November 16, 2018

More options for modern Orthodox campers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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