Moshava returns to Los Angeles

It really bothered Jonathan Gerber, a 30-year-old financial adviser and resident of Pico-Robertson, that there was no Modern Orthodox sleep-away camp in Los Angeles. Ever since the Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva discontinued its Moshava Los Angeles camp in the mid-1990s, local kids had been forced to head East for a similar summer overnight experience.   

“Each summer, there’s a planeload of 48 students going to the East Coast,” Gerber said. 

And that’s not all. Hundreds of Orthodox kids are thought to leave Southern California for sleep-away camp every summer. Many Orthodox kids also attend the Conservative Camp Ramah in Ojai.

Gerber believed that a local option that matched the Modern Orthodox observance families practiced at home would give more kids a chance to have a summer experience that studies have shown can strongly impact Jewish identity.

So during a conversation in May with Ari Moss, his friend and then-president of the Shalom Institute in Malibu, Gerber floated the idea of borrowing the institute’s 220-acre campground and retreat facility for a two-week Modern Orthodox camp.   

His dream finally will take shape this summer in the form of Moshava Malibu (, where officials hope to attract 150 boys and girls Aug. 11-25. Tuition is $2,000, with a special early-bird rate of $1,800 available until Jan. 1. Applicants must currently be in grades 3-9.

It helped that the nondenominational Shalom Institute, which hosts the Big Jewish Tent events as well as its own camp and retreats, was interested in engaging the Modern Orthodox community. 

Gerber next reached out to Bnei Akiva — which runs camps and programs throughout North America and Israel and has a strong presence in Los Angeles — and offered it the opportunity to bring a Moshava camp back to Los Angeles. 

Moshava — a moshav is a cooperative agricultural settlement in the State of Israel — has become synonymous in the Modern Orthodox community with popular sleep-away camps that promote religious Zionism, aliyah (immigration to Israel) and outdoor experiences. 

Another draw of Moshava is the emphasis on youth leadership, according to Shimi Baras, shaliach (emissary) for Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles. 

“This is the only place where programs are run by high school kids. There’s no professional staff,” he said. “There’s a lot of independence … high-schoolers are the counselors; a lot of them later get management and leadership positions and say they learned the leadership in Bnei Akiva.”

Until now, other Moshava camps, such as Wild Rose in Wisconsin or Camp Stone in Pennsylvania, have benefited from the leadership provided by Los Angeles youths. 

Rabbi Kenny Pollack, an L.A. native and Moshava veteran who was hired to be the director of Moshava Malibu, said the approach to camping is experiential.

“In terms of a sleep-away camp, it’s very unique in that you’re running a tochnit — a program — that’s Zionistic and experiential in education. We’re not going to offer Torah out of a book. … Instead of learning about olive oil and grape juice, we’ll be making it.” 

The camp also will feature traditional summer activities — swimming, archery, hiking, organic farming, a ropes course and other outdoor fun. 

While this first session will run for two weeks, the camp hopes to expand eventually. 

“Ultimately, within the next five years, the goal would be to have a full summer program — two four-week sessions — and a week-long winter camp,” Gerber said.

And while a full summer session might require Moshava Malibu to get its own space, Gerber hopes to continue the model of leveraging the current infrastructure.  

“This is a great model of combining three teams: the Shalom Institute, which has the actual facility; Bnei Akiva of North America, which is providing registration services and programming and hiring of staff; and then Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles,” which is doing recruitment and helping in other ways.

Baras also hopes that the camp will help position Los Angeles as a West Coast Bnei Akiva center. In the last year or two, he has reached out to Jewish communities in the West like San Francisco, Denver and even Mexico for Shabbatons and retreats, and he is stepping up his outreach in advance of Moshava Malibu registration. 

The stakes are high for Gerber, who sees camping as an effective, low-cost tool to keep young Jews impassioned and connected. 

“Take a look at the Ramah community, which is keeping Conservative youth so impassioned,” he said.

Besides providing an enriching camp experience, the directors hope to transform the L.A. landscape with committed, leadership-oriented young Jews. Pollack predicted that down the road, having a Moshava camp here could increase the number of homegrown Jewish educators at local day schools.

The L.A. camp director, who lives and works as a teacher in Cleveland during the school year, called Moshava, “a camp incubator of educators.” He said that many of his fellow teachers in Cleveland went through the Moshava camps and were trained early to become leaders and educators.  

“We are all products, and that model is where L.A. could be,” he said.

A summertime find — future Jewish leaders

As a camper, Max Kates was full of energy, soaking up everything Camp Ramah in Ojai offered. He loved sports, singing, his friends and Shabbat. When the summer arrived for him to join the staff, he immediately applied to participate in Ramah’s counselor leadership-training program. In his first year as a counselor, Max was placed in a unit I supervised, and I watched with pride as he developed valuable skills in problem solving, public speaking, teamwork, program design and assessment.

Six years later, Max is a unit head working with veteran staff and counselors-in-training, and, as the camp’s assistant director, I support and guide him. While my path ultimately led to Jewish education, Max is now in medical school. He could sense his growth during his summers as a counselor, but was unaware that the same skills conquered then would be put to use as a medical student.

During the summer, teenagers and young adults like Max are presented with a plethora of options — summer school, jobs in retail, internships, travel programs and more. Choosing work as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp helps young people gain skills as leaders in any setting, while securing their commitment to the future of the Jewish people — and it is an option that our community must make a priority.

At Camp Ramah, as at other camps, young counselors — about 18 years old — inherit enormous parental responsibility. In helping campers become stronger individuals by creating a safe, fun and educational experience, counselors hone skills often found in highly experienced teachers, customer-service agents, social workers, nurses and spiritual leaders. In the process, counselors themselves transform into Jewishly literate young adults who serve the community in leadership roles beyond the summer experience.

The counselors we hire at Ramah are charged to be role models and educators at an age when they, too, are growing more independent. The results are outstanding. Not only do our counselors check for brushed teeth, comfort the homesick and cheer campers on during basketball games, but they also model Jewish values, use Hebrew, lead prayers and teach mitzvot, such as tikkun olam (repairing the world) through activities that take advantage of the natural surroundings at camp. Through their training in both skills and content, counselors absorb values and practices that stick with them for a lifetime. They commit to Jewish practice and values, such as Shabbat observance, Israel and continued Jewish education.

Recent research reveals a higher percentage of commitment to Jewish values in young adults who work in Jewish summer camps than in those who only attended as campers or never attended at all. For example, when surveyed in college, 34 percent of camp counselors expressed a commitment to supporting Jewish organizations, compared to just 22 percent among those who have not worked at camp. Further, 71 percent of counselors at Camp Ramah observe the laws of kashrut, compared to 36 percent who were only campers and 17 percent with no camp experience.

Young applicants who worry that they are “giving up” a summer that could be used to intern, take classes or travel should be assured that working at a Jewish summer camp develops skills that universities and employers will value. Developmentally, 18-year olds are ready to reach outside of themselves to lead and care for others in the world. They desire the adrenaline rush that comes from a feeling of accomplishment and are eager to accept leadership roles that allow them to express their opinions and develop marketable skills. Camp provides this very opportunity.

At Ramah we offer a counselor leadership-training program for first-year staff, in which counselors spend much time in the field with campers, along with hours each week in the classroom acquiring leadership skills in communication, youth development, crisis management, program planning, Judaics and other areas. Most importantly, camps give staff members — first year and after — a unique opportunity to exercise their creative abilities under a strong watchful eye and with more feedback than these young adults will receive in future jobs. At the end of this most recent summer, one counselor who completed our training program remarked, “Being a first-year counselor changed me. I took all my energy and channeled it into the right places. I felt so happy with the work I was doing and the impact I made on kids, whether through planning a program or leading a cheer.”

One summer on the job, however, is not enough. In order to maximize this potential, Jewish summer camps must retain counselors from season to season, so that young adults can build on their skills and deepen their allegiance to Jewish leadership. Camps must offer salary and training packages that are competitive with summer internship and travel alternatives available to young adults. Fortunately, some in the camping movement are working hard to design such packages. The Foundation for Jewish Camping’s Cornerstone Fellowship Program aims to retain senior counselors for at least a third summer of work by bringing cohorts of counselors to a national conference on Jewish camp counseling skills, helping them take on leadership roles during the summer and paying a generous stipend on top of their base salary. This fellowship program is one answer to a retention problem that will need many solutions.

From medical school, Max recently expressed appreciation for his experiences on staff at Camp Ramah. He described a moment when his anatomy professor broke students into groups and requested that they make team guidelines and expectations. Max led his group to create goals and discuss how they would work together as a team throughout anatomy, perhaps the most intense course in medical school. Max stated, “And that’s about when I realized it: The skills and experiences we all share at camp do not occur in some vacuum — separate from the world outside. They transfer directly to everything we are doing right now.”

Zachary Lasker, a doctoral candidate in education at UCLA, is the assistant director for Camp Ramah in California and a clinical instructor in education at the American Jewish University.