Camp JRF’s Eco-Friendly Path to New Youth Village


The Reconstructionist camp's "Eco-Village," where the oldest set of campers now get to live, skirts the line between cutting edge and rudimentary. 

Yurts and motion sensor-activated lights?

The brand-new, environmentally friendly “Eco-Village,” where the oldest set of campers at Camp JRF now get to live, skirts the line between cutting edge and rudimentary.

“It’s a lot more freedom, it’s open,” said 14-year-old Lea Asplen from the Bucks County community of Morrisville. “It’s completely different than anything I’ve ever experienced before.”

Spanning four years and $2.4 million in construction costs, this hitherto unused hilly portion of the 120-acre South Sterling, Pa., campground was converted into a separate living area with six yurt-style cabins and a state-of-the-art bathroom complex that incorporates motion sensor-activated lights and sink faucets, dual flush toilets and on-demand water heating.

The new village can accommodate up to 72 campers entering ninth and 10th grade each session.

Although the campers have been living in the village since the start of the summer, it was officially dedicated on Aug. 3 during an event that doubled as a “Bat Mitzvah” celebration for the Reconstructionist  camp, which is now in its 13th summer.

A hundred and fifty alumni, parents and Jewish community leaders attended the ceremony, a turnout that director Rabbi Isaac Saposnik hoped would show the campers that JRF is “part of something bigger.”

“It was incredible to see alumni and staff and campers’ families stop halfway up the hill with amazed looks on their faces,” he said.

The camp’s board began planning the project after deciding that additional living spaces would be needed to accommodate growing enrollment. About 410 campers ages 7 to 17 are spending their summer at JRF this year, up from 345 last year. Some 15 percent of the campers are from the Philadelphia area, Saposnik said.

Further discussion induced the board to add an environmental element to the new digs.

“The more we talked, the more it felt right to build according to our values,” said Saposnik. “Building sustainably and creating community in a variety of ways all fits within our Jewish values of kehillah, community and being kind to the earth.”

With their new home base, the older campers have taken on extra responsibilities such as hosting Saturday night campfire sessions for the entire camp and monitoring the village’s cleanliness.

Being fairly remote from the rest of the campground also has amplified bonding among those who live there, Asplen said.

“The sense of community is what makes the Eco-Village special,” she explained. “It brings people closer together.”

Sometimes, she added, they even literally bump into one another on the way to the bathroom at night. While the other campers have bathrooms attached to their cabins, the older group must walk about 50 feet from their yurts, even when it’s cold and raining.

“It’s a little adventure when you go out at night,” Asplen said.

The yurts in particular — circular wooden structures with thin canvas coverings and natural light soaking in from skylights at the tips of the roofs — have created a Walden Pond-esque environment, according to 16-year-old Jonah Kadens from Chapel Hill, N.C.

He likened the spartan cabins — which take their name from the collapsible living structures used by nomads in Central Asia — to living in a tent, but “without the mosquitoes and heat and nastiness.”

Stacked bunk beds occupy the circular perimeter of the yurts in a Tetris-like fashion, leaving plenty of open space in the middle and a clear view of every camper.

Rows of low fieldstone walls lining the boundaries around the village add to the country atmosphere.

Saposnik noted that the village’s outdoorsy vibe is an integral role of the design that’s intended to teach the kids about the environment.

“Even as you’re inside a building, you still feel connected to the world around you,” he said.

To achieve the goal of developing an environmentally friendly section, the camp hired Metcalfe Architecture & Design, the firm that created the Morris Arboretum’s “Out on a Limb” exhibit. The architects incorporated suggestions from campers who told Saposnik that they wanted lots of hangout space and hoped the new spot would “be cool and eco and different.”

The girls also requested a special area in the bathroom where they could shave their legs together — which the camp “took seriously,” said Saposnik, who lives in Mount Airy during the school year.

The resulting girls’ bathroom includes a set of wooden benches ar­ranged in a square around a fountain where the campers can chat while they shave.


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