TGIF takes on new meaning for kids on Shabbat at Jewish camps

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Pine branches sizzling on a fire under the stars. The sail of a Sunfish cutting like a knife's edge through the wind. Belly flops off a high dive. The aroma of flapjacks and cocoa at sunrise. Candles flickering at sunset.

Camp memories to take home — especially the last one.

According to a report by Gary Tobin and Meryle Weinstein, the Jewish activity believed to have "the greatest impact on campers is the Shabbat experience."

"Shabbat at camp, in almost every instance, is the ultimate Jewish activity," they write in "Jewish Camping," published last year by San Francisco's Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

"It represents for many the most spiritual Jewish adventure during the camp week."

The authors reached that conclusion after conducting 105 interviews with professionals and lay leaders involved in Jewish camping. They also held discussion groups with 42 staff members of Jewish camps attending the North American Alliance for Jewish Youth annual convention in 1998 in New York, and with 35 board members of the UJA-Federation of New York camps, among others.

While their focus was primarily on Eastern communities — Denver was the only Western area in a study that included Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Delaware and Philadelphia — their findings were echoed by camp leaders on the West Coast.

"For so many children it's the only real authentic Shabbat they experience during their year, said Brian Greene, executive director of Camp Ramah in California.

Kids from all over the West Coast visit the Conservative movement's camp in Ojai, including more than 100 from Northern California, he added. For four weeks during the summer they have a chance to block out the distractions of their everyday life and focus on the Sabbath.

"Beginning Friday afternoon, the camp is cleaned, and campers prepare themselves to put on their best," he said. "Our campers prepare 'Shabbat-o-grams,'" wishing each other a good Shabbat. As the afternoon proceeds, they gather by their age group and form a procession to the chapel.

He believes by Friday the children need a rest.

"Camp week is a very structured, full week," said Greene. "Their days are filled with sports and swimming and Jewish learning and drama and arts and bunk activities and on and on. The days are jam-packed with fun, exciting, challenging activities."

By week's end, "the kids are removed from their regular routine," he said. "It's a time to be with friends. It's a time for relaxation, for reflection on the week and all the things we don't take enough time to do."

It's also a chance for the entire camp to get together as a group.

"You feel the entire community prepare to celebrate Shabbat; you feel the energy of it," said Greene. "Our children are inspired by that and look for ways to take it home."

That's how the camp experience spills over to family life.

"We hear from parents who say, 'My child wants to say b'racha after meals,' or ' We now have a Shabbat dinner each week,' or 'My child really misses Havdallah," said Greene."I think parents choose Ramah or any Jewish camp because they want their children not just to learn about Judaism, but to be excited by Judaism, to come back with positive, exciting feelings about Judaism."

Also getting "numerous phone calls and letters" from parents who are "amazed and astonished" is Sam Roberts, assistant director and regional director of the Reform movement's UAHC Camps Newman and Swig in Santa Rosa and Saratoga.

They tell him their children may not be interested in Sunday school and Hebrew school, but once they go to camp they can't wait to have a bar or bat mitzvah, continue on to confirmation, go off to Israel and return to camp the following year.

"Our goal," said Roberts, "is to be able to provide an amazing experience and take it home."

While Ken Kramarz, Camp Tawonga's executive director, doesn't discount the value of the Shabbat experience for campers, "it is the day-to-day living of Jewish values that may have actually bigger impact on kids," he said.

What he hears most often from parents is how much better siblings treat each other after they return from summer camp, which is situated near Yosemite National Park.

The camp isn't imparting an explicit "Jewish message to be nice to brothers and sisters," said Kramarz. "The entire experience is learning how to get along. Kids can't say I learned the Jewish value of community, but they demonstrate it by going home and treating their siblings well."

Tobin and Weinstein identified 186 North American overnight camps attended by Jewish youth in what they call phase one of their research.

They concluded that few new camps have been established in the past 20 years, that attracting qualified Jewish staff is "a key challenge" and that costs appear to hamper many families whose children want to attend.

"The next phase of the project should be feasibility research to gather information on the needs of Jewish families, and the facility, personnel, programmatic and funding needs of camps," they write.

The final phase, they add, should be the development of a business plan that includes a blueprint of how to meet the identified needs.