Building family in wilderness

Besides the traditional panoply of summer-camp activities such as sports, nature studies and crafts, Jewish camps are keeping up-to-date by filling specific niches — catering to young actors, for instance, and to avid outdoor adventurers, among others.

Stationed just outside Yosemite National Park, Camp Tawonga is one of the largest and oldest Jewish overnight camps for Bay Area children. For 70 years, the camp has provided outdoor challenges in one of the world's most breathtaking settings. Aside from puppet-making seminars, ceramics classes and drama lessons, spokeswoman Amy Kahn said the 1,000 campers at Tawonga each summer enjoy rope-climbing courses, night hikes along the Tuolumne River and treks through Yosemite.

Campers can also choose Tawonga's special extended program, which lets them join 10 peers and two counselors, pack up in a van for a few weeks and explore faraway places such as Utah, Arizona, Oregon or British Columbia. Each day while on the road, youngsters leave the van and rent gear such as mountain bikes or kayaks for touring.

Tawonga stresses community-building and the friendships that arise as campers come to rely and depend on each other in the wilderness, Kahn said.

"Campers and counselors don't really separate during the day. Therefore, they make huge `families' of friends, which is what keeps them coming back.''

Summer programs at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center of Greater San Jose credit their success to five theme-specific day camps.

Director Beki Safar said children can choose from the JCC's kindercamp, sports camp, performing arts camp or tennis camp. This year, the JCC is also offering a "regular'' camp, which in truth is not so regular.

Safar has created a multicultural environment in which both Jewish and non-Jewish campers will spend each session learning about Asia, Africa, Europe, Israel and the Americas. Each of the camp's traditional activities — cooking, dancing, art and sports — will celebrate a specific country or continent. For example, when "living'' in Europe, campers might play a game of cricket. When studying Israel, they might play the ball game known as Ga-ga.

"The kids will research the games and the food particular to the area we're studying and see how both Jews and non-Jews live in those cultures," said Safar, who recently earned a college degree in ethnic studies.

Zionism is a prominent feature at Camp Tzofim of Oakland and Piedmont's Jewish Community Services and Hadassah's Camp Young Judaea in Santa Rosa. Tzofim's Riqi Kosovske said this year's theme is establishing the state of Israel. Campers will "live'' on a kibbutz and "build'' Jerusalem.

Young Judaea's David Boyer said his overnight camp also becomes a mini-Israel every July and August. One year, campers built their own version of Masada on a nearby hill. On another occasion, they turned themselves into a caravan of traveling Bedouins.

One of this camp's most beneficial features, Boyer said, is that the Zionist ideas and Jewish friendships that form in the summer can continue throughout the year in Young Judaea youth groups.

Camp Gan Israel emphasizes a commitment to Judaism and love of the Chabad lifestyle. Rabbi Yisrael Rice of Chabad of Marin noted that while many other camps offer a more eclectic and liberal approach to Jewish culture, only counselors who show they are "serious about the religion'' will be hired to work at Camp Gan Israel.

"Through all the fun and games, Judaism is central here,'' he said. Activities include art, nature, Hebrew and Yiddish singing, and Shabbat challah-baking.

While pursuing special interests and creating new friendships, at these camps youngsters also forge Jewish memories as they attend Friday-night services, Sabbath dinners and oneg Shabbat.