Camps spruce up Jewish content, specialty programs

NEW YORK — Camp Surprise Lake, a 775-acre wooded haven that attracts mostly "minimally affiliated" Jewish kids from the New York area, is sprucing up its Judaic programming.

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, one of the Conservative movement's nine Jewish overnight camps, is beefing up its offerings in sports, crafts and music. Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake, run by the youth movement of Hadassah, is making designs to distinguish itself through fine arts.

With a boom in the economy and the number of kids of camper age, these camps aren't looking to attract more students. Jewish camps around the country usually fill to capacity.

But the estimated 100 Jewish overnight camps are hoping to remain competitive against private specialty camps, other summer experiences — including trips to Israel — and eventually, one another.

"We want to feed into all the different passions" kids have, said Ron Polster, assistant director of Camp Ramah of the Berkshires, the summer home to approximately 550 campers between 9 and 16, most of whom attend Jewish day schools.

"We pride ourselves on being a Jewish camp with general activities, but we want to be able to compete."

This year, Polster applied to the Foundation for Jewish Camping for a grant to fund an artists- and athletes-in-residence program, which brings in professional coaches, musicians and artists to work with campers.

"There is no reason why someone should have to choose between being a serious Jew and a tennis player," said Rabbi Ramie Arian, the foundation's executive director.

On the West Coast, Bay Area camps face a different kind of competition.

"We look at progress, technology, the 'outside world' as part of reality kids deal with, along with changing family structures," said Ruben Arquilevich, director of UAHC Camp Swig in Saratoga and Camp Newman in Santa Rosa.

"We look at the basics kids are looking for in terms of love and emotional support, belonging and friends, skill development and knowledge," added the director of the camps, which are run by the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

"We don't fight the other things. What we hope is to create an experience kids can take home to the synagogue and community."

While joking that "hopefully we'll never see laptops in the cabins," Arquilevich said he plans to launch an Internet video program this year in which campers will send Shabbat greeting to their families via the communications superhighway.

Deborah Newbrun, director of Camp Tawonga near Yosemite National Park, agrees the concept of competition changes from Atlantic to Pacific.

"In the East Coast there's a lot of camps in a small amount of area," she said, which may explain why camp directors seek new ways to look better than the competition.

In Northern California, "there's enough Jews to go around to [all] the camps here," Newbrun added.

For Newbrun, the desire to improve camp is more internally motivated.

In the past three years Camp Tawonga has received several grants. One of them, the Dobbs Family Endowed Artists Program, allowed Oakland artist Alan Leon to inspire kids while he taught them to make Shabbat candle holders.

Leon, whose mezuzot appear on the cover of this year's Resource guide, spoke about the "gateway to Shabbat," said Newbrun. "When you create your Shabbat candlesticks out of clay, you're going to be inviting kids to enter into Shabbat."

In the last decade, the Jewish community has been seeking out the factors that contribute to "Jewish continuity," making for strong, lifelong Jewish connections. Overnight Jewish summer camps — along with day schools and Israel trips — rank high on the list.

The Foundation for Jewish Camping's goal is to build awareness of the positive, long-term effects of Jewish camps on Jewish identity. The goal, ultimately, is to create more camps to attract more Jewish students.

Arian believes that there are about 350 private for-profit summer camps with no Jewish mission that serve "overwhelmingly Jewish clientele."

The roughly 30,000 Jewish youth attending Jewish overnight camps each year represent only 4 percent of all Jewish young people, according to the foundation, which began operating in 1998 and announced its first $200,000 in grants last March.

Arian along with Robert and Elisa Spungen Bildner, a New Jersey couple who started the foundation in 1997, hopes to triple that number and to help finance the building or acquisition of at least 100 new camps located near cities where Jews live. Three of the foundation's grants went to planning studies for the creation of new camps.

But half of the grants went toward recruiting specialized staff and bolstering creative and outdoor activities and Hebrew and Jewish programming.

At Camp Sprout Lake, one of Young Judaea's six overnight camps, a new air-conditioned dining room, dominates the small campus in Verbank, N.Y.

But the camp's focus is its art studio — which was converted out of the old dining hall that stands in a shady spot overlooking a creek.

On an afternoon last summer, members of the art chug, or activity group, were piecing together a major project: making clay plaques and other decorative designs to designate each of the camp's 16 bunks with the name of an Israeli city.

With intense concentration, Hannah Grossman, 11, guided a small blade through three blocks of clay to create a design of stone walls and ocean waves.

"Akko," the second-year camper from New Jersey said, indicating the three Hebrew letters for the name of the ancient town on Israel's northern coast.

Grossman and 27 other artist-campers were guided in their creative efforts by Judith Resheff and her husband, Ori, artists from Israel, and two graduates of the Bezalel fine arts academy in Jerusalem.

The artists are fundamental to the camp developing an art program that is "serious, interesting and challenging" said the camp's interim director, Yardena Spector.

The foundation deemed the effort worthy of a $10,000 grant.

The project is part of "a new tradition," said Spector, an Israeli emissary. Campers used to clamor "to take stuff home," but now the camp is encouraging them to "put things back" into the camp structure.

Last session, the art chug made an outdoor sculpture — a 10-foot yellow "monster" that stands outside the new dining hall — a project they directed from sketching the preliminary design to painting the final polka dots on the beast's back.

The improvements in the art program have impressed the campers and helped to undergird the Zionist youth movement's emphasis on peer leadership.

"The kids have more say in what they do," said Sara Penchinar, 19, a two-year veteran counselor. "They make all the decisions. It's like they run it almost."

Closer to home, Arquilevich said he has been bringing artists to Camp Swig for more than a decade.

"A couple of professional Jewish stained glass artists who are commissioned around the country, work with teens creating Jewish thematic stained glass artwork," he said. With the help of Michelle and David Plachte-Zuieback, summer campers have manufactured a new piece of stained glass art each year.

Creating excitement is the key to successful youth programming.

At Surprise Lake Camp, the challenge was to stimulate interest in Jewish activity.

Most of its 500 campers are what the director calls "the prototypical continuity target" — children from interfaith families or homes with minimal active Jewish connection.

There is no formal Jewish instruction, said Jordan Dale in an interview at the idyllic site an hour's drive north of New York City.

"Our philosophy is if they have a good time, they'll have a positive association" with Judaism.

With 14 summers under his belt, Dale has infused the camp with Jewish programming with the help of two Jewish resource specialists.

Former campers say there is more Jewish singing in the dining halls, more Hebrew terminology and more ruach, Hebrew for spirit.

There are also weekly learning sessions, on Saturday afternoons, when campers discuss contemporary issues from a Jewish perspective, and programs in which campers explore Judaism's connection to nature.

Last year, a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camping helped him recruit eight additional counselors with Jewish educational and professional experience to work primarily on improving Jewish content.

One of them was Sean Zam, a former camper and counselor who leads the more traditional prayer service on Shabbat. He also tutors kids for their b'nai mitzvah — some of which take place at the camp.

But the Penn State sophomore thinks what the kids will remember most is having fun.

Lately he's been "fooling kids" by reading them Torah portions as bedtime stories — they think it's "cool" — and having the campers count off in Hebrew.

He takes some ribbing form his fellow counselors for being "the Jewish kid," but, he said, "I think it's rubbing off on them."