September 20, 2018

Hayden Klein: YULA Student Picks His Cause

Hayden Klein.

When most 15-year-olds might choose to spend their summer going to camp or the beach or just hanging out with friends, Hayden Klein decided to do something more.

Klein, a sophomore at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA), chose to spend last summer working at a day camp with teenagers from ETTA, a Jewish nonprofit that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Every year I would go to day camp, a sports camp, or hang out with my friends, but this year I wanted to do something a lot more meaningful, something bigger than just going to camp,” Klein said. “I wanted to get that great feeling that I was doing something important and something to benefit my community.”

ETTA, he said, was the perfect choice for him, because he’d heard wonderful things about the organization from his teachers and friends.

At a day camp at Shalhevet High School, Klein was paired with an ETTA teenager. They spent their days doing a variety of activities, from singing and dancing to taking trips to places such as Knott’s Berry Farm.

“I really bonded with all the participants there,” Klein said, not just the teenager he was paired with. “You get to see them as just human beings, without the label of being autistic or having Down syndrome.  They’re just like everyone else. They have goals and they want to succeed in life. They’re amazing people.

“I love seeing them outside of camp, too,” he added. “We say, ‘Hi’ and recall things that we did over the summer. It’s a really cool feeling.”

“I come from a very giving community. My grandmother worked in children’s education and I learned a lot from her.”

Klein said a lot of his desire to get involved in volunteer work comes from good examples he has observed.

“I come from a very giving community,” he said. “My grandmother worked in children’s education and I learned a lot from her [about giving back].”

Members of ETTA’s staff were so impressed with Klein’s work that, at the end of the summer, they asked him to join the organization’s Youth Board. As a board member, he helps organize fundraising events during the year, and he is pushing to expand to throughout the year the summer activities the participants enjoy.

“I was in shock when they asked me to join the board,” Klein said. “I’m one of the youngest kids there. It was a real honor.”

At its annual gala in November, ETTA also presented Klein and seven other high school students with its Moselle and Lazare Hendeles Youth Leadership Award.

YULA’s head of school, Rabbi Arye Sufrin, said Klein’s volunteerism goes beyond his work with ETTA. “He is on our flag football team where our coach, Dayvon Ross, is currently undergoing chemotherapy. The entire flag football team was involved in fundraising to help with medical bills by running a Hanukkah barbecue.”

Klein hasn’t decided what he wants to do when he graduates from high school — beyond visiting Israel and going to college. “But I’ll always stay involved and give back,” he said. “I just have that type of mindset.”

What are They REALLY Saying About Camp Neshama?

Silent Disco under the Stars at Camp Neshama. Photo- Jonah Light

Camp Neshama is summer camp for Jewish young adults, running Sept. 1-4th, 2017, in Running Springs, California, and generously sponsored by The Alevy Family. The retreat may be the best Jewish young professional weekend in America. (Full disclosure – my wife Rachel Bookstein and I started the camp 6 years ago.)

We asked some of the participants of last summer’s camp to tell is what they REALLY thought.

She found the ring in the pudding, in 7 seconds.

These are the unedited comments. The writers are from all kinds of backgrounds and each one had an amazing time. One of them also got married to a person they met last summer – can you guess which one?

I feel sad that it’s over! I’m in USA 1 year and in the first time I had an amazing time that made it so special for me. Spiritual w amazing people and helped me to be connected to my roots w keeping Shabbat and the nature , could not ask more than that. Thanks!

Azy from Encino wrote, “I enjoyed every minute of the retreat! From the food to the participants and activities!!! What a great place to make connections and new friends!”

Julian, from South Africa said, “Super happy that I have many new people in my life!”

A Jewish woman from Reseda, “Sad to leave, looking forward to the next one…It was wonderful. Beyond our expectations. My friends and I had a blast”

Field day competition heating up!

A 33 year old woman who grew up in LA said that, “It was a truly unique, reviving, fun, sweet and soulful experience”

A 29 year-old professional from Newport Beach told us, “I expected to experience spirituality being close to nature and share it with Jewish peers. I felt that I worked on my mind to my breath often during the program, which was easier to do since I focused in it when everyone was doing it during yoga or meditation. I feel that I kept active and attended programs I was interested in without having to wait too long for a program in the day-long agenda to do what I wanted to do.”

Ronen climbing up the tree for the Zip Line

Miriam from LA said, “It was a wonderful experience. The setting is lovely. The retreat center is comfortable, enjoyable, interesting. I loved talking to the young people. They were so open and serious about sharing and being heard. Everything was well planned. The meals were fun and delicious. The staff was efficient and very pleasant. The religious services were meaningful. The Booksteins and the volunteers were very accessible. The talks were interesting. We were observers of the sports events, and that was fun. We want to help in any way we can to make more Shabbatons/Retreats successful.”

Shloyme, an artist and businessman from LA told us, “It’s was so Amazing, Relaxing and got me closer to nature H’Shem and to some people in my community.”

Shante from Tarzana, “One of the most amazing Shabbaton I have ever been to. There was so many different activities at all times. All the staff were really helpful and friendly. The accommodations were great as well. “

Esther, who met her husband on the retreat, told us, “I’m blown away by the positive energy I experienced. Such wonderful people.”

Archery? Yes, archery!

An anonymous participant said, “I had a blast!! Literally the time of my life!”

Judy from LA said, “Expected a relaxing, fun event. The program far surpassed my expectations. It was INCREDIBLE!

Ronen, originally from NY, now in LA, said, “It was a very fun and beautiful experience. I enjoyed all the activities, the people who were there, the atmosphere. All in all it was a really great time. Now that I am back to LA it feels a little weird, however I realize even more that I want to marry a girl who has a strong connection and understanding of Judaism.”

Saar, who came from San Jose, told us, “It was incredible meeting everyone at camp and engaging with them even though I knew only one person prior to coming. I enjoyed having a plethora of activities to chose from at every point in the day. Hope to come to future camps like this.”

Yoga with Yogi Marcus

A participant from Irvine, “I had the best experience of my life. spiritual, socializing, relaxing, meeting new friends and the activities were awesome, and food was delicious. I enjoy the nature around the camp.”

Julia, from LA, had a lot to say. “I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to attend your wonderful Shabbaton! I enjoyed the incredibly kind, thoughtful new friends I met, the beautiful campus, and the wide range of activities that balanced out our spirituality and athleticism 🙂 I thought it was a wise choice to not limit attendance to Singles — this added a pleasant family atmosphere in which one could get to know others in our community without the relationship label. The table decorations and Shira’s flowers made meal-times sweet, and the smartly-paced schedule gave everyone something to do at each hour of the day.”

Spaces are limited for this program, so people interested should apply ASAP!

For more information visit campneshama.org

Photos by Jonah Light

Ramah camp in the Rockies evacuated due to early morning fire

Photo courtesy of Camp Ramah of the Rockies facebook page.

Camp Ramah in the Rockies was evacuated after a fire destroyed the building housing the camp kitchen, dining hall and administrative offices.

No one was hurt in the blaze at the Colorado Jewish camp, which started at 2 a.m. Monday and spread to some nearby trees. The camp’s executive director, Rabbi Eliav Bock, noted the damages in a message posted on Facebook.

Local firefighters quickly brought the fire under control, according to the newspaper. The cause has yet to be determined.

The campers and staff were relocated to a field far from the fire, where they played games and sang while under close supervision, according to the post. After sunrise, they boarded buses and drove under police escort from the camp near Bailey, Colorado to a synagogue in Denver, about 90 minutes away. Volunteers there provided them with food.

There were about 130 campers in the area when the fire broke out, the Denver Post reported.

“The immediate implementation of emergency protocols resulted in a calm and quick camp evacuation,” the statement said. “Camp leaders also retrieved Torah scrolls and other important items, and all animals were released to safe areas away from the fire.”

The JCC Ranch Camp in Elbert, Colorado, whose summer season ended this week, offered Ramah the use of their site for the remainder of the summer session, according to Ramah’s Facebook page. “We plan to relocate our entire camp community there by tomorrow evening,” the update said Monday evening. “We will be bringing our own kitchen staff, hospitality staff, and most importantly our own incredible program team and counselors, who are already busy coordinating with JCC Ranch Camp to plan activities such as archery, mountain biking, hiking, and sports.”
Money and passports belonging to campers and staff were stored in fireproof safes on the second floor of the building that burned down, but cell phones and other electronics were kept in a locked closet in the same building and were lost in the fire, the camp said.

Being a Jew is a bargain

If you want to be Jewish, money is no object. In fact, it’s a bargain.

It used to be pricey, say, 25 years ago when the postwar heyday of the suburban synagogue coincided with the busing-fueled exodus into private Jewish schools, a family could spend tens of thousands on temple dues, day school tuition and summer camps. Add in the cost of a keeping-up-with-the-Schwartzes bar mitzvah, maybe a trip to Israel, and the surcharge on kosher food and, yes, Jewish life was a financial slog.

But the Lord heard of the cry of Her People, and things changed.

Actually, the credit goes elsewhere: to Jewish institutions themselves, which found ways to make it easier for Jews to afford practicing Judaism; to Jewish groups and individuals who pioneered more accessible avenues into Jewish life; and to the internet, which lowered costs and increased competition, as it has done for everything else.

The result is that if you are an American Jew who wants to participate in Jewish communal life, you have options, lots of them. They may not be free or even cheap, but it is no longer one-high-price-fits-all.

The subject came up after the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed on July 30 titled, “It’s too expensive to be Jewish.” The piece by Leslee Komaiko generated a lot of clicks, controversy and comments. It popped up on numerous Facebook feeds. Alas, it was misleading. 

Based on the author’s personal experience, it failed to take into account what a simple Google search could tell you: If you want to participate meaningfully in Jewish communal life, there now are many low-cost, and in some cases no-cost, ways to do so.

Let’s start with Birthright, the program that offers every Jewish young adult the opportunity to go on a 10-day trip to Israel — for about $250. 

But wait, as the infomercial would say, there’s more. Jewish newspapers online? Free. (And so is the Jewish Journal in print.) High-quality online Jewish education from YIVO? $99. Classic and contemporary Jewish texts online? Free. The internet will continue to open up opportunities for less expensive Jewish learning, digital meetups, even virtual synagogue services.

As for real-world synagogues, there are numerous options ranging from free to low-cost to high-end. 

There are newer congregations with progressive cost models like IKAR, Open Temple, Valley Torah Outreach and Nashuva, and there is Chabad. But also many mainstream synagogues have developed membership models that work for lower income brackets. The Jewish Journal publishes a directory of free High Holy Days services, a list that grows every year. Beyond Los Angeles, any city with a good-size Jewish community has similar programs going on. 

Want summer camp? Scholarships are widely available. Each year, for instance, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles holds a Tour de Summer Camp bicycle event (this year it’s on Oct. 29) that helps send over 1,500 kids a year to Jewish summer camp.

A lot of these programs developed in the aftermath of the continuity crisis, when surveys showed a declining Jewish population and participation in Jewish life. Organized Jewry reacted in the way it knows best — full-fledged panic — but out of that came an array of low- or no-cost initiatives to lure people into Jewish life. Still more initiatives came into being after the recession ripped a hole in the cost model of Jewish institutional life — a hole that may never be fully repaired.

The L.A. Times piece focused on the writer’s attempt to arrange for her 12-year-old son’s bar mitzvah lessons. (To the commenters who shamed her for “waiting so long”: Nice going; nothing like derision to draw people into the fold.) Lessons, she said, can cost $80 to $140 per hour.

I don’t think $80 per hour to learn and train for a meaningful rite of passage is outrageous, but it’s possible to spend even less. Some families I know get together and meet on Friday afternoon in one another’s homes, splitting the cost of a freelance rabbi or Jewish educator to teach their children. At nightfall, everyone celebrates Shabbat together. There’s also the “Craigslist” route, with many low-cost tutors online.

Most of the complaints I hear about the high cost of Jewish life revolve around day school. I know, because I used to complain about it, too. Annual tuition at a Jewish day school can top $40,000 for high school. It’s expensive — but so is non-Jewish private school.   

Even so, 50 percent of the students in Jewish day schools in Los Angeles are on some form of financial aid. There are scholarships to make it as affordable as possible — but Jewish day school always will be the top-shelf liquor of Jewish involvement. For Orthodox parents who have larger families and see day school as a necessity, this is a special burden. But for the vast majority of those seeking to engage in Jewish life, it will always be a voluntary sacrifice of some sort.

And that’s the larger point. Things we value — cars, sports camps, pasta at Felix — cost money. At some point, Jewish involvement does require a choice — you’ll need to pay something, which means foregoing something else. But in exchange, you get a sense of meaning, community, comfort, tradition, belonging, intellectual stimulation and good jokes.

Like I said, it’s a bargain.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

Camp: Welcoming the youngest charges — and their nervous parents

At Camp Gilboa near Big Bear, younger campers can experience sessions as short as four nights. Photo courtesy of Camp Gilboa

Wondering if your child is ready for overnight camp?

A sure sign, according to Karen Alford, a sleepaway camp consultant, is that he or she has grown tired of day camp.

“At 9, you’ve probably been doing day camp for several years, and there’s just a natural progression to sleepaway camp,” she said.

Of course, Alford added, some kids aren’t ready until they’re older.

“You have to know your child and what they can handle,” she said, adding that “some parents with kids who have trouble separating find camp even more helpful at a younger age because it builds independence.”

Luckily, most Jewish summer camps pay close attention to easing their youngest kids into the sleepaway experience. From pre-camp meet-and-greets to special presents for first-time campers to the common availability of ultra-short sessions — from five to 11 days — camps are acutely aware of the need to gently transition their littlest and newest campers into the culture of overnight camp.

In addition to providing additional resources for the young newbies — and, of course, their anxious parents — many camps also hire additional staff and train them in some hand-holding.

Take Camp Judaea, a pluralist Jewish camp in North Carolina. It offers a Taste of Camp Judaea, an 11-day program for kids as young as 7. Unlike older campers who can “specialize” in certain activities, the youngest campers, called Rishonim, get to sample all of the camp activities, including zip-lining and horseback riding. The Taste program is available for kids until the fourth grade.

“To be honest, in some ways, it’s more for the parents than the campers,” said David Berlin, assistant director of Camp Judaea. “The parents tend to be more nervous. This is our way of hooking them into camp.”

The ratio of campers to counselors is lower for the Camp Judaea’s Rishonim campers, hovering around 3 to 1, as opposed to about 4 1/2 to 1 for the older kids.

To prepare the first-timers, Camp Judaea holds parlor meetings for new families, most of whom come from the southeastern U.S., Berlin said. New campers get to watch a video, hear about a typical day at camp and have their questions answered.

“It allows the families an opportunity to meet the staff before the summer begins,” Berlin said.

They also used to send first-timers a book about sleepaway camp — “Sami’s Sleepaway Summer,” by Jenny Meyerhoff — but it’s out of print. Berlin said the book was a great way to get young campers excited and have them learn what to expect; he’s looking for a replacement.

At Camp Gilboa, located near Big Bear and part of the progressive Zionist Habonim Dror movement, younger campers can experience sessions as short as four nights.

“We focus on easing them into camp,” said Executive Director Dalit Shlapobersky.

But because Habonim Dror offers year-round programming, kids can get involved before  starting camp, and therefore become acquainted with other Gilboa campers and counselors well ahead of time, she said. The camp also invites families to visit during the year for weekends and retreats.

Shlapobersky said campers typically start Gilboa at age 8.

“At that point they’ve already gone through quite a few separations — they’ve had to get used to a new community at preschool, and then a new one at kindergarten/elementary school,” she said. “These things are all about practice. The more time we practice doing something different, the more ready we are to take something new on.”

But Shlapobersky gives campers and families added support through the preparation process, including, beginning in May, weekly emails that focus on different aspects of camp — like what to expect on the first day of camp, what sort of communications there will be to and from camp and a glossary of camp lingo. New campers also receive introductory phone calls from counselors a couple of days before the session begins.

Additionally, Gilboa calls new parents to find out more about individual campers, making the camp more prepared for them when they arrive.

“For example, if we know they’re really into magic, we can have one of the counselors who loves magic tricks ready,” Shlapobersky said.

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, offers a seven-day Ta’am Ramah (Taste of Ramah) to children entering third grade.

Rabbi Ethan Linden, the camp’s director, said there’s a higher ratio of staff for the youngest kids.

“We’ll have 20 to 25 kids and 10 staff counselors, plus a group leader,” he said, adding that for older kids, there are typically 14 kids to four counselors per bunk.

“We usually have more experienced counselors for the little ones,” he said. “We know we have to hold their hands more.”

Linden said he’s found that most kids are ready to start camp between the ages of 8 and 10 — and agrees with other directors that parents are sometimes the last to be ready. But Ramah in the Berkshires pays extra attention to first-time campers regardless of age.

“We’re particularly sensitive to issues of homesickness and integration,” he said.

Linden said the camp employs staffers called “yoetzim” — people who are a little older, usually parents — who can get involved in tough situations. The camp also does “a lot of training on bunk dynamics, trying to make sure that no campers slip through the cracks,” he said.

“We work to find that one thing the kid loves to do and then use that to ease the transition,” he said.

At Camp Modin, a pluralistic sleepaway camp in Maine and the oldest Jewish camp in New England, the youngest campers are 8. Director Howard Salzberg said Modin used to have even younger campers, but found they weren’t quite ready for the experience.

While Modin doesn’t have extra-short sessions for first-timers — the shortest “regular” session is 3 1/2 weeks — counselors for younger kids are trained to give more personalized attention, Salzberg said.

“We don’t expect these kids to unpack their trunks or do their own laundry,” he said. “We recognize that these kids need extra help changing out of their wet bathing suits, that we need to make sure they’re showering, that they know how to open their soap in the shower, that they’re combing their hair.

“With older kids, it’s more about mentoring. For younger years, it’s more parenting.”

And in some ways, the younger kids are easier, Salzberg added.

“They present different challenges, but honestly, younger kids can be a lot easier than hormonally challenged teenagers,” he said, laughing.

At Modin, newbies are matched with returning campers in a “big brother, big sister” program — the older campers call the younger campers before the session starts, and at camp, they meet on opening day. The older group gives the younger charges a small gift, like a goody bag or a Modin bracelet.

Regardless of what age a child starts camp, the camp directors have noticed that first-born kids tend to start camp older, and slightly more nervous, than their younger siblings.

“Younger siblings have parents more prepared for the sleepaway camp experience, are often familiar with the campgrounds from visiting day,” Alford said. “Plus, they’ve seen how much fun their older siblings have at camp.”

A direct connection for a Holy Land education

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

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.

Spirit of inclusion for transgender students prevails

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.

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.”

5 ways Jewish summer camp changed my life

Juliette Finkelstein-Hynes (left) with Chloe Sesar at Camp Hess Kramer in 2016. Photo courtesy of Juliette Finkelstein-Hynes.

Ever since my first summer at Jewish sleepaway camp, it has been my favorite place in the world. I remember going my first year — I was 8 years old and terrified to be away from my family. The only person I knew who was going was my twin brother, and I was scared for a ton of reasons.

And yet, by the end of the eight-day session at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, I knew I had found my second home. I have gone back every summer, bright-eyed and full of excitement. Every year has its milestones and amazing stories and little things that I’ll remember forever.

Now that I’ve been going back to camp for seven years — these days for a monthlong session — I think it’s safe to say it has changed my life for the better, and here are five reasons why it can change your child’s, too:

1. Connecting with Jewish identity 

When I’m not at camp, I go to temple only during the High Holy Days. I don’t consider myself very religious. I don’t think about Judaism that often, but at camp I feel like I am part of this ancient tradition. Going to services and learning about what being a Jewish youth in America means, not to mention how to interpret and learn from the Torah, has exposed me to so much amazing Jewish culture that I would be missing out on otherwise.

2. Trying new things

At camp, I discovered my love for art and archery, philosophy and gardening. I never would have had the opportunity to play games like ga-ga and angleball or try new things like climbing rock walls and Israeli dance without going to camp. Sleepaway camp is a place where you can step out of your comfort zone and try new things without being worried about being judged.

3. Learning to get along

Living with a group of 10 girls or guys in one cabin for a month can breed a lot of drama if people don’t communicate. On the first day of every session, each cabin makes a brit, or covenant. It is a list of things that we agree will make our summer as conflict-free as possible. Not all summer camps do this, but it’s made a huge difference at mine. Rules can range from straightforward and serious (“Don’t take other people’s things without asking”) to a little silly (“Don’t yuck other people’s yum”). We all sign the brit, creating terms for us to coexist in peace. I’ve become more mature at camp, learning to be the bigger person and acquiring problem-solving skills that I can use year-round.

4. Exposure to caring counselors 

Counselors at my summer camp are between the ages of 18 and 21. They’re responsible, caring and wise while still being young and cool. Think of them as older sisters and brothers — they take care of you no matter what. My camp counselors have helped me to be strong, kind, adventurous and so much more. When I injured myself last summer and got upset that I couldn’t participate in some activities, it was my counselor, Ofir, who put it all in perspective, saying, “Being unable to do something because of an injury doesn’t mean you are weak, it means you are strong enough to try and be here. I am so proud of you.”

5. Making lifelong friends

Camp brings together people from different places and walks of life. Cementing the bond you make is a love of Judaism and these four weeks of summer bliss. My best friend, Julia, lives in Paris, so I see her only during camp. Although we text as much as possible, I miss her so much during the year. When we see each other on the first day of camp, we become conjoined at the hip for the whole month. Every friend you make at camp is a friend who will be there for you through thick and thin. The people I’ve met at Camp Hess Kramer are the most caring, loving and amazing people in the world. We all have inside jokes and keep in touch year-round, whether we are next-door neighbors or live thousands of miles away. In fact, I’d say we aren’t just friends — we’re family.

To parents who are on the fence about whether to send your kids to Jewish camp, you can read a study that says campers are more likely to engage Jewishly as an adult, or you can listen to someone who’s been there. Everyone I have spoken to who attended Jewish summer camp has said the same thing: Camp changed their lives.

It’s a place where young people grow, learn and evolve. It’s where we make unbreakable bonds, memories and friendships. It’s the place where we can become the best versions of ourselves, full of love, kindness and positivity. In short, camp is the place we become who we truly want to be.

Summer camps open bunks to transgender Jews

Bathrooms accessible for transgender children and staff are old news at Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement’s summer camp in South Sterling, Pennsylvania. Five years ago the camp posted signs on bathroom doors stating “This bathroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression.”

From its founding in 2002, Camp JRF set a similarly inclusive tone, according to director Isaac Saposnik. Among its accommodations, the overnight facility decided not to divide into a boys’ side and a girls’ side or to have boys’ activities and girls’ activities.

“Boys and girls are always together,” Saposnik said. “We don’t have a lot of gendered programming. All the campers play sports together all day.”

 

As attention has shifted in recent years to the needs of transgender and gender-fluid kids, other Jewish camps have been catching up. Among the leaders in making such children (and staff) feel welcome are Camp Towanga in Northern California; Union of Reform Judaism Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pennsylvania, and Ramah in the Rockies in Sedalia, Colorado, where a transgender man — the director of camper care at its Ramah Outdoor Adventure — madeheadlines earlier this year when he gave birth to a daughter.

“These are issues that will confront everyone; it’s a new reality,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which serves as the umbrella organization for 300 day and overnight Jewish camps.

There is no reliable data on how many transgender kids attend Jewish camp, according to Daniel Bahner, national manager of education and training for Keshet, a national Jewish LGBTQ advocacy organization headquartered in Boston. But, he said, “It is becoming an increasingly visible conversation.”

Camp JRF’s first out transgender camper arrived “a few years ago,” according to Saposnik, and he estimated that about a dozen of the approximately 430 campers enrolled each summer have gender identity issues.

Earlier this year, 50 camps participated in a webinar on transgender issues arranged by FJC and provided by Keshet. FJC also provided a forum for camps to share best practices at its 2016 Leaders Assembly in March in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Such practices include offering changing areas that allow individual privacy, with curtains and shower stall doors; housing policies that allow transgender or “gender non-conforming youth” to bunk where they feel most comfortable, and banning hurtful language.

In 2014, Eisner Camp polled campers’ parents after a family asked if the camp could accommodate a 12-year-old transgender girl. Not one of the 65 families polled objected, and the girl was welcomed and placed in a bunk with the rest of the girls. The first year she used a counselor’s private bathroom to shower; the next year she used the girls’ restroom and showers.

Last year at Camp Towanga, which serves the San Francisco Jewish community, a 13-year-old camper came out as a transgender boy to female bunkmates. The girls decided to change their cabin label from G5 (Girls 5) to EG5 (Every Gender 5). Other cabins adopted the designation, according to J. Weekly.

At many Jewish summer camps that have decades of traditions, however, change can be difficult.

At Camp Ramah in the Berkshires in Wingdale, New York, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, director Rabbi Paul Resnick has spent the last year confronting what he called the “painful” reality that the Ramah culture he loved first as a camper and ultimately as a professional can be an “uncomfortable” space for some. In particular, he said, the binary gender culture of Camp Ramah, where activities are separate for boys (“banim”) or girls (banot”), is coming under fire.

“People have challenged the idea that we need to do” separate evening activities for boys and girls, he said.

A constant motivator for him is the recollection of the camper who left early in the summer of 2013 because “he felt uncomfortable because really, she was transgender,” Resnick said, switching pronouns mid-sentence to match the reality the camper felt. “I said to the mom, ‘What can I do?’ She said, ‘Just educate yourself.’”

Resnick accepted the challenge and has been delving into the subject and seeking solutions by reading literature, attending conferences and speaking with other camp directors as well as Ramah alumni.

This year, Resnick brought in Keshet to train his staff. And he’s making a conscious effort to change his language. He now uses “chevra” (group of friends) instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls.” Not only is the Hebrew phrase more appropriate for a Jewish camp, he said, but “it does not assume anything about anyone on the gender spectrum.”

Parents, it seems, know which camps are ahead of the curve. Saposnik said Camp JRF gets at least one call every month relating to approaches to gender identity issues at camp.

The family bathroom at Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement camp in Sterling, Pennsylvania, was easily converted with a sign to make everyone feel comfortable. Photo from Camp JRF

Two years ago he sent a letter to Camp JRF families about diversity at the camp that included a specific discussion of transgender issues; an updated version went out last week. Following a definition of terms that distinguishes among sex (“the biology you were born with”), gender (“your emotional or intellectual identity”), sexual orientation (“who you are attracted to”) and gender expression (“how you present yourself in the world”), it includes a brief discussion of each and then provides basic guidelines for campers who may have questions.

Most of these fall into the “It’s never okay” category: “It’s never okay to ask another person about which body parts they have — that’s always private” or “It’s never okay to ask someone who identifies as transgender what their name ‘used to be.’”

On the other hand, “It’s always okay to ask someone what pronouns (‘he/him,’ ‘she/her,’ ‘they/them’) they prefer to use. If you aren’t sure and can’t ask, just use the person’s name.”

But even the camps that are proactive face challenges. For starters, some of the necessary changes to provide privacy for transgender and cisgender kids — those whose self-identity conforms with the biological gender they were at birth — can be expensive.

“Certain buildings will take more time, with more design issues and require more money,” Saposnik said.

But other changes are “not that hard”: offering a family restroom and adding stall doors to showers fall into this category.

“It’s not different from the changes a parent would ask us to make for almost any other issue, like a ramp on the cabin or plugging in a sleep machine,” he said. “When we say we’re serious, we mean it.”

As for parents who think it’s great as long as it’s “not their kids’ bunk,” Saposnik said, by the end of the summer, for most campers, it’s a non-issue, “just an interesting backstory.”

Sometimes Saposnik  encounters families for whom Camp JRF is too progressive. In that case, he said, he suggests a camp that might be a better fit.

“Our commitment is to send Jewish kids to Jewish camp,” he said. “We cannot serve everyone. No one can do that.”

Fingerman, of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said, “We’re hopeful that the broad tapestry of Jewish camp will have options for every Jewish kid and every Jewish family.” But, he pointed out, what they do “has got to fit within the culture of that camp.”

While Resnick would like to reach a point where embracing transgender campers is a non-issue, he knows his Camp Ramah isn’t there yet. He wants to be able to embrace as many kids from as many backgrounds as he can.

While the options “are not limitless,” Resnick said, “I want parents with a gay child or with a trans child to feel comfortable. I don’t want a reactive model. I want a proactive model.”

Zimmer Museum adds second day camp in Westwood

A camp at the Zimmer Children’s Museum that has exposed more than 400 children each summer to art, music, science, nature and magic — not to mention Jewish values — is being expanded to a second location this year. 

Starting in June, Camp Zimmer, which has hosted children ages 3-8 for the last four years at its home on Wilshire Boulevard, will begin offering additional programming at Sinai Akiba Academy. The camp at the Westwood-based school will include classroom learning, time on the playground and weekly Shabbat services for families every Friday. 

While the Shabbat aspect is new this year (and available only at the Sinai Akiba location), Belinda Vong, associate director of play and learning at the Zimmer, said the camp doesn’t focus solely on Jewish things, it also emphasizes more universal values.

“We’ll highlight social responsibility, caring for people, animals and the environment, and helping the community,” Vong said. “We weave in those concepts through our activities.”

Kids learning about nature and the importance of caring for the planet.

The variety of classes that will be taught include “Rock, Pop & Roll,” which is about music history. Campers will hear about modern art and music, decorate their own guitars and make instruments. In “Lights, Camera … Create!” participants will learn about different genres of film and take on the various roles of production to make short animations. The kids will delve into optical illusions and perspective art and see a performance from a guest magician for the “iMAGICnation” program. 

At the Zimmer, which is housed at The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, campers also will have the chance for interactive playtime on the two levels of the museum. They will excavate fossils and pinpoint and classify early animals and plants during “The Dino Dig,” and hear about Los Angeles transit, waste, water and food in “Smart City: My L.A.” 

Camp at the museum runs from June 20 through Sept. 2; the cost is $325 a week for museum members and $350 a week for nonmembers. At Sinai Akiba, the camp goes from June 20 to Aug. 19, with a cost of $350 a week for members and $365 a week for nonmembers. (There is an early bird discount before April 15 for both locations.)

Families who want their children to attend but can’t afford it can apply for assistance. According to Vong, the camp awards scholarships to 10 percent of families, and half or full tuition is covered. 

The Zimmer also has a spring program in two sessions held from April 18-22 and April 25-28. They include arts and crafts, music and playtime. The cost is $325 per week for museum members and $350 per week for nonmembers.

Vong said what makes the camp itself unique is that it allows children younger than 4 to participate, goes until September, when Jewish day school is officially in session, and has a deeper message behind its teachings. 

“We focus on having fun but also on the importance of building community and working together. Those are the life skills that are extremely important as the campers grow older,” she said.

One parent, Valerie Weiss, has sent her 7- and 4-year-old daughters to the camp. She said the camp is “stimulating and innovative, and the kids come home learning amazing things about science, music and art. There are real high concepts that they learn in an experiential way.”

One year, her daughters made “artbots,” which were art-centric robots they built themselves. The creations, which could draw, were composed of motors and magic markers. 

The effect, she said, has been very positive for her children.

 “They connect ideas that they wouldn’t necessarily learn about at such a young age,” Weiss said. “The camp is fun and positive, and it really follows the philosophy my own family has about education.”

Camp Ramah adds ‘bridge year’ for 11th-graders eyeing staff spots

Camp Ramah in Ojai, part of the Conservative movement’s group of Ramah camps across North America, will begin offering a program for rising 11th-graders this summer for the first time in its 60-year history. 

The program will be similar to the 11th-grade programs already available at the movement’s eight other overnight camps in the United States and Canada. The Southern California camp is the last of the group to add such a program.

Campers in the Machon program, as it will be known, will lead Maccabiah (color war), take a one-week trip outside of camp, and shadow staff counselors to get an idea of what the job entails should they choose to return as staff members once they graduate from high school. 

“It will be the best of both worlds. It’ll give these older campers their capstone Ramah experience while giving them a taste of what their future could be like when they are on staff by giving them significant and real leadership responsibilities around camp,” Rabbi Joe Menashe, executive director of Camp Ramah in California, said. “That’s new for our camp, and that, more so than the age component, is an even greater impact of the transition from camper to staff.”

The addition of the program is meant to act as a “bridge year,” according to Ariella Moss Peterseil, the camp’s associate director. It will involve an emphasis on self-reflection to improve participants’ skills as leaders and role models. 

The 10th-grade program for rising sophomores was renamed Kochavim (stars) and revamped with a “new cultural identity … and some new programming, including new small-group experiential tiyulim (trips),” Menashe said.

Previously, the Ojai camp had programs for high school students going into their freshman and sophomore years. After that, many teens participated in Ramah’s Israel Seminar, a six-week program in the Jewish state, but they were a year younger than their peers coming from other Ramah camps. That will no longer be the case. 

“This will guarantee a home for every camper at Ramah through their high school years, a similar trajectory with their fellow Ramah campers from across North America, and a staff that is one year older, more mature, and who have had a glimpse of leadership and what it means to be on staff at Ramah in their final camper year,” Peterseil said.

It’s unclear why the 11th-grade program has never been part of the camp at Ojai, which opened in 1956, according to Menashe, who is in his sixth year as executive director. However, one factor that precipitated the change had to do with the fact that the camp, in years past, could not accommodate the large number of rising high school seniors who wanted to return as staff. By adding an 11th-grade program, staff would come from teens about to enter college, and the number of applicants would be expected to fall naturally, Menashe said.

A 2012 vote by the board of directors of Camp Ramah in California allowed Peterseil to spearhead the initiative to add the new edah (age group) after extensive research, including a recommendation from consultants Lauren Applebaum and Nina Lieberman Giladi of American Jewish University, who have backgrounds in Jewish education and nonprofit business management. 

“Ramah needed a more seamless transition from camper to staff that better prepared the emerging adults for their roles, enabled more of our community to remain part of our system for longer, and to provide a camper experience that better honored adolescent sophistication and capabilities,” Menashe said. “There was no single issue that sparked the evaluation, but a clear sense from Ramah leadership that we needed to better understand the situation so that we could make a significant change.” 

The camper cost for the 11th-grade program will be $4,645. Financial aid is available.

Camp Ramah in California is running a capital campaign for an estimated $2.5 million to accommodate the new living area associated with about 80 new campers per 11th-grade session. Menashe said the camp has reached 70 percent of its fundraising goal. 

The camp, which hosts about 1,300 campers over the course of the summer, sits on 100 acres. Revised housing plans currently are in development. 

“The addition of the new Machon will accomplish our goals to retain as many high school students as possible through 12th grade,” said Ellen Brown, a Camp Ramah in California board member and co-chairwoman of the committee to create the new edah. “Studies have indicated that Jewish summer camping provides children and teens a positive, long-term Jewish identity, and in the end, in the midst of all the fun and learning, that is our ultimate goal.”

For those like Noa Getzug, 16, a nine-time camper from de Toledo High School, the change has created an air of excitement.

“Another year at camp means that I get to spend another month with my closest friends, exploring who I am as a person, furthering my Jewish identity and taking advantage of all the experiences camp has to offer,” she said. 

Vaccines and Jewish camps: What parents need to know

“All of a sudden, bottles of hand sanitizer appeared all over,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, looking back at 2009, when the swine flu craze reached Camp Maas, a Jewish summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan.

“Staff members would stand outside the dining hall with bottles,” he told JTA.

Aside from constant reminders about handwashing, the swine flu didn’t leave much of a mark on the camp. And now, similar worries about contagious diseases may soon be a distant memory.

Seven years later — in a time that has seen a reinvigorated debate over the validity and efficacy of vaccines — Tamarack Camps, one of the largest and oldest Jewish camp systems in the country (of which Camp Maas, Miller’s former employer, is a part), now has a formalized vaccine policy.

“Given the overriding value of Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life) … we are requiring that all campers, staff, artists-in-residence, volunteers, doctors, nurses and their families planning to attend/participate in any Tamarack Camps programs be immunized as outlined,” according to an email sent Dec. 30 and signed by multiple Tamarack program directors.

The announcement stipulated that the camp’s attendees must receive the standard list of vaccines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control, which includes shots for chicken pox, meningitis and several others. The policy will be phased in over two years beginning this summer.

Through the email, Tamarack Camps — comprised of a main campus and Camp Maas, along with a few “outpost” camps and travel programs — joined other Jewish camps across the country that have formalized vaccine policies requiring staff and campers to be immunized according to state requirements. The policies only allow campers to forego the vaccines for medical reasons (such as an allergy).

Other Jewish camps with such policies include all those under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Ramah umbrella, as well as many independent and specialized camps.

Some Jewish camps, however, stick to state vaccination laws, many allowing for personal or religious exemptions. California, which experienced a widely publicized measles outbreak at Disneyland in early 2015, joined West Virginia and Mississippi as one of only three states that outlaw personal or religious vaccine exemptions after passing a contested bill last summer. The vaccination rate among children in California hasalready risen even though the new law does not go into effect until July.

Vaccines are generally accepted as a common-sense medical practice across most of the spectrum of religious affiliation in the Jewish community. However, some Orthodox communities have experienced outbreaks of preventable diseases, such as the whooping cough, in recent years. In 2014, the prominent Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky called vaccines a “hoax.” JTA found last year that a range of private Jewish day schools had low student vaccination rates due to the personal or religious exemption loopholes.

Cliff Nerwen, chair of the National Ramah Medical Committee, estimates that at least one family each year tries to send an unvaccinated camper to each of Ramah’s nine sleepaway camps.

“I graciously tell them I respect their opinions, but in the light of the larger public health community, it’s a risk we’re not willing to take,” Nerwen said.

In a sign of the times, Tamarack Camps’ announcement immediately started an online dispute. Dr. David Brownstein, the medical director of the Center for Holistic Medicine in West Bloomfield, Michigan — the upscale heart of Detroit’s Jewish community  — called the policy “draconian” in a blog post the next day.

“Perhaps Camp Tamarack is unaware that over $3 billion has been awarded by the Federal Government to children and adults injured by vaccines,” Brownstein wrote. “I would like to see where Jewish law says it is safe to inject a neurotoxin into a baby or any living being.”

Two days later, Dr. Peter Lipson, an internal medicine specialist who also practices in the West Bloomfield area, called Brownstein’s post “dangerous” in a Forbes article.

“Dr. Brownstein is wrong on the facts. That’s not my opinion,” Lipson wrote. “What is my opinion is that doctors like him are a threat to public health.”

Tamarack Camps’ decision also caused a bit of a stir in and around the metro Detroit Jewish community. Dr. Kathy Erlich, a Jewish pediatrician against strict vaccine laws who worked in the camp’s medical clinic, resigned. And Miller, who wrote about Tamarack’s decision for Time, said at least one family left the camp over the policy.

“Of course there are parents out there that have chosen not to vaccinate their children, and I think they always assume that either their personal or their religious reasons for not vaccinating will be accepted,” said Paul Reichenbach, the Union of Reform Judaism’s director of camp and Israel programs.

The URJ camp system issued a formalized vaccine policy in 2008.

“It came as a surprise to some people,” Reichenbach said.

Still, Lipson, who covers science and medicine for Forbes, told JTA that parents of prospective campers should not lose sleep over the medical exemption rule. Some children have legitimate medical reasons to skip a certain vaccine — and they depend on the immunity of the other campers around them even more.

As to whether or not parents should scrutinize camps that allow non-medical exemptions, Lipson said the issue is worth talking about.

“Because this is such a new question, I’m just starting to ask [it] myself,” he said. “Personal belief exemptions are a nightmare.”

Lipson pointed out that it can be tough for camps to hold their ground against parents on the vaccine issue because, while everyone has to go to school, they’re not required to attend summer camp.

That’s partly why he was impressed with Tamarack Camps’ decision to publicly state a formal position. At Camp Tamakwa in Ontario, where Lipson volunteers, campers must hand in immunization forms, but he isn’t aware of a formal written camp policy.

“I was actually kind of surprised that [Tamarack] did it,” Lipson said. “You put a bunch of Jews in a room, and what are the odds you’re going to get a consensus?”

In Europe, a summer camp creates the next generation of Jewish leaders — and babies

Escaping a sudden downpour in the summer of 2012, Andras Paszternak and Barbi Szendy ran to find cover inside an empty cabin at their Jewish summer camp, Szarvas, 100 miles east of Budapest.

The two senior counselors, then 31 and 36, respectively, chatted as rain drenched the sprawling compound, where they had passed every summer since their early teens.

“I suddenly noticed I was holding Barbi’s hand,” Paszternak, an ethnically Hungarian Jew from Slovakia, said in recalling the day when he began his romantic relationship with his Hungarian Jewish wife.

The couple married in 2013 at Szarvas — the oldest and largest institution of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe — as a tribute to the camp’s centrality to their lives.

Since its establishment in 1990 by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, dozens — if not hundreds — of Jewish couples have met at Szarvas, according to participants. In addition to its matchmaking capacity, the camp is also a major regional hatchery for Jewish leadership, awareness and global interaction for communities small and large.“We generally stay out of the boy-meets-girl part of things because our help is not required in this department,” said Sasha Friedman, the camp’s director. “It happens on its own, on the margins of our core activities — which is to offer Jewish culture to these children, often for the first time in their lives.”

JDC opened Szarvas in 1990 on a 17-acre plot in Bekes County, a rural area in southeastern Hungary known for its springs and sunflower fields. The camp began by serving groups of 200 children and has grown to its current capacity of 1,700 Jewish campers aged 8-18. Szarvas has over 20,000 alumni from more than 30 countries.

Some of the couples who met at Szarvas immigrated to Israel. They include Anna and Naftali (Grego) Deutsch from Hungary, who got together as counselors and are now raising seven children in the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Yericho, where they moved in 2005. Others, like Gabor and Tunde Gordon, who met as campers and married in 1996, stayed in Hungary. Four of their five children are attending the camp.

Szarvas now has four annual sessions, each 12 days long. Every Szarvas summer has a different theme — last year’s was “relationships in Judaism,” this year’s is “the Jewish home” – with its own unique activities, including the production of plays and song contests. That’s in addition to the regular repertoire of sports, costume parties, Hebrew-language games and Bible-themed treasure hunts.

Spiritual life at the camp, which has a kosher kitchen and dozens of non-Jewish employees, revolves around Beit David — a synagogue that since its construction in 1998 is Hungary’s newest functioning shul. On Friday nights it is packed with children and teenagers, some visiting a synagogue for the first time. Many are amazed to see resident rabbi Szolt Balla — himself a Szarvas graduate — play guitar during singalongs, an uncommon sight in Europe, where Orthodox synagogues dominate religious life.

Most campers, who are usually at least one-quarter Jewish, pay $250 or less for their attendance at Szarvas — 25 percent of the true cost — with JDC subsidizing the rest.

But for Szarvas teenagers, the official program is only part of the allure.

Summer romance at Szarvas occurs in the camp’s orchards, where the silhouettes of young couples can be seen until late in the evening, or on the edges of the camp’s large swimming pool — a luxury built by an Israeli firm back when such amenities were rare in post-communist Hungary.

“Yeah, it’s part of life here,” Friedman said. While boys and girls sleep separately at Szarvas, counselors have a live-and-let-live policy when it comes to summer romance, he said.

“Counselors keep an eye out for potential complications, sometimes reminding couples to act responsibly and not spin out of control or anything, but that’s pretty much it,” the camp director added.

In addition to couples, Szarvas specializes in producing Jewish community leaders. Among its graduates are a former vice president of the Jewish Community of Sofia in Bulgaria, the director of Warsaw’s main Jewish community center and a founder of one of Romania’s few Jewish kindergartens.

“You take the knowledge, the contacts, the toolbox that you get at Szarvas and you apply them later inside the community,” said Szendy, who works at Budapest’s Balint Jewish Community Center.

Friedman, 33, is himself a Szarvas graduate who rose through the ranks to become director in 2007. He calls Szarvas a “greenhouse for Jewish leadership.” But before he has a chance to explain, he is interrupted by a gaggle of Hungarian 8-year-olds who surround him, chirping “Shushi” — their nickname for him – so they can tell him about their daily adventures.

Last year, JDC incorporated Szarvas into its array of solutions for handling the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of Jews, fled their homes because of fighting that erupted in 2014 between government troops and Eastern separatists backed by Russia.

Additionally, of the approximately 120 Ukrainian campers in attendance last summer, 26 were from internally displaced families living with relatives or in facilities provided by Jewish institutions.

“In these harsh times, we prioritized these children because they need a sense of belonging and warmth now more than ever,” said Michal Frank, JDC’s director for former Soviet countries.

At Szarvas, participants largely remain with members of their own country delegation, with whom they sleep, dine and undergo activities. But each nation group is paired with another group during daily “mifgashim” (Hebrew for “encounters”) sessions, when they get a taste of what Judaism means in the other country.

On a continent with many small, isolated Jewish communities with high intermarriage rates, the international dimension at Szarvas means that for some campers, Szarvas is their best bet for finding a Jewish partner, according to Paszternak, who grew up in a town with 30,000 residents and a Jewish community of just a few dozen people.

“No one enrolled me into Szarvas as a boy of 10 thinking I’d find a Jewish wife there,” he said. But, in retrospect, “for Jews from small communities especially, it’s often the only game in town where this sort of thing happens.”

A-List stars return for ‘Wet Hot’ prequel

If you’re reading this, you probably already know some “camp people” — people who talk about camp in superlatives, elevating camp memories to the level of scripture: The time one camper convinced another that she was singing on a cassette tape, when it was really Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” That other time when a particularly clueless Israeli staff member was left behind at a rest stop during a field trip. Two campers who started calling a third “Raoul,” “Duke” or “Marcia” after randomly deciding she might have multiple personality disorder. 

No doubt about it — camp is also super-weird.

Camp alumni remember those days as a mix of adolescent awkwardness, obsession with camp activities, peer pressure, friendship and (especially for the boys) fart jokes. This essential DNA of summer camp is also the twisted helix of “Wet Hot American Summer,” a 2001 film that plunged deep into the strange, identity-forging and utterly unforgettable last day of the fictional Camp Firewood. 

Just like some of the awkward campers who blossomed over the years, “Wet Hot American Summer,” or “WHAS,” started out slow but eventually found its footing as a cult comedy. And thanks to Netflix, “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” a season of eight prequel episodes, launches this weekend.

The “WHAS” head counselor (or in Hollywood language, writer-director) is David Wain, known for collaborations with Michael Showalter (Wain’s co-writer and co-creator on the Netflix series) and Michael Ian Black, both of whom appeared in the film and are back for the prequel series.

The original film featured a stellar cast of actors who were relatively unknown in 2001. Today, though, Paul Rudd is Ant-Man, Bradley Cooper is a multiple-time Oscar nominee, Amy Poehler is a powerhouse, Elizabeth Banks is a director, the list goes on. To interest this star-studded a cast in a reunion project might have seemed impossible, but Wain, who lived in New York for 26 years and moved to Los Angeles two years ago, had been setting the stage for a potential “WHAS” revisit for years in small ways. 

“I’d run into people and say, ‘Someday we’re going to do a prequel,’ ” he said in a phone interview. “When we made the determination that we want to do it as a series on Netflix, we called everyone and everyone said yes.”

The prequel episodes also incorporate some new characters, including Lake Bell as a girl who has just come back from Israel, Jon Hamm as a government assassin, and Wain as an exotic and ludicrously tan Israeli counselor. 

“An Israeli counselor seemed like an obvious important thing to add to the mix,” Wain said. “It was such a memorable part of my camp experience, drawing a specific type of person who didn’t necessarily want to be there but got a deal to travel in the U.S. if they worked at camp.” 

Wain tapped into his camp memories to play the role. “There was a specific brand of arrogance that I always remembered — I channeled that accent and attitude.” 

Hebrew-speaking “WHAS” fans might have seen a hint of Wain’s new role in the trailer; in listing “FDOC’s” stars, the last one is in Hebrew — “v’gam [also] David Wain.” 

“I would love to say that I had anything to do with it, but Netflix people came up with the entire trailer themselves,” Wain said. “It’s the first time in my experience where they showed me the trailer and I said, ‘That’s great; no notes.’ That’s what you want when you’re working with a studio — it makes a difference.” 

Wain admits that the inspiration came from his and Showalter’s experiences in summer camps — for Wain it was Camp Modin in Maine and Camp Wise in Ohio. 

“It was easily my most positive and lasting Jewish experience,” Wain said of camp. “My favorite things about being Jewish were the way they celebrated Shabbat at camp, that they set off one day in a different way. Midday Friday, people start to take a shower for the first time in a week, then we had dinner and singing; it was more relaxed, everyone was together. It was cool to have that and a beautiful Havdalah service under the stars. That’s the kind of Jewish thing that I relate to. I don’t think I experienced that in any other part of my life.” 

Fans will be happy to revisit the wacky reality of Camp Firewood, and get the “origin stories” for most characters, answering questions we didn’t even know we had: How did Gene (Christopher Meloni) become the deranged camp cook? How do Andy (Rudd) and Katie (Marguerite Moreau) get together? What kind of connection do Susie (Poehler) and Ben (Cooper) really have? Will Coop (Showalter) ever find true love? And why is Lindsay (Banks) even there? 

Thanks to Netflix and this TV binging cultural moment, newbies and superfans alike can watch the film and the series back-to-back — all told, this journey through the Camp Firewood canon should take about seven hours. 

The prequel provides plenty of opportunities to misdirect viewer expectations and to subvert and play within the clichés of movies — a cataclysmic event threatens to destroy everything; a cabin in the woods hides a secret; a boy likes a girl but is afraid to tell her. But throughout, the writers call our attention to the absurdity of it all, reminding us repeatedly that most characters — even the counselors — are supposed to be 16 years old (even though most of the actors were in their 30s the first time around). The timeline — with the movie and the episodes each representing a solitary day — is also outrageous, and yet resonant for those who know that in camp, a single day can be a lifetime. 

Fans of other off-kilter comedies that were resurrected for Netflix will remember the disappointment of “Arrested Development’s” fourth season; the producers took a risk with an inventive approach different from that which fans had come to love, spending each episode focusing on one character’s perspective, and the result wasn’t what the fans had hoped for. Based on the six episodes available to the media for prescreening viewed by this writer, the new “WHAS” series has taken great care to weave together several stories in each episode, creating an overall narrative arc that is more linear than that of “Arrested Development.” The episodes can certainly be seen as individual episodes, but the action progresses like a film with occasional breaks. 

Will this be the last we’ll see of Camp Firewood? As we all know from our camp experiences, a lot can happen between the first and last day of summer, setting the stage for future installments. So will there be a “WHAS: Color War” or “WHAS: Visiting Day”?

“If this goes well,” Wain said, “it’s possible.”

A fresh start in Running Springs

On a recent day in the San Bernardino Mountains, hundreds of Jewish children and counselors were running around and having fun on 70 acres of gorgeous wooded campground. They played football, tennis and kickball, swam in a clear, blue pool and climbed a 44-foot rock wall. 

Ten months ago, when the religious Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles bought this property in Running Springs for $7.1 million, this scene at the newly inaugurated David Oved Retreat Center was nearly unimaginable. As recently as September 2014, the grounds were virtually desolate: Weeds overran the tennis and basketball courts; the large swimming pool next to the site’s majestic lodge was empty and filled with cracks, and a coat of dust covered floors and mattresses. Bnei Akiva had only eight months to restore the campground before its announced launch in summer 2015.

But $2.5 million worth of renovations and repairs later, the site is the new home of Moshava Malibu, which opened in 2013 on the property of the Shalom Institute’s Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu. This summer, about 200 campers will be in Running Springs during any given week — some for two-week sessions, others for four weeks. Most come from Southern California, but there also are some from the San Francisco Bay Area, Vancouver, New York, even Mexico City and Israel.

Bnei Akiva’s newly hired executive director, Menachem Hecht, pointed out some of the Modern Orthodox camp’s new additions during a recent tour. These include about 20 horses, a petting zoo with goats and chicks, a 350-foot zip line and an archery range. Near the pool, which measures 60-by-30 feet, groups of teenage boys were on the adjacent concrete taking lessons from the camp’s lifeguards on CPR, choking, heat stroke and first-aid response. (One of the lifeguards had his kids singing the Bee Gees hit “Stayin’ Alive” as kids practiced basic CPR.)

Inside the main lodge, Rabbi Aaron Bayer, a scholar-in-residence visiting for the summer from Efrat, Israel, was busy studying Jewish texts with a few members of the camp’s beit midrash, which has four men and four women who learn and teach classes primarily centered around Jewish law and the modern State of Israel. They also focus on the stories and lessons of Samuel I, which is about the first Jewish commonwealth. 

Each of Bayer’s students teaches two 40-minute classes every day to the campers. “It’s about engaging campers in creating a vibrant, thoughtful and strong religious Zionist identity,” Bayer said.

Before Shabbat, which Hecht said is the camp’s weekly highlight, all the campers clean their bunks, put on matching white tops with blue bottoms, and come together for a camp-wide Kabbalat Shabbat service, dinner, singing and dancing.

The camp offers a four-week program for campers entering fourth through ninth grade that costs $4,100. A two-week program for campers entering third through fourth grade costs $1,900, and a four-week program for incoming high school sophomores is $4,400. But with various discounts and a scholarship budget of at least $100,000, Bnei Akiva can attract families who can’t afford full price, Hecht said.

“We don’t want to turn anyone away because of financial constraints,” he said.

When summer ends, the site will be used as a community retreat center that schools, synagogues and other groups can rent for things like weekend getaways, conferences and scholars-in-residence events. 

Hecht said more improvements to the site are on the way. He said the camp still plans to build a baseball field and is in the process of getting county permits for its kitchen. (For now, its chefs are using the kitchens at the nearby Snow Valley Mountain Resort to prepare kosher food, which is then driven to the camp.)

The site’s previous owner, Chabad of California, lost the site in 2011 after six years following its default on a loan from Pacific Mercantile Bank. Before Chabad purchased the site, it was owned by CEDU Educational Services, a company that operated boarding schools for troubled teenagers throughout the Western United States. CEDU was accused on multiple occasions of misconduct, neglect and abuse, including at its Running Springs site.

Bnei Akiva’s purchase of the site from Pacific Mercantile Bank last September was hardly a given. Other bidders were competing for the site and Bnei Akiva’s annual budget was only about $500,000 until it decided last summer to launch a $10 million fundraising campaign to purchase the campground.

Hecht said the main challenge for the camp is that it has “grown so quickly” in under a year — from a run-down site in need of millions of dollars in repairs to a modern camp with hundreds of children.

“It’s basically just been a sprint. I’m looking forward to going from startup to established,” Hecht said. “We’ll get there.” 

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 campmaxstraus.org. 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.”

A day in the life of Jewish summer camp

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

•••

Boker tov!

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

But Saturday is completely different. 

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

New Jewish dating app keeps the campfire burning

For many Jews, nothing cooks up piping-hot nostalgia quite like reminiscing about summer camp. Adults who recall those times may think back to pounding on tables during birkat (grace after meals), intense and often heated Maccabiah competitions or “color wars” and musical theater performances. 

For some, that list might include memories of meeting that special someone. For the rest, it might not be too late, thanks to some help from the Internet. 

RamahDate, a specialized online dating platform that Camp Ramah and matchmaking powerhouse JDate are working on together, will launch in May. It will give alumni of the Conservative Camp Ramah movement — campers and staff — the opportunity to mingle online and possibly even quiet the kvetching of frustrated Jewish mothers. 

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, the National Ramah Commission’s national director, told the Journal that parents of Ramah alums have been adamant for years that the experience of camp shouldn’t stop after camp. 

“Mothers and fathers have been asking me for the last seven or eight years, ‘My son or daughter didn’t meet anyone at camp, so why can’t there be some sort of online dating?’ ” Cohen said. 

But many did meet spouses through camp, a shared experience that creates a powerful bond. Cohen claims that Ramah can identify at least 700 such couples — and more than 300 Ramah marriages are registered on ramahmarriages.org, complete with touching stories of how the couples met.  With others undoubtedly uncounted, Cohen said he firmly believes there are well over a thousand couples who met at Ramah. 

Lauren Ross, a 41-year-old social worker at a Denver public school, met her husband, David, a piano teacher, while staffing together at Camp Ramah in Ojai in the early ’90s. They eventually got married on the picturesque Ojai camp and now have two children together. 

“David and I have a lot of similarities because of the camp experience,” Ross said. “It’s definitely something that came up.”

Sarah Shulman, the education director at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge and newly appointed camp director at the soon-to-be Camp Ramah in Northern California, met her husband, Nate, while staffing together at Ramah Outdoor Adventure in Colorado five years ago. 

“It’s not always easy to find people who share common values and interests and that are also Jewish,” Shulman said. “It wasn’t always easy to meet people who wanted to spend their summers like I did. When I met Nate, I was baffled and in awe of how much we had in common. I just thought, ‘He’s a teacher who’s Jewish with incredible outdoor adventure skills. This guy exists?’ I heard about people getting married based on Ramah. It wasn’t until I became one of those people that I understood how that really happens.” 

Marriages that originated in camps long have been a source of pride for Ramah leadership. Campgrounds are covered with plaques inscribed with the names of couples who met at camp and who often have their wedding ceremonies there. And while there’s long been interest by some in creating an online meeting place to give adults an opportunity to engage with other alums who share their core values, the question for people like Cohen was: Would people actually use it? Not to mention, initial research indicated that implementing such a site would cost the nonprofit National Ramah Commission $150,000. 

Things started to move ahead after the formation of Reshet Ramah, the camp’s alumni network that took shape in 2012, thanks in large part to $1.8 million in grants from the Avi Chai Foundation and the Maimonides Fund. The newly formed organization set out to strengthen and connect an alumni network of 200,000 and initiate a variety of new programs based in Jewish engagement for adults of all ages. According to Cohen, Reshet Ramah estimated there to be a subset of 15,000 singles under the age of 40 among its network. 

Cohen and his cohorts at the New York-based National Ramah Commission had previously worried that online dating and its reputation would scare off users. But now, JDate reports that half of married Jewish couples meet online; all involved agreed that this hurdle had been cleared and that the only hurdle remaining was financing the project. 

Laura Belinfante, National Ramah Commission’s program marketing manager, saw working with JDate as a no-brainer.

“It’s a reputable, proven model. I knew it would be great for us to have the JDate name behind the project and that it would help make our product more reputable,” she said. “Once we got on the phone and they became aware of how many alumni we had and that they’d have direct marketing to those people, from their end, it was just like, ‘OK, great.’ ” 

According to Belinfante, the partnership with JDate will alleviate much of the upfront financial burden. Its engineers, project management and customer service teams will be the ones essentially creating the service. 

Ramah users will simply subscribe to JDate and provide their Ramah background with such pieces of information as camp attended and years at camp. Then, Ramah users will receive a badge that will be featured on their profile. They then have the option to interact with all of JDate’s 750,000 active users or only with fellow Ramah badge holders. It will operate like any other online dating filter service.

“We felt that it was important to make the registration process distinguished from the JDate process. Other than that, it’s the same. We wanted to stand out and make alumni feel like it was a little different,” Belinfante said. 

Sarah Koppel Smith, a 26-year-old geriatric social worker in New York who met her husband at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, is excited about the possibilities. Smith believes in the mystique of the Ramah romance and points to values that were largely learned and honed at Ramah as the foundation of her relationship. 

“It’s more than just a camp. It’s a way of life,” she said. “I think it’s something really special to be with someone who also went to Ramah. I’m really excited for my single friends! I hope it works!”

Negotiations with JDate also resulted in an agreement to donate 70 percent of Ramah users’ initial subscription fees to camp scholarships. 

“We want to make this appealing to alumni. They can get a service and can be donating to an organization they obviously care about through that service,” Belinfante said. “They’re able to contribute in a meaningful way.” 

As the May launch date approaches, Belinfante and her colleagues at the National Ramah Commission are working diligently with JDate to get the website up and running and are planning launch parties in at least four Israeli and North American cities, Los Angeles likely being one of them. 

Rabbi Joe Menashe, the executive director of Camp Ramah in Ojai, expressed to the Journal his admiration for Ramah’s forward thinking and commitment to its vast network of alumni. 

“The Ramah movement now welcomes over 10,000 campers and staff a summer, and why should we limit the potential to find our beshert to only one camp limited by one’s year?” Menashe said. “We’d be ignoring our mission if we did not take advantage of technology to facilitate [campers’ and alumni’s] connection more easily and naturally around the world.”


CORRECTION 2/5/15: This article originally stated that Ramah users would have to provide the names of their camp counselors in order to subscribe.

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 datingabuse.jwi.org), 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.”

Adventure camping on the coast

Summer camp options just got a lot more creative for Jewish teenagers on the West Coast.

As part of an effort to broaden opportunities for high-school students to explore Jewish identity over the summer, the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Camp Newman in Santa Rosa is launching three travel-adventure programs this summer.

Each of the 11- to 13-day niche programs approaches Judaism and building Jewish community through a different lens. Students can volunteer in an environmentally conscious Costa Rican village, sample adventure sports along the California coast or attend Major League Baseball games throughout the state.

The idea is to engage adventure-hungry teens with Jewish values in an environment that’s outside the confines of a synagogue or traditional summer camp, said Alex Rogers, Camp Newman’s assistant director of year-round programs.

“We realized that not every 11th-grader in high school can commit to spending 10 weeks at summer camp, but the idea of spending two weeks traveling with their friends, with other Jewish teenagers, across California really appeals to them,” he said. 

Collectively called J. Adventures, the programs break down as follows:

Costa Rica Adventure is an 11-day service learning expedition in partnership with the URJ’s Mitzvah Corps, a program that engages youth in social action. Teens will divide their time between the Costa Rican capital, San Jose, and a small village in the rainforest accessible only by boat, working alongside villagers on a service project while learning about environmental sustainability and social justice.

“They can learn about how different communities are functioning and take those ideas back to their own community,” Rogers said. “Our staff really tie in the Jewish values and historical teaching around social justice and how that’s a core component of Reform Judaism.”

The program is targeted toward teens entering grades 10-12 and costs $3,450. It will take place July 23-Aug. 2.

Outdoor Adventure is intended to allow teens to sample adventure sports and learn about nature and community building with California’s mountains, rivers and coastline as the backdrop. Teens will push themselves, learn to work as a team and create a community guided by Jewish values of respect for others and being a part of something bigger than oneself. Each participant will take on responsibilities such as preparing meals, cleaning up, maintaining their living space, and will support each other through the various adventure challenges. The program includes whitewater rafting along the American River near Sacramento; and hiking, paddle boarding and sea-kayaking in Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands National Park. (No experience is necessary.)

“The trip is really about challenging yourself and expanding your comfort zone to really work as a community to support each other,” Rogers said. “Our focus is really how you support each other within a community to take on new challenges, and what it means to be challenged in different ways.” 

Scheduled June 30-July 12, it is for students entering grades 10-12. The cost is $3,850.

As part of Baseball Adventure, teens will travel up the California coast from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay Area, catching four Major League Baseball games and one minor league game at five different parks, meeting with players and team executives and performing community service work. Participants will explore the larger role of sports in society and how a team’s impact on a community goes beyond baseball.

“It’s more about the connections between sportsmanship and Jewish values,” Rogers said. “We’re really using baseball as sort of a metaphor for what it means to, one, be part of a team and your relationship with your other team members and the values that you hold in those relationships, and, two, to really examine what it means to be the best version of yourself, or the best at something, and how you work to get there.” 

This program is for students entering grades 9 and 10 and will take place July 14-26. The cost is $3,850. 

The programs are led by Camp Newman staff in partnership with established organizations and adventure outfitters on the ground where applicable. The California trips have space for up to 35 teenagers, while the Costa Rica trip has room for up to 20, Rogers said. Camp Newman pledges to maintain at least a 1:8 staff-to-teen ratio on all trips, and the costs include travel, accommodations, meals and programming.

Camp Newman (campnewman.org) developed the trip ideas through outreach to youth, visitors and camp faculty, and visits to congregations and youth programs where teens were asked what kinds of summer opportunities they’d like to see, Rogers said.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami, a Reform synagogue in Calabasas, said teenagers from a delegation he brings to Camp Newman every summer helped contribute ideas. He applauded the J. Adventures programs.

“Simply put, I wish I were a teenager,” he said. “These programs give the kids a chance to step outside their comfort zones, to have adventure, to do some social action, all within a Jewish framework. It’s exciting, it’s new, and it’s different.”

The rabbi said finding new ways to engage Jewish teens is critical to maintaining their interest in Judaism later on.

“The challenging reality is that post bar/bat mitzvah, huge percentages of teens don’t engage Jewishly in a significant way, and part of it is because we’re expecting them to come to us and fit into certain cookie-cutter programs,” he said. “Teens are the Jewish future, and it is key that we engage them. And we have to ask the teens what the teens are into and create programs that match their interests with
Judaism.”  

Bnei Akiva seals $7.1 million deal on massive campground east of Los Angeles

On Sept. 12, Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles, the local chapter of an international religious Zionist youth group, purchased a 78-acre campground in Running Springs for $7.1 million.

The group has raised $8.5 million in a major capital campaign this year and plans to raise an additional $1.5 million to prepare Running Springs — which has been sitting dormant for three years — to become the only Orthodox Jewish summer camp and year-round retreat center in the western United States. 

The property was previously owned by Chabad of California, which purchased it for $4.3 million in 2005, only to lose it in foreclosure to Pacific Mercantile Bank after defaulting on an $8.25 million loan. The campground had served as collateral for the loan. 

Since November 2011, when the bank foreclosed on the property, the two parties have been engaged in 33 months of legal proceedings in San Bernardino. A victory in a state appeals court by Chabad in July 2013 temporarily set back Pacific’s attempts to sell the property. The court ruled that the bank improperly had evicted Chabad from Running Springs, although Chabad’s default was not in question.

Chabad of California’s leader, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, said the group plans to pursue legal action against the bank, with regard to the large amount of personal property still at the site — including bunk beds and expensive kosher kitchen equipment. Cunin said Chabad will not sue Bnei Akiva.

In 2013, Bnei Akiva opened the Moshava Malibu summer camp, renting land from the Shalom Institute. It was the first Orthodox summer camp in Los Angeles in nearly two decades, and local Bnei Akiva leaders said that the demand and need for Orthodox camping was a major reason for its purchase of Running Springs, which will replace Moshava Malibu, expanding the sessions for a summer-long camp.

Finding the Goldbergs: A Catskills mystery unraveled

The moment I kicked in the door of the abandoned house in the heart of the Catskills, I felt like I was in an episode of “The Twilight Zone: Borscht Belt edition.”

In some corners it appeared as if the residents were just out for the afternoon. Pictures and tchotchkes adorned the walls. A mezuzah with the parchment still inside was affixed to a doorpost. A working upright piano sat in one corner. Ironing boards were open. Mattresses lay on beds; in one room the beds were still half-made.

But elsewhere, things were in a state of advanced decay. The roof over the kitchen had caved in. The sink was overflowing with rotting leaves. In a bedroom, vines poured in through the window and spread over much of the ceiling. Mold was having its way with the walls.

I had come to the Catskills hoping to get one last look at Kutsher’s, the last of the great Borscht Belt resorts, after hearing the news that its demolition was imminent. For much of the 20th century, Kutsher’s and other Jewish hotels like it helped make the Catskills the summer destination of choice for New York Jews.

But when I reached the mountains a few days later, I found the roads leading to Kutsher’s blocked by chains and sawhorses posted with warnings against trespassing into the hard-hat zone. I tried to make my way on foot, wading through wet, overgrown grass, but three burly construction workers spotted me and I was forced to beat a hasty retreat.

Which is how I found my way into a crumbling bungalow colony at the edge of Kutsher’s 1,500 acres.

Aside from the main house with 10 bedrooms and side building with a dining room and kitchen that I had broken into, there were a handful of bungalows, a pool and a lake. The buildings all were vacant, in varying states of disrepair and overcome by nature.

One room had half a dozen ovens and refrigerators. Opening one fridge, I half expected to find a cold can of Tab. No dice. In the corner of what appeared to be the living room, there was a public telephone. I picked it up. No dial tone.

Most of the bedrooms were disheveled or empty, but in one I found toiletries and a shoeshine kit carefully arranged on the dresser, three drab but clean dresses hanging in the closet, and a shelf filled with unused legal pads and blank paper.

Then I spotted the first clue to who may have lived here.

Tucked into the mirror was a photograph of four happy-looking elderly couples posing in front of the lake out back now obscured by foliage. Their names were carefully inscribed on the back: Nat & Sylvia, Herman & Eleanor, Milton & Norma, Jack & Charlotte. There was also a date: August 2001.

Who were these people and why did they leave? What purpose did this odd house serve? Were the people in the photo still alive? When was the house last occupied?

This being the age of the Internet, it took less than an hour of sleuthing, a credit card and $3.95 to unravel the mystery of this strange Catskills time capsule.

The simple part was figuring out who lived there. An address label affixed to some shelves in the bedroom with the shoeshine kit read Goldberg. That matched the name on a Jewish National Fund Tree-in-Israel certificate posted on the wall in another room. Along with the photograph I found, I had my target couple: Nat and Sylvia Goldberg.

Combing through online directories and death notices, it didn’t take long to locate family members. Soon I had Nat and Sylvia’s daughter, Judy Viteli, on the line.

She almost cried when I told her where I had been.

“Ah, the kochelein,” she said wistfully.

The what?

“The kochelein,” she said. “It’s a Yiddish word.”

Over the course of several conversations, including one in which we went through old pictures at her kitchen table, Judy and her sister, Paula Goldberg — now 60 and 63, respectively — told me the story of what had transpired half a century ago in that house, why it represented the best years of their lives and how it all came to an end. This is their story.

The kochelein — a term that literally means “cook alone” — represented a particular kind of bungalow colony: a place where several families shared a house but where everyone was responsible for their own food. That’s why there were half a dozen fridges and ovens in the kitchen: Each of the 10 families was allotted half a refrigerator and a shared oven to prepare meals.

A pharmacist from the Bronx, Nat Goldberg began bringing his family to this kochelein, called Fairhill, in 1953, when Judy was still in diapers and her sister Paula was 5. The rest of the house was filled with cousins and close friends, all from the same working-class Bronx neighborhood. Everybody, of course, was Jewish.

There was practically no privacy: Parents and their children slept in the same room, all the families shared only two bathrooms and everyone ate their meals in the shared dining room.

From a kid’s perspective, the summers were idyllic. Days were spent hiking in the woods, swimming in the lake, picking wild blueberries, playing hide-and-seek, trying to sneak into the resort at Kutsher’s and waging endless girls vs. boys wars. On rainy days they’d pack into the dining room with their parents to play mah-jongg or a variation of rummy, gambling for split peas. After the rain stopped, the kids would run outside to hunt salamanders.

Once the Goldberg kids turned 10, they were allowed to hitchhike into Monticello; their mother would wave goodbye as they climbed into strangers’ cars. On weekends they might catch rides with their father en route to the racetrack.

On Saturday nights, when the adults went out, the kids left to their own devices smoked, played kissing games and did whatever else they could think of that their parents had forbidden.

“Every one of us will tell you it was the best time of our lives,” Paula said of those summers. “Our mothers never knew where we were and didn’t care.”

For the adults, the bungalow colony was both an extension of and a break from their lives in the crowded Jewish enclaves of the Bronx. It was mostly the same people, but there was cleaner air, less privacy and less testosterone: The men, who worked Monday to Friday, came up only on weekends; the women and children stayed all summer.

“It was a total matriarchy,” Paula said.

It was the 1950s, before three major factors destroyed the Jewish Catskills: air conditioning, which made staying in the city more palatable; declining discrimination against Jews, which opened up previously unavailable summertime alternatives; and the rise of the working woman, which made moving away for the summer untenable.

The bungalow colony was not for the wealthy. Accommodations were simple. Water came from a well. When it went dry one summer, the families went days without showering and walked around with divining rods. The swimming pool — now cracked, overgrown and shrouded by trees — wasn’t built until sometime in the late ’50s.

With the exception of Nat Goldberg, none of the men at the kochelein had gone to college, and they all worked blue-collar jobs. Jewish families with more money went to resorts like Kutsher’s, where meals, entertainment and a wide range of recreational facilities were included. At Kutsher’s, residents of bungalow colonies like the Fairhill kochelein were referred to derisively as “bungees.”

Entertainment at the kochelein was mostly homemade: Someone would play the piano or the adults would hold silly parties where everyone wore their clothes backward or husbands and wives swapped clothing or held mock weddings or soup-eating contests.

The men were constantly pranking each other. In the mornings, the first thing everyone would do was get in line for the bathroom, toothbrush and soap in hand. With as many as 40 people sharing just two bathrooms, dillydallying was severely frowned upon — not least by your stern, socially conscious mother.

“Everything happened in front of everybody else — all the babying, all the disciplining,” Judy recalled. “There was no private place to yell at anybody.”

One morning when she was 11, Judy had to conceal a hickey she said a boy had forced on her neck the night before.

“It was the summer, you couldn’t wear a scarf,” she said. “So I put on makeup before I came out from the top of my head down to my neck thinking nobody would notice.”

To no avail. As soon as she walked into the dining room, a girl named Arlene spotted it and broke into peals of laughter. Judy was humiliated; her mother made her wear pancake makeup until the hickey subsided.

The food was kosher — to some degree. At home in the Bronx, Sylvia would let her kids have milk after meat, but at the bungalow colony she was stricter because Aunt Faye was sitting at the next table.

“We used to pretend to be kosher,” Judy said. “It was shameful if you weren’t kosher. But people were different degrees of kosher.”

Because the ladies didn’t drive, the mothers would list the groceries they needed in a spiral notebook hanging from a hook in the dining room, and the Polish Catholic family that owned the property — Alex and Mary Chicko — would go to town every day to buy the provisions, adding a penny or two to each item as a delivery fee.

The families all shared a single public telephone. If Milton should phone from the city to speak to his wife who was down by the lake, whoever answered would get on the P.A. system and make the announcement, summoning Norma to the receiver.

If the kids misbehaved, the parents would punish them by dragging them along to Kutsher’s shows instead of leaving them behind with their boyfriends and girlfriends.

For Paula, one kochelein relationship proved to have special staying power: with Mark Goldberg, a boy whose family had been coming to the Fairhill kochelein since the 1920s. She was 5 and he was 6 when they met, and they began “going together” in the summer of 1959.

That was when 13-year-old Mark asked Paula to a movie theater in town to see “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and the two kissed during the film — with their eyes open, Paula says.

He was fresh; he was a bad boy,” Paula said with a mischievous smile.

The two broke up at the end of every summer and then got back together the following July. Some summers Mark’s family didn’t go up to the mountains, but Mark always came — even if it was in the care of someone else’s parents. That is, until the summer of ’66, when Mark’s father collapsed at the kochelein of a heart attack and died. Mark was 19.

When Mark was 22 and Paula was 21, they married. The couple recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary.

By the 1960s, things had begun changing at the kochelein. A pool had been built. Two more bathrooms were added to the main house. There had been three or four bungalows onsite at least since the early ’50s, but in the ’60s the owners decided to build several more, enlisting the summertime kids to help.

Most significantly, the owners cut a deal that traded the use of part of their land to Kutsher’s in exchange for nightly passes to the resort’s shows. Kutsher’s eventually bought the bungalow colony outright.

“That changed our lives,” Paula recalled. “Our parents could get dressed up and go every night and see all the Borscht Belt comedians. They could go dancing on the stage. Our little bungalow colony had very special power based on the land.”

Judy says she enjoyed the shows, except for one thing: “The comedians would tell their joke, and then the punchline would be in Yiddish. I’d ask Mom what he said and she’d say, ‘I’ll tell you later.’ ”

When she was old enough, Judy began working summers at Kutsher’s as a camp counselor. It was hard work, she says: 12-hour days, six days a week, for just $15 per week. At the kochelein, the traditions continued.

At summer’s end, when each family finished packing up the car to leave, the remaining families would assemble for a parting ceremony. They’d all bang pots and pans and sing a song to the tune of the “The Farmer in the Dell”:

We hate to see you go
We hate to see you go
We hope to heck you never come back
We hate to see you go

The Goldbergs were usually the last to leave.

“We left a day later than everyone else because God forbid we should get stuck in traffic,” Paula recalled.

As they graduated high school and college, the number of kids at the bungalow colony dwindled. Some went up only for weekends, some not at all.

Even as the Catskills fell into decline in the ’70s and ’80s, the adults kept going to the Fairhill kochelein — relishing the space without kids, according to Paula. They stopped only when they couldn’t physically do it, obstructed by illness, death or retirement to Florida.

By the 1990s, most of the kochelein’s rooms were empty.

But not the Goldbergs’; they were diehards. Even when Nat and Sylvia took a place in Florida for the winter, they would return to Monticello for the summers. Sylvia kept three separate bottles of moisturizer so she could travel lighter: at her bedside at the kochelein, in Florida and in Yonkers, where the couple moved when they left the Bronx. (Snooping around the abandoned property, I spotted Sylvia’s bottle of moisturizer.)

With the surrounding area growing shabbier every year, the Goldberg kids tried to convince their parents to stop going to the kochelein — or at least get a room for the summer at Kutsher’s, which by now they could afford. But Nat and Sylvia wouldn’t budge.

“To me it was depressing to go up in those later years,” Judy said. “My mother’s sister used to bring up all her money for the summer and hide it in her room. When she had a stroke in the middle of one summer, her son asked us to find the money and we couldn’t. Eventually someone found it.”

The last few summers the Goldbergs spent at the bungalow colony, they were the only couple there.

“It was eerie,” Judy said. “You would go upstairs and all the other rooms were abandoned looking.” Nat and Sylvia would spend their days at Kutsher’s — Sylvia in pottery classes making tchotchkes that she’d take back to the kochelein and hang on the walls, Nat outside organizing shuffleboard games. At the end of the day they would go back to their big, empty house at the bungalow colony to eat and sleep. Though there were half a dozen refrigerators, they still confined themselves to the same half-fridge they always used.

“It felt like the ‘Twilight Zone’ to me,” Paula said. “Dad was 92. We were scared already. They were living alone in that big house and crossing over to the dining room for meals. They were anachronisms.”

Finally, in the summer of 2002, after 50 years of summers at Fairhill, the Goldberg kids managed to convince their parents to forego the kochelein for the following summer, and they booked rooms at Kutsher’s for 10 weeks starting in June 2003.

But when Nat and Sylvia left the kochelein at the end of August 2002, Sylvia was complaining about feeling tired, and she spent that fall in and out of doctor’s offices. She was diagnosed with cancer.

“After we booked them into 10 weeks at Kutsher’s, my mother felt like a very rich lady,” Paula said. “Even when she was in hospice, she thought she’d spend the summer at the hotel.”

Sylvia never made it. She died in July 2003.

Nat, 10 years her senior, held on for nearly another decade, living until the age of 100. He died in June 2010.

Today, the Jewish Catskills is largely a relic. There are still a few bungalow colonies scattered about, and some haredi Orthodox camps have put down stakes, but all the great Jewish hotels have been sold off or abandoned to nature and decay.

Kutsher’s, the last holdout, was sold in late 2013 for $8.2 million to Veria Lifestyle Inc., a company owned by Indian billionaire Subhash Chandra. He plans to build a new health and wellness resort at the site.

Decades on, the kochelein still maintains a hold on the Goldberg sisters — and many of the others who spent their childhood summers there. In 1996, when the sisters held a 50th anniversary party for their parents at Paula’s Westchester home, many of the old kochelein kids showed up for the occasion.

“They were like family,” Paula says.

At Paula’s insistence, she and Mark used to drive to Monticello every year on Aug. 2, the anniversary of their first date. Then last year, for the first time, Paula decided she didn’t want to go anymore. It was just too sad and spooky.

From what I saw on my foray there, it’s also dangerous. There’s no telling when a floor might collapse or the roof cave in. The property is a wreck.

But it’s also full of artifacts – enough for an enterprising visitor to decode the mystery of the copious fridges, the half-full bottle of moisturizer, the piano in the corner of the dining room. Enough, that is, to tell the Goldbergs’ story.

 

 

BunkConnect program offering bargains for first-time campers

Think Expedia or Hotels.com or countless other vacation discount finders online, but instead to connect kids to Jewish camps.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp announced Monday that it is piloting a new program this summer offering first-time campers from middle- and lower-income families camp sessions at prices that are 40-80 percent below the camps’ standard rates.

Called BunkConnect, the program, in partnership with the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy, will make available 1,100 discounted slots at 35 camps in the Northeast, New England and Mid-Atlantic regions. While only families from those regions are eligible to participate this summer, the FJC hopes to expand the program to Jewish families and camps throughout North America in future years.

“This is an affordability initiative to help families who think camp might be out of reach,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “It gives them a chance to find a camp that’s right for them.”

[RELATED: Camp Passion–The importance of Jewish summer camp]

In recent years, Jewish overnight camps have gained considerable standing among Jewish communal leaders and philanthropists, who view them as one of the most powerful tools for Jewish education and identity-building. However, with tuition often exceeding $1,000 per week, they serve a disproportionately affluent clientele.

In many ways, BunkConnect is more incentive program than scholarship, a marketing tool to recruit families who may not otherwise consider Jewish overnight camp. Only children who have not previously attended the camp are eligible. If they return in future years, they will have to pay the full price or apply for financial aid.

Meanwhile, participating camps are offering discounted slots for sessions or cohorts that might not fill otherwise.

“Some camps are over capacity in the first sessions and might have available slots in the second session they’re offering through BunkConnect,” Fingerman explained. “This is modeled after the hospitality industry, but the difference is you’re not just buying a hotel room, you’re buying a whole experience.”

Parents fill out an online questionnaire to determine their eligibility based on annual gross income, number of dependents, place of residence and if they have children enrolled in Jewish day school. The income ceiling is higher for day school families and those in pricier regions such as New York in order to account for higher household expenses.

Once deemed eligible — a determination made instantly — parents key in the child’s age, gender and preferences. The website then displays options and urges parents to contact the camp directly for more information.

Before registration is finalized, families must submit tax forms to prove their eligibility.

While the Foundation for Jewish Camp said it could not disclose the names of the 35 camps participating in the program, a series of hypothetical online searches by JTA turned up discounted sessions at Camp JRF and B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Pennsylvania; Camp Louise, Camp Airy and Habonim Dror Camp Moshava in Maryland; Camp Avoda in Massachusetts; and JCC Camp Kingswood in Maine.

Discounts offered, which ranged from 40 to 80 percent off the list price, varied depending on the session date. For example, it was cheaper to attend Camp Airy in August than in July.

While the individual camps are absorbing any losses incurred by making slots available at a discount, many may come out ahead by filling beds that otherwise would have gone empty. In addition, after attending at the “introductory rate,” campers may return the following summer at the full rate.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp is covering the costs of the BunkConnect technology and marketing.

BunkConnect is not the only effort to make Jewish camp more financially accessible, Fingerman said. The foundation also supports some scholarships such as the One Happy Camper program for first-time campers.

The foundation also has explored the possibility of helping launch lower-cost programs, Fingerman said, but “we’re not sure the economic model of that is sustainable and attractive.”

The value of summer camp

In 2007, my three daughters asked me if they could go to summer camp along with their school  friends. For the previous several years, I had always said no. It was far, it was costly. And summer was the only time I had vacation from work, and I wanted to spend that time with my children. I said I would think about it.  

That day at work I stopped in to see one of my colleagues and told her of my dilemma. She asked me if I had ever attended a Jewish summer camp as a child. I told her I had never been to a camp of any kind. She went on to explain what camp had meant to her growing up, and following her bat mitzvah, she said, it was the only thing that kept her involved in her religion, temple and Jewish community. I decided that there would be no harm in sending my kids for one summer, and we would get back to our normal summer plans the following year.  

What I did not realize then was that camp would indeed change their lives, and our days of long family summer vacations were over. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make once I realized the impact camp would have on their confidence and development over the next five years.  

My girls have all graduated from Camp Ramah, the eldest having just finished her second summer as a camp counselor, my two younger girls pining for their turns to become counselors as well. They have taken away from camp several important life lessons from their camp experience. The first is the importance of committing themselves to service within our Jewish community, in spite of living and going to school in a secular environment. My girls have participated in the Friendship Circle, working with Jewish children with special needs. They have been teaching assistants in our Talmud Torah Program, as well as active members of United Synagogue Youth. Most of their volunteer activities are within our Jewish community, and I believe this stems from the concept of tikkun olam, healing the world, which was emphasized and modeled so strongly at summer camp. My girls always told me that a big part of camp was learning the importance of the passing down of tradition, and providing others with the experiences they were privileged to have themselves.  

My girls learned that all Jewish kids do not come from middle-class, two-parent families. At camp they became friends with kids from varying backgrounds who had family problems including divorce, illness, financial stressors and mental-health issues. They met kids being raised by grandparents and kids who had been in foster care. They roomed with kids who were very wealthy and others who were financially challenged.  Everyone was treated equally, and most shared openly. When we had our own family stressors, camp became a safe haven for my girls and a place they could talk to friends and counselors, and receive unconditional love, support, understanding and plenty of healthy advice. In the last year my girls were at camp, our financial situation had drastically changed and we were unable to afford the expense. I explained our financial situation when I applied for financial aid. I was asked what I needed for them to attend and was granted that amount. I will always be grateful for the generosity shown to me and our family during our own time of need.

Each summer when I picked my kids up from camp I observed a maturity that had developed over the course of the month. When they came home to their own neighborhood and school, they were able to make good decisions for themselves in terms of who they chose as their friends and what they chose as their entertainment. I have never had to worry about what my girls were doing on a Friday or Saturday night when they were out with their friends. The foundation they received from home was the same as they received at camp. Camp prepared them for the many temptations faced by our teens. Their sense of right and wrong, moral and not, can be credited as much to camp as what we have tried to instill as parents.  

Jewish summer camp has made my children better people. There are only so many life lessons that a parent can impart. To experience goodness, kindness, learning and a commitment to Judaism, all on a grassy knoll and under tall pine trees, is more than I could have ever wished.  

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is holding its first Tour de Summer Camps on Oct. 27. This community-wide cycling event is raising funds for Jewish summer camp scholarships, in support of Federation’s ongoing work ensuring our Jewish future. Riders can choose from one of three scenic routes of 36, 62 or 100 miles. To sign up, make a donation, become a sponsor or volunteer, visit TourdeSummerCamps.org.

Yosemite Rim Fire damages Tawonga Jewish summer camp

The largest wildfire in California’s history has led to the evacuation of a Jewish summer camp and destroyed at least one of its buildings.

The Yosemite Rim Fire triggered the cancellation of Camp Tawonga’s annual Keshet LGBTQ Family Camp, San Francisco’s j. weekly reported.

On Friday, Tawonga Executive Director Ken Kramarz said in a post on Facebook that one cabin had burned, and that downed power lines, fallen trees and “active fire” had made the last 1.5 miles of road to the camp impassable.

Earlier last week, camp director Jamie Simon-Harris emailed the board of directors and board alumni to report that the fire line was holding and flame retardant had been dumped on all “essential structures,” according to a report in the j. weekly.

“As Shabbat arrives tonight, I urge every Tawongan to pray for the safety of the firefighters,”  Kramarz wrote on Facebook.

In 1999, a forest fire destroyed several buildings on the perimeter of the camp, according to the j. weekly.

The fire is burning over 143,980 acres and is only 7 percent contained. On Monday, the fire destroyed the Berkeley Toulumne Family Camp, a city-owned camp for residents, the Bay City News reported.

In July, a falling tree at Camp Tawonga struck five counselors, killing one and severely injuring two others.

Falling tree at Calif. summer camp kills counselor

A tree fell through a dining hall at a Jewish summer camp in Northern California, killing one and requiring four others to be airlifted to a nearby hospital.

NBC News reported that a counselor, Annais Rittenberg, was killed.

A Cal Fire spokesman, Daniel Berlant, posted on Twitter that emergency crews were responding to a “mass casualty” event on Wednesday at Camp Tawonga, with 20 reported injuries, the Los Angeles Times reported.

There were conflicting reports as to whether any children were injured in the incident. Gregg Rubenstein, director of finance for the camp, told The Associated Press that the staff was still assessing the situation but no campers were among the injured.

A spokesman for the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office, Sgt. Jim Oliver, told myMotherLode.com that children had been trapped under the tree but were not necessarily injured.

Founded in 1925, Camp Tawonga is located near Yosemite National Park and headquartered in San Francisco.

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, campjudahwest.com.  

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.” 

Boys allegedly sexually abused at Orthodox Jewish summer camp

New York State Police are investigating allegations of sexual abuse by a truck driver making a delivery to a Jewish camp, The New York Post reported.

Surveillance video captured footage of a kosher-food truck driver entering bunks for seventh-and eighth-grade boys at Camp Shalva near South Fallsburg, N.Y., early on Aug. 8, according to the newspaper. The suspect is accused of molesting several of the campers.

Unnamed sources told the Post that the boys reported the incidents in the morning to supervisors of the Orthodox Jewish camp but were told not to tell their parents.

The 5 Towns Jewish Times reported that the alleged intruder is Golden Taste employee Yoel Oberlander, a convicted molester and registered sex offender from Monsey, N.Y., who pleaded guilty to molesting an 11-year-old girl in 2002. He was sentenced to six years of probation.

Stephen Lungen, a criminal defense lawyer and former Sullivan County prosecutor, told the Post that he was contacted at approximately 3 p.m. Aug. 11 by frantic camp administrators asking what to do about the allegations.

“They were very upset and concerned about how to deal with it,” Lungen said, adding that he put them in touch with the district attorney and State Police.

The Times Herald-Record reported that a state investigator said no information was available on Monday.

Jewish summer campers ‘terrorized’

Three adults and two juveniles are under arrest for allegedly for making children at a Jewish summer camp feel “terrorized and in fear of for their lives.”

The five were arrested in Wayne County, Pa., ABC News reported. They face felony and misdemeanor charges, including “assault, vandalism and terroristic threats.”

Allegations include shouting anti-Semitic epithets and firing paintball guns at campers and staff at Camp Bonim, Edwards said in a press released.

““These children were terrorized and in fear for their lives by the actions of this group,” District Attorney Janine Edwards said in a press release. “The vicious, cruel and obscene nature of the language hurled at the campers is unspeakable. Luckily none of the children suffered any serious physical injury, however, the emotional damage is immeasurable

The camp has about 300 children.

Those arraigned, according to ABC News, include: Tyler Spencer, 18, from Linden, Tenn.; Mark Trail, 21 of Wayne County; and Cassandra Robertson, 18, of Wayne County. They were reportedly held on $20,000 bail. A 17-year-old and a 16-year-old face juvenile court cases, according to ABC News.

An appreciation to summers spent in paradise

In the classic male-bonding film “Stand By Me,” based on a Stephen King novella, there is a line of dialogue at the end that I have never forgotten: “I never had friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12 … does anyone?”

In my case, however, five of the friendships that remain mainstays in my life and that I continue to cherish “later on” are precisely the ones I had nearly 40 years ago, going back to the time when I was 12.

My relationships with these fellows — along with many of the values that define our respective Jewish identities — were forged during idyllic summers spent as campers, and later counselors, at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps in Malibu — Hess Kramer and Hilltop. The camps turn 60 this year and, over that time 45,000 others have enjoyed the same experiences as my friends and I, including most of our group’s own children, who have followed us, l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation), as campers and counselors. I am not so naïve as to think that mine is the only nucleus of life-long friendship to emanate from Hess Kramer and Hilltop. I am personally aware of countless others from our camps, in addition to extended webs of connections and acquaintances, which continue to endure. And likely, these bonds are no different than those forged at other Jewish summer camps.

However, I can only speak to my own childhood and adolescent slice of paradise, and how Hess Kramer and Hilltop became, in countless ways, a tie that binds. Yet, little did any of us realize at the time we were deep in these “Malibu moments” — engaged in hiking, sports, song sessions or arts and crafts — that many of the ethics and beliefs that would subsequently become our compasses subtly were being shaped. For that, the 45,000 alumni — and arguably Jewish campers elsewhere — owe a debt of gratitude to the late Rabbi Alfred Wolf, the longtime spiritual leader of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

As a young associate rabbi new to Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Wolf envisioned summer camping for Jewish youth based on his own joyful outdoor experiences in pre-Hitler Germany. By 1952, through an indomitable will and spirit, Wolf, more than any other individual, brought this dream to fruition, pioneering a Jewish camping paradigm that influenced what followed on the West Coast, if not the nation as a whole. Two generations later, numerous sociological studies on the beneficial impact of Jewish camping on later religious identification have provided empirical validation for what Wolf seemed to know from instinct and personal passion.

With respect to my five friends and me, I used to think we were connected by nostalgia for place, shared experiences and inside jokes from the years together at camp. And granted, our repressed adolescent humor manages to brim to the surface in each other’s company in ways that make those on the periphery question our political correctness, if not our sanity. However, as the six of us reached adulthood, married wonderful women and began to raise families of our own, it occurred to me that these connections were part of something deeper and far more meaningful. It was not campfire jokes but common tenets and principles. First and foremost, our own parents and upbringings shaped these belief systems and values. But I also appreciate — as do my dear friends — how our Jewish camping experiences factored into that upbringing, as well.

I recall an article a few years ago, recapping a study of professional men that found the ages from mid-30s to mid-50s are the most solitary, as we devote ourselves to building careers and raising families often to the exclusion of our personal support networks and a sacrifice of socialization needs. While probably more pronounced in some than others, I don’t question the accuracy of the inquiry and have heard firsthand from others around my age about the toll extracted.

Thankfully, I have mostly sidestepped these effects owing to a loving immediate and extended family and a career that continues to bring me immense satisfaction. But I also don’t discount the beneficial impact and solace I get from this core circle of five men. I classify them as “3 a.m. friends” — the kind you can call at any hour of the day or night and know they will be there in an instant. We tease each other mercilessly and with abject cruelty that no outsider could possibly comprehend. Once, in fact, after a particularly brutal exchange of e-mail quips, I offered up an apology for my offenses to my worthy adversary. “Are you kidding?” he responded. “Sometimes this abuse is the only thing that gets me through the day.”

And, for the friends that I had when I was 12 — who remain friends to this day — along with countless life lessons, Rabbi Wolf and Camp Hess Kramer will always have my profound gratitude.

Gerald Freisleben is the president of FoleyFreisleben LLC, a Los Angeles-based strategic communications consultancy.