January 19, 2020

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.”