearly impossible to tell who the newcomers are. Many years ago, when I went to camp for the first time, I didn’t know anyone. It was the best thing for me because I was forced to meet new people. Twenty-seven years later, I am still friends with many of those same people.

I’m concerned that Judaism won’t be observed the way we do it in our family.

Luckily, there are a variety of Jewish summer camps in Southern California. I know all of them very well, and they are all excellent. They are also very different from one another. My suggestion is that you learn about the different camps before you make your decision. Make sure the way they treat Judaism at camp is aligned with what you want. If your synagogue is only speaking about one particular camp, pressure them to have a camp fair or presentation where all of the Southern California camps are represented. Trust me, if they’ll host, we’ll come.

I have a child who doesn’t want to go to camp.

Campers often have many misconceptions about Jewish overnight camp. They might think it’s going to be boring, or that they’re not going to get the necessary break from their typical classroom setting. My suggestion is to share with them how much fun camp is. Get on the camp Web sites and show them the camp promotional videos. (You may want to go to camp after watching the videos!) Tell them it’s like a sleepover at a friend’s house, except with a lot more friends and for a longer time period.

Going to camp can be one of your children’s most meaningful experiences. They will make lifelong friends, try new things, become more self-confident and have the time of their life! After getting past the initial reluctance, they will not only have a blast, but they will grow in more ways than you can imagine. 

Looking forward to seeing you at camp this summer!

Camp fair pitches many tents

If there’s anything the upcoming “Summer Days” camp fair proves, it’s that day camps are as diverse as the kids who attend them. 

The second annual fair — featuring more than 50 day camps from 30 ZIP codes — takes place Feb. 23 at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air from 1-4 p.m. It is sponsored by the Parents Education League of Los Angeles, in partnership with Tips on Trips and Camps, a free summer advisory service. Admission is free.

Jewish camps represented will include Stephen S. Wise’s Camp Wise, Temple Akiba Day Camp and programs at the Zimmer Children’s Museum, the Westside Jewish Community Center and Adat Shalom. Non-Jewish camps will be on-hand as well.

The variety of camps available means that there’s plenty for parents and kids to consider: traditional, multiactivity day camps as well as specialized programs focused on arts, sports, cooking, theater, music, surfing and science.  

“The right camp for your child becomes an extension of your home and your family’s values,” explained Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO of the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Camp. “First, think about the type of environment in which your child thrives. Think about if you want a Jewish camp, a traditional camp that gives your child a wide variety of experiences or a specialty camp that focuses on a particular activity or skill set.  

“Does your child need lots of instruction and structure, or would they prefer to have more choices? What size camp would make my child feel comfortable, and would he or she feel more comfortable in a coed or single-gender environment?”

Fingerman said the first things families should do is assess their budget for camp enrollment and the child’s dietary or physical needs before delving into their preferences and interests.

A camper samples a climbing wall at the Westside Jewish Community Center’s JCamp. Photo courtesy of Westside Jewish Community Center 

Desiree Lapin, founder and president of the Parents Education League of Los Angeles (, a resource for parents regarding education and schools, said there was “a lot of community building” at last year’s camp fair, where parents could review camp schedules and pricing in one place. Her advice to parents who may come this year: Honestly assess your child’s personality to get the most mileage out of one-on-one conversations with camp directors.

“You get a better perspective on a day camp’s mission when you’re face to face with the camp director than you can on the Web site,” Lapin said. “While Web sites are helpful, when you can have a two-way dialogue with a day camp director about your child and their program, you’ll better determine if that camp is a good match. Also, as some camps at the fair will offer early registration and discounts, this is an opportunity for parents to get their children registered and file necessary forms, as spots in some camps fill quickly.”
Jill Levin, the summer program adviser for Tips on Trips and Camps (, said fairs such as “Summer Days” serve a valuable function in making the research process easier for those interested in attending camp. However, she said parents should realize the camping experience has changed since their childhoods.

“Camps today are more aware of what trends in culture and technology affect our children,” she said. “Camp offers a great opportunity to break away from the computers, video games, iPhones and so on. A camp, no matter what its focus, provides an opportunity to get kids back to the basics, and shows them how full life can be without all the gadgets. “Levin suggests parents ask about food and allergy issues, bully prevention and safety concerns up front. If parents are considering a Jewish camp, she recommends asking camp directors about what movement, if any, the program affiliates with. There’s also the issue of whether the food served is kosher, whether staffers are Jewish and how much Jewish activity can be found in the program.  In his 40-year career, Paul Reichenbach, director of camp and Israel programs for the Union for Reform Judaism, has observed how both Jewish summer camps and the way parents go about selecting the right camp have undergone an evolution. “Years ago, parents knew their kids had fun at camp, and they knew there were fun Jewish activities, but they did not understand the magic of camp,” Reichenbach said. “Today, the hopes and expectations of the greater Jewish community play a role in the selection of a camp experience. Whether it is a day camp or residential camp, the hope for parents is that the summer will be a [life-changing] experience that will reinforce a child’s sense of pride in being Jewish and what it means to be a part of the Jewish community.” Reichenbach said parents should ask camp directors and representatives what the camp’s specific mission is, and how that mission plays itself out in the staff they hire, the programming and the environment they want to create for the campers. Also, he suggests asking them what the camp’s mission means to the counselors, how their training integrates the values and how they will be good role models for campers. “When I first started out, I found camp directors were asked by parents, ‘How Jewish is your camp?’ ” he said. “The response sometimes was, ‘How Jewish would you like it to be?’ Today, Jewish camps are less nervous about what parents are looking for, and are more comfortable today [in their marketing] proudly proclaiming they are proud that their camp is meaningfully Jewish.”

For more information about the “Summer Days” camp fair,

From disable to enable: Summer camp shifts focus

The positive impact that summer camps have on Jewish identity is no secret, but a report released last year by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) found that much progress remains in making this a viable opportunity for young people with special needs. 

To help move things forward, experts on disabilities convened in the fall to follow up on the report, released last May by the New York-based organization, and the FJC received a grant that led to the hiring of a director of disabilities.

The FJC survey found that approximately 2,340 to 2,590 special needs children, most of them with neurological disorders, are among the 75,000 who attend Jewish summer camps. While 93 percent of those parents reported being “satisfied” or “extremely satisfied” with their child’s camp experience, the study found that few camps are able to provide for children with physical disabilities. Right now, only 36 percent of Jewish camps offer a special needs program. 

“We were pleasantly surprised that there were more children with disabilities in summer camps than we had guessed,” said Abby Knopp, vice president of program and strategy at the FJC. “It affirmed our confidence in the field to meet the needs of Jewish kids with disabilities.”

Still, the organization, which works to boost the number of Jewish children that go to summer camp, is taking steps to help the numbers of campers with special needs rise. 

“About a third of camps have staff that have special education training and experience working with kids with disabilities,” Knopp said. “We’re incentivizing them to make the kind of hires they need at camp to serve the children.”

Among the study’s participants were 170 staff members from 124 camps around the United States, along with 141 campers and 262 parents. Knopp said FJC conducted the survey because, “there are not enough opportunities for children with disabilities in the summer and year round. We figured that we needed to start with a baseline to make it more accessible for them. We couldn’t build out until we knew what the baseline was.”

At Camp Ramah in California, the Conservative Jewish summer camp located in Ojai, Elana Naftalin-Kelman is director of the Tikvah program, which serves special-needs adolescents ages 11 to 18. One of the people interviewed for the study, she said that at Ramah, the biggest focus is on inclusion and offering campers with special needs the same experiences as others. 

“Camp inclusion is much more than building facilities. It’s about attitude changes. We include all people who want to be part of the community,” she said.

There is a higher counselor-to-camper ratio among Tikvah participants, as well as a buddy program that brings together a special-needs camper and a non-disabled, older camper. Kelman said that a crucial aspect of the program is training. 

“We do awareness training to make sure everybody at camp knows why we do what we do, and this is an important piece to the Ramah puzzle,” she said. “It’s an ongoing conversation that we’re constantly having with staff at all the camps. Inclusion is important for everybody, not just the kids with special needs.”

Michelle Wolf, a disability parent advocate and Journal columnist, has a 19-year-old son with special needs who attended the Tikvah program. While she was pleased with her son’s experience, she said that there is room for improvement at all summer camps. 

“My son uses a walker for short distances, and for longer distances he uses a wheelchair. At Camp Ramah, in the boys’ area, they had loose gravel, which is really hard to walk on with a walker or go over in a wheelchair. [So] they put down plywood,” she said. “The same thing happened at Camp JCA Shalom [in Malibu]. People create camps that look nice but aren’t accommodating for wheelchairs and walkers. The camps are not built with disabilities in mind.”

One of the issues highlighted by the FJC study was the fact that camps with facilities and services for those with special needs often don’t highlight that information in their brochures. 

Wolf also encouraged an attitude adjustment among counselors, employees and campers. 

“We need to create structures [that ensure] the typical campers aren’t afraid or freaked out by having kids like my son who has trouble talking and uses a walker,” she said. “Other campers need to be educated and have the general feeling of acceptance and openness throughout the camp. It needs to be a whole camp-wide attitude.”

The whole Jewish community, Knopp said, is responsible for including children with special needs and making them feel welcome. 

“Every Jewish child deserves an opportunity to have a great summer experience, she said. “It’s important that these kids have a place in Jewish camps. We all become much more cognizant of the variety of different kinds of people who live among us. The moral imperative goes for all of us.”

Springs Fire forces evacuations for Jewish institutions in Ventura County

Synagogue leaders are reporting that the Springs Fire has affected Jewish institutions in Ventura County, including two Malibu camps run by Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT) and synagogues Temple Ner Ami, Temple Etz Chaim and Temple Adat Elohim. As of Friday morning, the blaze had consumed more than 8,000 acres of land, according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.

WBT’s Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp were forced to evacuate on Thursday night. More than 130 elementary school students of the Los Angeles County Outdoor Science School were bused from the grounds of Camp Hess Kramer, and 40 high school students from Oak Park High School were evacuated from Gindling Hilltop Camp.

At least 30 member-families of synagogues Temple Ner Ami in Camarillo as well as Temple Etz Chaim and Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks were evacuated from their homes on Thursday, according to rabbis and spokespeople from those synagogues. This evacuees included residents of affected areas Camarillo Springs and Newbury Park, two of the areas hit hardest by the fire.

By Thursday night, they were able to return to their homes, and none of those synagogues’ campuses were damaged.

The fire first broke out on Thursday morning, May 2,  in Camarillo Springs along the 101 Freeway, and began approaching Pacific Coast Highway by midday. It has caused road closures and evacuations from schools, homes and places of business, and continues to blaze.

The flames did not reach the 200-acre property shared by Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp in Little Sycamore Canyon, situated between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The blaze reached land adjacent to the property, on the other side of a ridge in the Santa Monica Mountains, according to Howard Kaplan, executive director of WBT, which owns and operates the camps.

No camp property has been damaged, and all flames nearby were put out by Ventura County Fire Department firefighters, Kaplan said.

“Right now we’re fine, but we’re on standby because we have to be,” Kaplan told the Journal on the afternoon of Friday, May 3.

During the school year, the L.A. County Outdoor Science School runs weeklong residential programs for elementary students of L.A. county public schools at Camp Hess Kramer. The program leases the site from WBT. Similarly, the synagogue rents out the Hilltop camp to schools holding retreat programs.

The L.A. County Outdoor Science School students –  fifth- and sixth-graders from a Los Angeles United School District school and a Baldwin Park school (Kaplan did not give the names of the schools) – departed from Camp Hess Kramer on buses that took them to Malibu High School on Thursday night. From there, they were bused to the LAUSD and Baldwin Park schools. The students at Hilltop were bused back to Oak Park High School on Thursday night.

The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department ordered the evacuations from the camps. The camps immediately obliged.

“We always err on the side of safety,” Kaplan said.

More options for modern Orthodox campers

Camp Judah West, which has run travel and sports camps in West Los Angeles for the past four years, has procured a rental location near San Diego and is organizing a five-week summer camp session based on the ideals of Jewish camping, Zionism and Torah. 

Targeting Modern Orthodox families, the camp was founded by Rabbi Aharon Assaraf, a veteran Jewish camper, counselor and educator who currently works as director of student activities at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

The camp’s programming will include typical outdoorsy fare, such as sports, trips and outdoor survival, as well as strong Jewish elements that include daily Torah and tefilah (prayer). There also will be Shabbat programming and visiting Jewish performers nearly every weekend.  

Camp Judah West, which will open July 10 and close Aug. 13, is open to students entering third through ninth grades, although older students can work as waiters/waitresses or counselors. Tuition ranges from $499 for a mini-session to $3,499 for the full summer session, according to the for-profit camp’s Web site,  

Assaraf said that since he moved to Los Angeles nearly five years ago for a job in education, one of his main goals became creating an Orthodox sleep-away camp in the region. He said that a meaningful summer experience can inspire students throughout the year and serve as a bridge between the school years, which is why he sees it as critical that overnight camping be open to all socio-economic classes in the Jewish community.  

“Camping is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” he said.

Assaraf said he’s hoping that funders and investors will contribute to the camp’s scholarship fund, enabling more kids to come. 

Camp Judah West officials hope to attract between 200 and 250 young people to the overnight camp this year, although the facility can hold up to 450.  While most of the youths are coming from California, there will be campers from 15 different cities all over the West, and even from New York, New Jersey and Florida, Assaraf said.

Shana Chriki, a Shalhevet 10th-grader who will be working as a counselor at Camp Judah West, said that many of her friends from Shalhevet were encouraged by Assaraf to go to Jewish summer camp. 

“When he was little, he didn’t have the privilege to go to camp,” she said, “and he thinks everyone should be able to go to camp, so he tries his best to make everybody happy and get everyone to go there.”  

Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) in New York, said there is a changing culture on the West Coast, where kids are more interested in camping. He said that FJC has been seeing a growing demand for overnight camps and that camp attendance has been particularly on the rise on the West Coast.  

Camp Judah West is based in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, a 2 1/2-hour drive from Los Angeles, which Assaraf believes is critical to the experience.  

“It needs to be a couple hours removed,” he said.  “If [kids] know that home is right around the corner, it would affect their experience.”

Some of the more unique components include a newly hired music director who co-founded the band Blue Fringe; a beit midrash (house of study) program for high school and post-high school students; and a group of former Israeli soldiers coming to train campers on wilderness and survival skills. 

But Assaraf said he’s most excited about “how amazed the community will be that we are going to change the lives of hundreds of youth in our first summer.” 

Donors struggling to defray the rising costs of Jewish camp

Spending the summer at Jewish overnight camp once was a spartan affair, often little more than a collection of ramshackle buildings scattered in the woods by a placid lake.

Those were the days.

“Today it's all about the toys,” said Rabbi Allan Smith, the former head of the Reform movement’s camp network and a 46-year veteran of the summer camp business. “You have a go-kart track, a climbing wall, a swing, a Burma bridge.

“When I was a kid, 90 percent of the camps were by a lake. Today if you don't have a pool you're a loser. Kids don't like lakes, they're dirty.”

Such amenities may make camps more appealing, but they don’t come cheap.

Parents can expect to shell out anywhere from $800 per week per child at one of the less expensive nonprofit camps to $2,000 per week at some of the pricier options. For families already struggling to cover the costs of Jewish education during the school year, sending a child to camp might be one expense too many.

In a bid to help defray the cost, the Foundation for Jewish Camp has awarded more than 43,000 grants to attend a nonprofit summer camp. The grants can be up to $1,000 per family .

“We believe summers at Jewish camp are an important component in one's Jewish identity,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the foundation’s CEO. “Camp teaches a joyful Judaism and becomes an important building block for a Jewish future. We believe families challenged economically should not be penalized.”

The high tuition at Jewish camps, which directors at the camps agree is considerably costlier than at their Christian counterparts, is cause for concern among those who fear that a potent identity-building opportunity is slipping away from middle-income families.

For Debra Hollander of Shaker Heights, Ohio, sending her children to Jewish camp is a top priority, despite the costs.

“Our three kids go to secular education schools, so for us Jewish camping became even more important,” she said. 

A 2011 study commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp lends credence to Hollander's view of Jewish camps as important shapers of Jewish identity. According to the study, Jewish camp alumni are 30 percent more likely to donate to a Jewish charity; 37 percent more likely to light Sabbath candles; and 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue.

“The analysis indicates that [camps] bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat lighting candles to using Jewish websites and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” the study concluded. “Secondly, they bring an inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

The FJC, which has a mission to increase the number of Jewish campers, is working to identify ways for camps to slash costs. In recent years it has coordinated the sharing of resources, encouraged the development of alternative revenue sources and helped camp directors improve their managerial skills through a program the organization likens to “an MBA in camping.”

Ultimately, the foundation wants to see camps profitable enough to be self-sustaining.

“Camps that are full are profitable and reinvest back in scholarships,” Fingerman said. “So there is a power in numbers, and we're working hard to get them full.”

Other organizations also have taken steps to make camp more affordable, particularly for less-affiliated families and first-time campers who might be less sold on the value of the camp experience. The Avi Chai and Zell foundations jointly made a $600,000 donation to Ramah to help the Conservative movement’s camp network attract first-timers.

“We're calling it the Ramah Open Door Program, where we're opening up to less Jewish-affiliated families,” said Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Ramah’s national director.

Paul Reichenbach, the director of camp and Israel programs at the Union for Reform Judaism, said a significant number of children attending his movement's summer programs also receive scholarships.

While camp directors agree that the costs of Jewish overnight camps are high, they offer varying explanations as to the reasons. Some say it’s the relative abundance of staff — a ratio of one supervisor for every two campers, according to Cohen. Others point to the salaries of directors, which average about $125,000 per year at nonprofit camps, according to public tax filings. Directors at Jewish for-profits can make even more.

Perhaps the biggest factor driving costs, however, is the Jewish community's relative affluence and the resulting expectations.

“What [Jewish camps] provide may be higher with regard to facility, to program options, with regard to staff structure,” Reichenbach said. “And we are dealing with a community that has a certain expectation for quality.”

Despite a growing recognition of the importance of making tuition affordable, Reichenbach predicted costs would continue to appreciate at a rate of 2 percent to 5 percent each year.

“We live in the real world,” he said. “In the last few years our practices have reflected the rise in the cost-of-living index, the cost of energy, of food, of transportation. Right now we are doing the best we can to stay even.”

L.A. camp gets unwanted attention in wake of Colorado shooting

Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes’ reported ties to Camp Max Straus have led to unwanted attention for Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and its camp, its director said.

“I think the attention is unfortunate,” Randy Schwab, CEO of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and Camp Max Straus, said during a July 23 phone interview.

Following last week’s shooting rampage in Aurora, Colo., media reported that Holmes, 24, worked as a counselor at Glendale-based Camp Max Straus during summer 2008. The camp and its parent organization have found themselves trying to avoid negative attention while coming to terms with the knowledge that Holmes — who is suspected of killing 12 people and injuring 58 — was once responsible for a group of approximately 10 children.

On July 20, Holmes allegedly walked into a movie theater during a midnight screening of the Batman finale, “The Dark Knight Rises,” and, armed with multiple weapons, began shooting. He was arrested immediately following the incident and is currently being held in a Colorado detention facility. Holmes made his first court appearance on July 23.

Holmes grew up in the upscale northwest San Diego neighborhood of Rancho Peñasquitos and attended a local Presbyterian church with his family, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Holmes’ connection to Camp Max Straus was discovered through a resume found on employment Web site following the shooting.

Situated on 100-plus scenic acres in the Verdugo Mountains and at the end of a cul-de-sac in a quiet residential neighborhood, Max Straus serves a primarily non-Jewish population of low-income and disadvantaged youth ages 7-12. Mentoring organization Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles owns and operates the nonsectarian camp.

Director Schwab has resisted being interviewed, instead referring reporters to a written statement confirming Holmes was a cabin counselor at Camp Max Straus for eight weeks during the summer of 2008.

“Camp Max Straus is accredited and adheres to rigorous standards to ensure the safety and security of its campers and staff,” the statement says. “All employees of the camp are subjected to a thorough screening process.”

On July 23, NBC Channel 4 News shot footage for a live segment from outside of Max Straus. The news station’s van had been parked outside the camp for approximately five hours, said NBC general assignment reporter Cary Berglund, who was on the scene.

[Related: Former Jewish camp staffer worked closely with James Holmes]

Berglund arrived at the camp hoping to interview camp staff, but counselors declined interview requests and Schwab did not speak to reporters. Two security guards patrolled the entrance, forbidding reporters from walking onto the property, and handed out copies of Schwab’s written statement.

The camp is currently in session, and young children could be seen walking amid the cabins.

Speaking to The Journal, Berglund said that Max Straus doesn’t deserve negative attention, even though it’s “chilling that somebody like [Holmes] was actually a counselor at a kids camp.”

“Somebody like that could be anywhere at any time,” Berglund said. “I don’t think it reflects badly on the camp. It’s just kind of an eerie addition to what the story is.”

A man who worked with Holmes at Max Straus told CNN that he was a “nice guy” who worked well with children.

“He was a little isolated, but he was, you know, a nice guy,” Gabriel Menchaca said.

The attention that the camp has received is surprising and undesirable, according to a former camp staff member who had worked with Holmes.

“I’m looking at us all over TMZ,” the former camp staff member said on July 22, speaking to The Journal on condition of anonymity. “There’s my picture, it’s crazy.” 

“We had a great summer in 2008, and we don’t want this backlash to spoil it,” the former staffer added. “It’s unfortunate that they’re screaming about the camp all over the news.”

Former Jewish camp staffer worked closely with James Holmes

In the summer of 2008, when James Holmes was 20, he was known as a quiet counselor at Camp Max Straus in Los Angeles County, liked by his campers.

As details have emerged about the background of the now 24-year-old suspected shooter at the midnight massacre at an Aurora, Colo. showing of a Batman sequel on July 20, an unwanted media spotlight has fallen on the 110 acre camp in the Verdugo Mountains run by Jewish Big Brothers and sisters of Los Angeles.

“I’m looking at us all over TMZ,” said one former staff member contacted by The Jewish Journal. “There’s my picture, it’s crazy.”

In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Journal, the staff member, who asked not to be named, confirmed what many friends, colleagues and former neighbors of Holmes have said: He was decent and unremarkable.

“He was a quiet guy,” said the former staffer, who was in close contact with Holmes. “I never would have suspected a thing. He just kept to himself.”

At Camp Max Straus, Holmes was in charge of a group of 10 boys, ages 7 to 10.

“He never got in trouble,” recalled the staffer, who added that there were never any complaints about him from his campers.  While Camp Max Straus activities do not include shooting sports, Holmes did engage in archery with his campers.

The former staffer said Holmes did not seem to hang out with other counselors his age, however.

“It’s not that they didn’t like him,” the staffer said. “It’s just that he wasn’t very social.”

Holmes, the staffer said, was not Jewish.  During the summer, Camp Max Straus serves a primarily non-Jewish population of low-income and disadvantaged youths through ” title=”Chanuka Camp” target=”_blank”>Chanuka Camp.

Since the connection to the camp was revealed on Saturday, July 21, staffers and volunteers have been fielding numerous calls about their now-infamous former counselor, and the group has been working to avoid any implication that the long-running camp is not a safe and secure place. It has had a long track record of improving children’s lives.

The former staffer stressed to The Jewish Journal that nothing in Holmes recent past, even his most recent days, tipped off authorities to imminent danger.

“We had a great summer in 2008,” the staffer told The Jewish Journal, “and we don’t want this backlash to spoil it. It’s unfortunate that they’re screaming about the camp all over the news.”

Jewish summer camps: Director’s cut

At age 8, when Molly Hott stepped off the bus to complete her first summer of overnight camp, she told her parents she was going to “do this forever.”

She wasn’t kidding. Hott spent the next 14 years of her life as a camper, waitress, bunk counselor, group leader, events specialist and division head. As a college student, she pursued an independent study on camp programming and camp’s influence on children. Now, she is director of the 92nd Street Y’s Passport NYC camp in New York.

To fully understand the Jewish summer camp experience, it’s helpful to listen to directors like Hott—whose own camp experiences shaped their lives and careers. Why do camp directors do what they do?

“I do what I do because I have the chance to change lives, positively,” Hott told JointMedia News Service. “The impact that camp can have on a child or a teen is significant. You discover yourself at camp. I hope that summer after summer I can enable that same discovery for others.”

Many Jewish camps offer traditional activities such as field sports, aquatics, drama, arts and crafts, outdoor adventure, nature, sports, music, Israeli dance and culture, field trips, playground, swim lessons, photography, and cooking. But under this umbrella of fun are deeper things.

Take Passport NYC’s mission. It provides teens entering 9th through 12th grades opportunities to explore culture, community, and creativity through Jewish values-driven specialty camps: fashion, film, culinary arts, music industry and musical theater. Hott said teens are encouraged to explore their personal connection to Judaism while immersing themselves in the camp’s programs.

“They explore New York City through a Jewish lens by framing each and every experience in a way that leads to asking ‘why’ or ‘what’ or ‘how,’” she said. “When our group visits ‘Top of the Rock’ at Rockefeller Center, they receive two pieces of paper with Talmudic quotes. The piece of paper in their right pocket says, ‘The world is created for me,’ and the one in the left pocket says, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ The focus of this experience is to find balance in our lives.”

Hott added that each teen has the opportunity to earn up to 30 hours of community service credit by giving back throughout different areas in New York City.

Like Hott, Stacy Budkofsky, director at the Neil Klatskin Day Camp in Tenafly, NJ, has been a camper all her life.

“When I was younger I started as the youngest camper and left as the head of the girls’ camp at Tranquility Camp in upstate New York,” she told JointMedia News Service. “The motto in the camp world is 10 for 2, which means we live ten months out of the year for the two months of camp. There’s a lot of planning that goes into the eight weeks of camp.”

The Neil Klatskin Day Camp, Budkofsky said, is a place for a child to have fun while maturing through interactions with others. Staff members create a “communal group” where campers and staff participate to provide experiences that challenge the body, mind and imagination. Parents can expect campers to progress, not only through physical activities like swimming and soccer, but in the realms of social and emotional growth, according to Budkofsky.

“Children spend 10 months out of the year in a school setting and there are opportunities for socialization but they are different than what we provide at camp,” she said. “At camp it’s a much more social environment. They are not sitting at a desk all day. There’s a lot of team building and more freedom than in school.”

According to Mallory Saks, assistant director at Camp Poyntelle Lewis Village, Penn., staffers have been enriching the lives of campers for over 60 years. During that time, the camp evolved into one of the premier Jewish overnight camps in the U.S.

“We are very proud of all of our amazing traditions, beautiful facility, dedicated staff, core Jewish values, and incredible culture,“ Saks told JointMedia News Service. “We offer a wide variety of athletic, waterfront and arts programs for campers in second through eleventh grades.“

Mallory Saks, assistant director at Camp Poyntelle Lewis Village, Penn., said this Jewish overnight camp unique because it has two separate camps—Poyntelle and Lewis Village. Second through 7th grade campers live at Poyntelle and engage in age-appropriate activities and programs there, and 8th through 11th grade campers live at Lewis Village, where activities and programs are more challenging and appropriate for teenagers.

“We function as one whole camp during special times like Shabbat,” Saks told JointMedia News Service. “We do our best to continue our relationship with our campers long after they leave the gates of their summer home.” 

How has the camp industry changed over the years? Phil Liebson knows. His best memories and friends are from growing up at camp. Today, he is director at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center’s summer camps.

“When you work with kids and they experience or complete things, their happiness is amazing and it hits you,” Liebson told JointMedia News Service. “Camp is an ever-changing environment. Years ago there was a push to keep camp rustic and outdoors and now they have transitioned into electronics and specialty camps. It’s great. Every kid should get to go to camp but not every camp is for every kid. When you find the one that fits your child you will know.”

Liebson’s camp integrates Jewish learning and Jewish living by incorporating Judaism through song and activities.

“We like to make it fun and exciting and not in a top down or lecturing way,” he said. “Learning through games or art projects is the best way for kids to learn and they have so much fun with it they don’t even know they are learning.”

Liebson said he is a Jewish camp director because he wants to “provide the same experiences for future campers” that he had as a camper himself. The same is true for Passport NYC’s Hott.

“I had been given the greatest experiences, friendships, community and love of myself through my summer camp opportunities—and I had to do that for others,” she said.

Parents find new benefit to Jewish camp: Freedom from themselves

When she took the stage recently before an audience of 400 Jewish camping enthusiasts, Lenore Skenazy wasted no time in addressing why she is known as “America’s Worst Mom.”

The author of a 2008 column in The New York Times describing how she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone just to see if he could do it, Skenazy has been the subject of sharp criticism for her parenting philosophy. But Skenazy is fighting back, waging war against what she describes as overzealous and anxiety-ridden helicopter parents who hover over their children rather than letting them be “free-range kids,” affording them the freedom to make mistakes.

She even wrote a book on the subject: “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.”

“Sending your kids to camp is a fantastic way to give kids back their freedom,” Skenazy said at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent leaders’ assembly in this central New Jersey city. “Homesickness is a good thing. It shows they appreciate their home. So, thank God for camp.”

Summer camp has emerged as one of the most promising tools in the struggle to ensure Jewish continuity in an era when Jews face more choice and fewer barriers to assimilation. A recent study by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults.

“The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Since its launch 13 years ago, the foundation has raised approximately $90 million to strengthen Jewish camps and, more recently, to encourage the growth of so-called Jewish specialty camps—those that focus on sports, art or outdoor adventures—in an attempt to siphon off some of the Jewish campers who might be drawn to non-Jewish camps focusing on specialty areas.

But the focus on identity building has obscured what some say is another, less-touted benefit of the camp experience that should also be a draw for Jewish parents: affording their kids a measure of freedom from intensive parenting.

“Kids go to camp and gain independence,” said Nancy Lublin, the founder of the nonprofits Dress for Success and, and another speaker at the conference. “That’s why we need camp. It’s about the fun, tradition and independence. Go get dirty, get lice, sprain something. Parents will see that they don’t come home with their nose pierced, purple hair or worshiping the devil. It’s OK.”

Helicopter parenting, a term used to refer to parents that hover over their children and pay exceedingly close attention to their every activity—sometimes to a degree that borders on smothering—is hardly a Jewish phenomenon. It has been the subject of numerous books and articles, and of late has sparked its own backlash. But Jewish parents, and particularly the much-maligned stereotypical Jewish mother, may be more susceptible to such impulses than most.

“We Jewish parents are definitely overprotective of our kids, and it’s tough to send them to overnight camp,” Lublin said. “But we all know it’s the right thing to do. It’s just what Jews do.”

For some parents, however, summer camp may not be a cure-all. Parents still call and write their kids and, with the proliferation of new communications technologies, they can remain involved to a degree that parents of a previous generation were not.

“Even when the children are away at camp, the parents will still be hovering,” said Michael Salamon, a psychologist in New York who has fingered overparenting as one of the reasons behind the so-called shidduch crisis, in which a glut of young unmarried adults—mainly in the Orthodox community—struggle to find suitable mates.

“I met with parents in a recent session who were so overprotective of their child that it was hindering the child’s ability to perform well in school,” Salamon said. “They told me they felt it was important to send their child to camp this summer to encourage independence, but really what I noticed is that they were looking for a vacation for themselves. They work so hard at parenting that they need a break.”

For parents like these, summer camp is a way to loosen the reins a little but in a way that still feels relatively safe.

Stephanie Steiner of Springfield, N.J., describes her own parenting style as “somewhat overprotective.” Still, every summer she ships off her kids to Camp Harlam, a Reform movement camp in Pennsylvania. They’ve demonstrated more independence as a result, which makes the experience—and the expense—worth it.

“We feel very comfortable with the camp and who is running it and how it is run, so it makes it easier,” Steiner said. “The camp’s motto is ‘Where friends become family,’ and we know our kids are so happy at their home away from home.”

Whatever the benefits of Jewish camping, there’s little sign that enthusiasm for it is on the wane. The Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation have put up $8.6 million in grant money to bring more Jewish children into the camping world by focusing on their specialized hobbies.

“Camp gives kids the permission to be themselves. Parents trust that camp is a positive place for building self-esteem and self-confidence,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Jewish camp brings that and an even stronger sense of community.”

Rabbi Jason Miller is an entrepreneur, blogger and social media expert. He’s president of Michigan-based Access Computer Technology and was voted by the National Jewish Outreach Program as one of the top 10 Jewish Influencers. He blogs at and is on Twitter @rabbijason.

Camp foundation grant to fund new specialty camps

The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s new grant cycle will fund the creation of four new specialty Jewish overnight camps.

The Specialty Camps Incubator II funding cycle represents the second stage of an $8.6 million grant jointly funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation.

The latest grant was announced this week during the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly in New Brunswick, N.J.  The foundation is seeking proposals for the specialty camps.

The new camps are intended to engage the 90 percent of Jewish youth in grades 6-12 who, according to the Cohen Center at Brandeis University, do not report memorable summer overnight camp experiences.

“Many camp-aged children were missing out on the transformative summers at Jewish camp because they wanted to spend their vacation honing a skill or developing a hobby,” explained Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the camp foundation, in a statement. “The Specialty Camps Incubator allows for these kids to have both experiences in one setting.”

Israel education initiative for camps launched

A new Israel education initiative for camps is launching with grants of $3.6 million.

The Larry and Lillian Goodman Foundations has awarded a four-year, $2.3 million matching grant to the iCenter and the Foundation for Jewish Camp to establish the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Jewish History. The grant will be matched by the Marcus Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation, who are jointly contributing a $1.3 million grant to the program.

The objective of the initiative is to enhance and expand the teaching of modern Israeli history and culture at nonprofit independent Jewish overnight camps.

A recent study by the Foundation for Jewish Camp found that Jewish camp alumni are 55 percent more likely to feel emotionally attached to Israel.

“As young Jews are our future leaders, Jewish camps provide an ideal environment for them to learn about Israeli history and culture so that they will be knowledgeable when standing up against anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses,” said Larry Goodman, chairman of the Goodman Foundations. “We believe the Goodman Camping Initiative will be an influential program in building deep ties with the state of Israel for thousands of campers and staff.”

Beginning in summer 2012, participating camps will feature an in-house modern Israel educator and five trained senior staff. The first cohort, which has already been selected, will be made up of 12 camps and the program is set to expand to 36 camps over the four-year period.

Happy wallet, happy camper

The economy is bad. Money is tight. And yet the news isn’t all negative for youngsters hoping to attend Jewish summer camp this year.

“The truth of the matter is, most of the summer camps have increased their financial aid,” said Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “We’ve increased financial aid. So a lot of the challenges of the economy so far have been mitigated. We invest close to $1 million in summer camps.”

Local attendance is down slightly but has been pretty consistent. Over time, though, he said, “We would love to see the number of young people going to camp go from 4,000 to 8,000. Our goal in the medium term is to find ways to double it.”

That goal may seem far-fetched, considering the stranglehold the economy has over so many people and the fact that private, non-Jewish camps have seen national attendance decline by 10 percent or more over the last three years, according to Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC).

But figures from the New York-based organization indicate that Jewish camp enrollment is holding steady or even slightly increasing. Fingerman expects this past year’s final numbers to be up more than 3 percent nationally.

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“I think it’s been viewed as a communal imperative to make sure that kids have the ability to go to camp in the face of these economic times,” he said. “Federations have stepped up to the plate and increased scholarship assistance, and the camp communities themselves have their own scholarships.”

More than 70,000 kids went to Jewish, nonprofit overnight summer camps this summer, paying an average of between $700 and $1,000 per week, Fingerman said.

To help, FJC distributed more than 10,000 grants this past summer, totaling about $6.5 million, through two programs in particular. One Happy Camper offers $1,000 incentives to youths attending their first summer at a nonprofit, Jewish overnight camp. FJC partners with local Federations, camp movements and sometimes camps for these programs. Then there’s JWest, which is funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and offers incentive grants for the first and second summers.

In Los Angeles, Federation gives out camper incentive grants to close to 1,000 youths. Some are based on financial need while those in conjunction with One Happy Camper focus on first-time campers.

At Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, fundraising efforts have gone into overdrive since the recession hit. As a result, more attendees are on financial aid — 42 percent last summer compared to 29 percent a few years ago — but more are enrolling, too.

“Our goal is to get every kid into camp, so we’ve raised the money,” said Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, which is home to the camp.

Now the camp, which usually hosts 800 youths over the course of a summer, gives out $250,000 in scholarships based on financial need. Some campers receive assistance from other sources as well. The cost of attending Camp JCA Shalom generally is between $900 and $1,000 per week, Kaplan said.

There is a new challenge, though: Some potential campers simply aren’t asking for help.

Josh Levine, director of Camp Alonim, part of American Jewish University, said, “There are families out there who don’t send their kids to Jewish camp because they think they won’t qualify for financial aid, or they don’t know that financial aid is available. It is available, there is certainly no stigma in applying for financial aid, and it exists for a reason.”

Still, summer enrollment at the Simi Valley camp has increased to more than 900 overnight campers and 270 day campers. On average, overnight camp costs $850 to $900 per week and day camp costs $250 per week. Increased financial aid has certainly helped attendance.

“We have been raising more for scholarships,” Levine said. “I think the community is responding in knowing that there’s been an increased need out there, which is very heartening.”

Finding ways to get kids into Jewish camp despite the recession is incredibly important to the Jewish future, Sanderson said.

“If you go to camp for two or three years minimally, your Jewish identity is solidified,” he said. “Almost everybody I know, including myself, among the most meaningful experiences we had in terms of Jewish engagement was camp. That’s where lifelong friends are met. It’s where love of Judaism happens.”

A new home for historic labor zionist youth camp

Pine trees and hiking trails surround more than a dozen wooden cabins on a lakeside campground in the San Bernardino National Forest. Located near Big Bear, the 40-acre site also includes a large dining hall, amphitheater, swimming pool, sports field and archery range — as well as a memorable bucolic view.

Known as Camp Bluff Lake, the property is expected to become the permanent home of Habonim Dror Camp Gilboa once the labor Zionist youth camp closes escrow on Aug. 4.

Southern California’s Camp Gilboa was founded in 1936, one year after its parent organization expanded from Europe to North America. Modeled on a kibbutz environment, Habonim camps incorporate social justice education into camp activities, attracting Israelis and families who want their kids to learn progressive ideas.

Gilboa is purchasing the property for $2.5 million from the Wildlands Conservancy, which owns and operates the state’s largest nonprofit nature preserve system, and plans to make biannual payments of $250,000 to Wildlands over the next five years.

“We’ve been given a very special deal,” said Liz Bar-El, Gilboa camp committee chair.

The move this year to the new site presents an opportunity for Gilboa to grow on two levels. The camp can accommodate more campers — this year, it was attended by some 140 campers, ages 9 to 17, but the number can grow to 200, compared to approximately 130 in previous years at the YMCA site. This year, the camp offered a two-week and a three-week session; in the future, Bar-El said, Gilboa hopes to expand the summer season by a week or two.

The purchase also provides Gilboa, which has owned property in the past but mostly rented campgrounds throughout its 75-year history, an opportunity to put down roots again.

The arrangement to use the site this summer came via an agreement with Wildlands, and Gilboa’s organizers are now focused on fundraising to pay for the campground.

Gilboa, which named its capital campaign “Coming Home at Last,” has already received $880,000 in donations and pledges from alumni and others to fund the purchase of the site. Of that amount, approximately $150,000 is in cash donations, according to Norm Kane, Gilboa’s board president.

Two nonprofits that support Jewish camps — the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy and the Foundation for Jewish Camp — are offering strategic training to help the Gilboa leadership identify potential donors.

“Gilboa is a great success story because, if you look at the camp, the number of participating campers is growing, and that’s the bottom line for us … to make it so more people can participate,” Grinspoon director Mark Gold said.

The Avi Chai Foundation, a grant-making organization, has offered Gilboa a $500,000 loan, but Kane said the camp can’t get the loan without a letter of credit, which camp organizers are currently seeking.

Last month, Gilboa representatives approached The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles about financial assistance but were turned down. Neither side would disclose how much was requested. The Federation says that although it is committed to Jewish camping via scholarships for campers and consulting with camp leaders to help them identify potential donors, it doesn’t help with the purchase of real estate for camps.

“Gilboa came to us asking how we could help them finalize the acquisition of their property. We had a really productive meeting and a series of conversations together, and we are exploring multiple ways we might be able to help. At that meeting it was premature of us to offer any sort of guarantee on the loan,” said Andrew Cushnir, Federation executive vice president and chief programming officer.

Federation President Jay Sanderson reiterated the agency’s support of Jewish camps.

“It is an essential part of our strategy to ensure the Jewish future,” he said.

Bar-El expressed disappointment with the outcome of Gilboa’s meeting with Federation.

“We didn’t come out with what we had hoped, which was that they would show more of a commitment to … helping us find the financing we need right now,” she said.

Nevertheless, Bar-El remains hopeful.

“It’s not over,” she said. “We haven’t achieved exactly what we wanted, [but] we hope The Federation will help at some point.”

Bar-El said the situation Gilboa faced before the campsite purchase was unsustainable.

“Every year, there has been this insecurity, if we could come back or not, and what [the YMCA] would charge,” she said. “When Bluff came along, we decided we really needed to seize the opportunity.”

Gilboa staff announced their intention to buy a campground in 2010, around the time of Habonim Dror North America’s 75th anniversary, and began discussions with Wildlands Conservancy in April.

Organizers say that owning a camp allows Gilboa to be truer to kibbutznik ideology — with campers maintaining the site in addition to participating in recreational and educational activities. And because Gilboa’s own staff will be running the kitchen, it will be kosher, whereas it was kosher-style at the YMCA site. 

Wildlands will continue to own 80 acres of land surrounding the camp and has embraced Gilboa as its new neighbor. In its mission statement, Wildlands declares a commitment to making nature available to kids and believes Gilboa shares in this vision.

David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, reinforced Wildlands’ partnership with Gilboa.

“We’re backing this horse, [and] if there are reasons they can’t pay it, we would give them an extension,” he said, adding, “I’m not worried about them raising the money. The camp sells itself.”

Ramah Darom camper dies on rafting trip

An 11th grade camper at Camp Ramah Darom was killed during an accident on a white-water rafting trip.

Andrew Silvershein, of Davie, Fla., died when his raft capsized June 19 on the first day of a trip on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. Six other campers who had been with Silvershein on the raft made it back to shore safely. Silvershein remained trapped under a rock, under the water’s surface, according to Southern Jewish Life Magazine. A paddle reportedly was used to free him, but CPR efforts failed.

It is the second drowning of a rafter on the Ocoee River this month, according to reports.

A guide rode on each raft and campers wore life preservers and helmets, according to the magazine.

Grief counselors were called to the camp to meet with the campers following the accident. Campers were allowed to call home, and parents had been notified of Silvershein’s death by phone calls and an e-mail prior to the calls.

Silvershein was entering his junior year in high school and played in his school’s marching band. His younger sister was also a camper at Ramah Darom. The funeral is scheduled for Wednesday, the Sun-Sentinel reported. .

The accident occurred during the first week of the camp’s eight-week session.

Camp kids, homeless benefit from Federation Community Service Day

More than 250 volunteers participated in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Service Day on June 5, the second of four volunteer opportunities in celebration of The Federation’s 100th anniversary.

Volunteers handed out camp supplies and clothing to more than 1,000 at-risk and low-income children who will attend Camp Max Straus in Glendale, a program of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles. Another group worked with Netiya, an anti-hunger initiative that Federation partners with, to revitalize the Grow Native Nursery on the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration property. On the other side of the city, volunteers helped feed the homeless at the Fred Jordan Mission in downtown Los Angeles.

The first Community Service Day was in February in conjunction with the Super Sunday phone fundraiser; the next two days will be in September and December.

Lifting voices — and hearts — in song at Hava Nashira

To those who love it, Hava Nashira is less a Jewish summer music workshop and more a calling. Even the name — translated as “come let us sing” — beckons.

Started in 1992 by Debbie Friedman and Cantor Jeff Klepper, the sessions originally intended to train camp song leaders have gone on to have a global impact on Jewish music and synagogue life.

“We want to help people become sensitized to how they can use this music in synagogues, in community centers, in all the places where Jews come to congregate,” said Jerry Kaye, director of the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, the regional camp of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in Oconomowoc, Wis., where Hava Nashira takes place.

Kaye was one of the few there at the beginning, when the program full of soulful songs drew about 50 people. Today, more than 200 song leaders, music educators, cantors and others make the trip. Do the math and the potential ripple effect is huge.

“If somebody can teach a song to Hava Nashira and make it stick, then it’s very likely that the rest of the Jewish community … is going to learn it,” said Emily Schwartz, 23, a song leader from Chicago who has been to the program four times.

True to its purpose, Hava Nashira continues to train song leaders for summer camps through intensive workshops, reviewing old songs, adding new ones and developing the artistry behind the role. This year’s workshop will be held June 1-5, with URJ camp song leaders arriving a day early.

“The first very specific goal was to make sure that there were talented song leaders to go around for all the Union camps, and to that end we have designed a separate program for the song leaders,” said Klepper, who serves as cantor for Temple Sinai in Sharon, Mass.

Hava Nashira is open to participants of any denomination, and those who come range in age from 18 to 65 and older. In the past, they have been able to study anything from composition to music for young families to the power of choral singing with a faculty that draws from the best in Jewish music today.

Mikey Pauker, 25, a song leader from West Los Angeles, said he was in awe when he attended Hava Nashira for the first time two years ago.

“All the people there who were faculty were the people who wrote the songs,” he said. “I was blown away by the talent of the people and the community.”

The sharing goes both ways, as participants learn from faculty members and each other.

“You’re in an environment that it’s sort of like a Petri dish of Jewish culture and music,” said Craig Taubman, who has been on staff for more than 10 years. “It was an opportunity for colleagues to cross-pollinate.”

Danny Maseng, chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood, said that one of his goals when he helped direct the program from 1995 to 2000 had to do with helping a new generation rediscover Chasidic, Sephardic and other cool but nearly forgotten tunes. All of this was for one purpose — “to really, really connect with the sacred through music,” he said.

“The main goal certainly wasn’t to have ‘fun’ or to have a good time,” Maseng explained. “The main point was to have a spiritual experience and, even more importantly, a transformative spiritual experience.”

Consider Rick Lupert transformed. He first attended the camp in 1996 and has been back every year since. He met his wife, Addie, there in 2002 and proposed to her at Hava Nashira the following year.

“Everything else that happens in life kind of revolves around making sure that I can make it to that in terms of scheduling,” the Van Nuys resident said.

A music teacher at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, where he also helps lead a monthly minyan and is involved in other musical endeavors, Lupert, 42, said the program is indescribably powerful.

“Music, when done right with the right people and the right melodies in the right setting, can bring you to tears,” he said.

It can even work miracles. Lupert recalls a time when the power was out at the camp and how it came back on as Friedman led the group in “Yotzer Or” — Creator of Light.

“It was simultaneously hilarious and powerful,” he said.

Lupert and others at the workshop recognize that the time they spend there is not just for themselves, although they share a strong bond with each other; they become emissaries of the music and can use it to create a larger Jewish community worldwide.

What they pick up at Hava Nashira isn’t something that can be downloaded over the Internet, said Cantor Ellen Dreskin, a faculty member since 1998 from Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, N.Y.

“It’s really easy to learn new music online, to share resources online, but this craft of song leading is so much about personal connection, about teaching people to use music to build community, to use music to build spirituality,” she said.

As with all things, Hava Nashira is always changing. Aside from growing in size, it has broadened its musical horizons from just using guitar to adding keyboard and other instruments. It also gave rise to a new program, Shabbat Shirah, which began last fall. The program with a smaller faculty focused on people age 30 and up and attracted 54 people, Kaye said.

Looking forward, there is no avoiding the topic of Friedman, the musical luminary who was part of Hava Nashira from the beginning and who died Jan. 9.

“We will miss her terribly,” Kaye said, “but there’s no doubt that she provided a kind of energy and enthusiasm that we will all look to carry forward.”

Klepper has no illusions that time stands still. Long gone are the days when he grew up learning songs at camp that had to be taught and memorized because recordings weren’t available.  But the best part remains in Hava Nashira: “The idea that there is nothing as satisfying as sitting and singing with a few other people, just strumming guitars and singing and making up your own harmonies.

“It’s sort of like your music version of the slow food movement. We’re just going to put this stuff in the pot and just put the heat up a little bit and let it take a long time to simmer,” Klepper continued. “So maybe that’s why you have to take a couple of flights and a bus to get to this special camp. You have to really want to be here.”