Jewish Camping: It’s No Bunk!


The Pocono Mountains

Perched on the edge of a platform 40 feet above the grassy Camp Harlam grounds in Kunkletown, Pa., 13-year-old Jake Lord steels himself for his first plunge down the zipline.

Attached to the line next to him, Michael Holzman, a visiting rabbi from Reston, Va., prepares himself for the same inaugural experience.

A few minutes later, both make it to solid ground and head off to the next activity — reading for the rabbi, "gator ball" for Jake.

To an outsider, surmounting such a physical challenge could be par for the course at any summer camp. But it's no coincidence that Jake shared it with a rabbi.

For directors at Harlam and other Jewish overnight camps in the Pocono Mountains that serve children from the Philadelphia area, summertime is their chance to help shape the next generation. Bolstered by recent studies offering statistical evidence of camp's success in building identity, they're "doing Jewish" even more these days — from sending rabbis up a ropes course to bestowing cotton candy "shaped" like former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's hair to campers who correctly answer trivia questions about the historical figure.

"It's not just kids going off and having fun for a few weeks," said Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, director of Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement's 10-year-old overnight camp in South Sterling, Pa. "There's real education and thought and time put into it, and professionalism."

As far as Jake is concerned, though, it's all about fun — even when it comes to Jewish activities. In services at home, the 13-year-old from Bala Cynwyd said, "you have to sing along all by yourself, but it's kind of fun to sing it with your camp friends. I feel a lot closer to Judaism now that I've been to camp five years."

When the first Jewish camps were founded in North America between 1900 and 1950, the idea was to give city kids some fresh mountain air. Today, latrines and lean-tos have been replaced by landscaped grounds with modern plumbing, athletic facilities, swimming pools and indoor libraries. In addition to sprucing up physical amenities, camp staff have become increasingly deliberate about establishing a sense of Jewish identity, going to great lengths to train leaders, bring in visiting clergy, make meaningful Shabbat programs and add themed special events.

That's not to say that camp is turning into summer religious school. Sports, swimming and other outdoor activities still make up the bulk of the day, but Jewish programming has expanded beyond the weekly Shabbat service or Israeli dancing.

"Our parents are asking for it, " said Lewis Sohinki, director of the B'nai B'rith Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pa. "Our camper population is more involved Jewishly during the year; they want it at camp. They're part of the Jewish community and they want to have more."

Not only do parents want more Jewish, directors said, but campers seem to like it, too. Some directors say the emphasis on Jewish content is one of the selling points that has kept them in business despite rising costs, a dismal economy and competition from speciality camps.

A Day Devoted to Prayer

On top of the time-honored "Maccabiah Games" — otherwise known as the Jewish version of color war — several camps have invested significant resources to create special programs devoted to Jewish themes, even hiring visiting artists and specialty staff.

On a recent July afternoon at the Conservative Movement's camp Ramah in the Poconos in Lakewood, Pa., for example, younger campers sampled kosher appetizers they'd made under the guidance of visiting cookbook author Susie Fishbein while older teens held an athletic tournament against campers from a sister site in the Berkshires.

That same week at Camp JRF, normal activities were suspended for a day on prayer: Rotating through stations, the campers wrote and decorated their own translations of the Amidah, meditated and made bracelets modeled on tefillin.

Harlam, a Reform movement camp, has an entire "Department of Jewish Life," which recently expanded from two to four supervisors. In years past, their daily hour of Jewish education often entailed groups of up to 110 kids sitting down for a lecture, said Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, who also serves as the camp's assistant director. Now, they might discuss prayer over the course of a nature hike, show the campers how to play gaga "like a Jew," plant a vegetable garden to learn about caring for the earth or explore Israel "through the senses" with art or cooking projects.

Like Harlam, Ramah and JRF also have a steady stream of visiting rabbis sent by their affiliated movements. Aside from leading shiurim, or religious lessons, oftentimes it's just a chance for campers to get exposure to religious leaders in an unexpected setting, said Harlam director Aaron Selkow. Even though you can't always see it, "Jewish is everywhere here," Selkow said.

At Perlman Camp, Jake Minkoff is one of six staff-in-training engaged in a new intensive Jewish studies course run in conjunction with Ohio State University that involves classes three times a week, reading assignments, a paper and eventual college credit. For the Cheltenham High School incoming senior, learning about Jewish values and morals is not a chore but a choice.

Having Jewish activities and education at camp, he said, "teaches kids how to embrace Judaism when they grow up."

Even though Jake attended Perelman Jewish Day School and was confirmed at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, he says camp, which he's attended for eight years, now provides his richest Jewish experience.

"I'm so used to camp being Jewish, it would feel weird to take Judaism out of camp," said the 17-year-old.

Along with Jewish education, Perlman leaders have focused more attention on Israel over the past two years, adding a three-week trip to the country to its signature "Pioneers" leadership program for 11th graders and including an Israeli flag in the morning flag-raising ritual.

About an hour away in Stroudsburg, Pa., Pinemere Camp made the same recent addition to its flag ceremony, singing "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem, along with the pledge of allegiance to the American flag.

In 1942, the former Jewish Welfare Board started Pinemere, now run by the JCC, as an outlet for youth from smaller communities that might not have a synagogue. It was always a Jewish place, said head counselor Gabe Miner, an Abington native whose great uncle directed the camp for more than 40 years. But that was "sort of under everything we did" until a new wave of leaders began playing up the Jewish piece about 10 years ago, Miner said.

Parents wanted kids to realize "that Judaism isn't just something that you do on Tuesday from 4 to 6, or Sundays; it's the way you live," said Minor, 25, who also serves as the camp's Jewish programming supervisor.

As with the other camps visited for this story, Shabbat services have long been a staple at Pinemere, but Miner recently changed the Saturday schedule to include more Jewish content and make it more of a special day. Miner said he's also considering updating their pluralistic prayerbooks to include more text in the Amidah as well as more prayers. It's always easier to skip a section than to insert one, explained Miner, who spends the academic year marketing theater and teaching Hebrew school in Manhattan.

While the camp still attracts many kids who don't attend Hebrew school or synagogue, directors have also made efforts to recruit students from area day schools, like counselor-in-training David Feinberg, who commutes from Upper Dublin to attend Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. The 15-year-old said he wanted to continue being part of a Jewish community over the summer, but opted for a more "laid-back experience" at Pinemere after trying Ramah, where the daily Judaism lessons seemed more like what he got at school. "It's a way to kick back while also getting involved Jewishly."

Beyond adding specific programs, camps have done their best to infuse Judaism into the most conventional aspects of camp life.

Some things are subtle, like calling the Camp JRF ropes course "Derech Eretz," a term used to describe the Jewish principle of choosing the right path, or turning a "Build Your Own Boat" activity utilizing wood and popsicle sticks at Perlman into a "Build Your Own Noah's Ark."

Others require more concentrated brainpower, like the "middot," or Jewish values, sessions that Perlman incorporated into each bunk's weekly schedule this year; or the day where JRF campers were tasked to categorize everything they experienced by dropping stones into a "good" or "bad" bucket.

"I remember thinking, huh, we can't do this in religious school, this is pretty cool,'" said Camp JRF education director Lori Rubin, who also works for Or Hadash, a Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington. "We can't throw somebody in the lake and talk about pikuach nefesh [saving a life] the same way that we could here."

Rubin said she's tried to apply some of the interactive things they've done to her curriculum at Or Hadash, but it's "still nothing like camp."

"It's the in-between moments that make the difference," Rubin said, like the time the kids spend together at night talking in their bunks.

Or, just then, when an older camper heads over to ask why so many programs have been focused on God. "There's more to belief than God," the teen complained.

Rubin and Saposnik relish that kind of questioning. "There are camps where they want the kids to come out knowing x, y and z," Saposnik said. "I want my kids here to feel like they love being Jewish. We're teaching holy community."

It's "just enough Jewish stuff" to remind "you that it's a Jewish camp," said camper Gabe Gluskin-Braun, 13, an eighth-grader at Saligman Middle School.

Hebrew All the Time

Even camps that have traditionally included daily Jewish learning are paying extra attention to their programs — not because they need more, but to make sure they're engaging a population that often gets plenty of Judaism at home. Here, too, the goal is to infuse learning — camouflage it, if you will — in day-to-day activities.

At Ramah, daily education sessions are held outdoors in gazebos and Hebrew signs label every building. The climbing wall sports a map of Israel "so you get to learn geography while you're climbing," quipped camp director Rabbi Todd Zeff.

In the art center, supervisor Carrie Walinsky encourages campers to make challah covers and yads. "Your parents pay money for you to go to camp, bring them home something Jewish," she said. Even a project on the wheel can have a Jewish theme, she continued.

"Ivrit, ivrit, ivrit, d'ber ivrit," a group of boys wearing kippot chanted at dinner, pounding the table they'd just cleared. Three song leaders with guitars and tambourines launched into a concert, all in Hebrew; the campers swarmed in front of them, dancing and singing along.

A few minutes later, the sixth-graders migrated to the corner of the dining hall to braid their own miniature challahs. Another group headed outside to finish a scavenger hunt for the "afikomen" that was part of a holiday-themed program that had been postponed due to rain.

Meanwhile, in another building counselors tried to get chatty high school-age campers to stand on an "opinion scale," indicating how much they agreed or disagreed with various statements. "Girls are too sensitive" and "I feel a strong connection to the Holocaust" got varied responses; only one sentence garnered nearly unanimous disapproval: "We should only speak Hebrew at camp."

There should be Hebrew, piped up Odeya Pinkus, 16, just not all the time.

"If you take it away, you take away the essence of what you have here," said Pinkus, of Chester, N.Y.

Like all the Jewish aspects of camp, she said, "You appreciate it even if you don't know you appreciate it."


Sidebar: Helping Counselors Think More Jewishly

In addition to bringing in specialists and visiting guests to create Jewish programs, several area camps have also made a point of hiring Israeli staff and asking counselors to think about their responsibilities from a Jewish angle.

Four years ago, Camp Harlam added a staff training seminar on how to be a Jewish role model. Aside from the obvious — like actively participating in services or discussions — the training gave them ideas for putting universal values like fair treatment and respect into a Jewish context, said Alex Gelman, who helps run the department of Jewish life. For example, instead of bunk rules, the counselors have campers write out a brit kehilah, or bunk "commandments."

"It's modeling Jewish values," said Pinemere's Gabe Miner.

Staff at Camp Galil in Ottsville, Pa., this summer re-examined the meaning of the Havdalah prayers to make sure that they truly embodied the words they repeated each week, said co-director Molly Wernick.

"It used to be that we separated the things that we did that were Jewish and the things that we did that were not Jewish," Wernick said of the camp, which is affiliated with the Zionist movement, Habonim Dror. "But the truth of the matter is that all the things we do with the kids are all stemmed from our Jewish values. It doesn't happen in isolation because we're here for a reason."

Wernick said counselors have not only become more intentional about incorporating Jewish values, they've ramped up year-round programming in the Philadelphia area over the last three years. Alumni of the Zionist youth movement who moved to the area for college run one or two programs a month, from movie nights at a campers' home to planting community gardens in vacant lots.

In Wernick's opinion, the nature of their youth-led community can create even stronger Jewish identity because everyone is taught to learn and grow from each other. There are no grown-up Jewish education specialists; it's up to each staff group to run two or three activities per day that tie into Judaism, Israel or social justice. By age 14, campers take part in running activities for the whole camp. Many of them, like her, stay for years as a counselor because they feel a responsibility to pass their experience on, she said.

Area camps have also taken advantage of Cornerstone, a three-day counselor training program that the Foundation for Jewish Camp started nine years ago to help develop and retain young leaders. With grant funding from the AVI CHAI Foundation, the third-year bunk counselors meet over the spring to discuss their concept of Jewish education and share best practices. They commit to bring back at least two new or revised Jewish programs, and in return receive a $350 salary bonus.

It was humbling to see how big the Jewish camping community is, but also inspiring, said Brahm Schultz, 21, a counselor at Camp JRF. Aside from program ideas, Schultz said they learned strategies for balancing lesson plans with Jewish education so it doesn't feel forced.

"If it's all Jewish all the time, it's not going to work," he said. "But then you have it in a Jewish environment and it becomes Jewish." — Deborah Hirsch


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