Choices, choices

With 20 accredited Jewish day camps in the Bay Area, according to the American Camping Association, how is a parent to make a decision?

All the camps offer a traditional menu of sports, arts and crafts and music within a Jewish context. In addition, field trips and overnights round out the menu.

In many cases, what distinguishes one from another is a specialty program — be it music, drama or leadership development — though all the camps strive to develop campers and counselors into better citizens.

And what distinguishes the Jewish day camps from the other 52 accredited day camps in the area is the commitment to exploring Jewish values, traditions and culture.

About 1,600 campers ages 2-17 attend Camp Shelanu, under the auspices of the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center, according to Debi Mishael, the camp’s director. This summer the camp will serve as one of seven pilot sites for a curriculum created by the Center for Jewish Education, which will provide staff training.

“The first piece of the curriculum is an extended unit on chachnasat orchim, welcoming the strangers,” Mishael said. “The second piece is ‘Candles through the Ages.’ They will make ceramic oil lamps and look at how Shabbat candles have been lit throughout the ages and in other countries.”

The Ramah Day Camp of the Bay Area, with sites in the East Bay and Marin, is the newest camp at 5 years old. Ninety kids attended local Ramah camps last summer.

“We weave Jewish learning into absolutely everything we do,” said Becca Stern, the camp’s director for the past three years. Prayers are recited each morning and before and after all meals. “We want kids to be excited about being Jewish. The Ramah camp fills a niche for a real Jewish camp.”

There are three main specialty programs for the nearly 300 children who will attend the Albert L. Schultz JCC camp in Palo Alto. The first is Galit, the guidance and leadership in training unit, open to students entering grades nine and 10.

“It is not just a CIT program,” said Michele Lis, the camp director, “but a leadership development program. We want to create future leaders for the Jewish community.”

The second is HaBima, a summer theater program through the National Jewish Theatre Festival. “The participants, in grades three to 10, will learn more about Judaism, Jewish values and ethics,” said Lis, culminating in two full-scale musicals, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Hero Rock,” about Jewish heroes with the lyrics to classic rock songs.

The third component is a mitzvah program primarily for third- and fourth-graders, about what it means to help people. For example, the campers will practice skits to perform at senior centers in the community.

For Camp Gan Israel, sponsored by Chabad of the South Bay, the primary specialty is to bring Judaism alive, according to Rabbi Yisroel Hecht, the camp’s director. He brings in yeshiva students from around the world to be mentors and counselors. “The campers experience the warmth and joy of Yiddishkeit,” he said.

Beyond the traditional camp activities, campers in grades seven and eight will participate in the Pioneer program, a series of extended trips to Los Angeles, Disneyland and Magic Mountain, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe.

“In 1997 we had 90 kids,” said Hecht, who volunteered that summer to be a counselor. “The camp has grown now to 240 kids.”

Kids at the Osher Marin JCC camps will have the chance to jam in a rock band, explore Angel Island, build Lego structures, sample such electives as Mad Science, Space Explorers or World Travelers, and frolic at Great America and Water World.

“Campers are not confined to one space,” said Maureen Dixon of the OMJCC, about the 600 kids each summer. “We weave themes on a variety of subjects from secular ones to Judaic. And we allow the kids to explore one topic of interest” more in depth.

The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s Camp Kochav, for grades kindergarten through nine, is held in the pristine beauty of the Presidio. One of the highlights, said director Alex Brucker, is the drama camp.

“This troupe, led by Deborah Ben-Eliezer, a professional actor, director and puppeteer, will learn movement, theater production, dance composition, improvisational games, character creation and vocal training,” he said.

Summer camp can have a lasting impact. Camp Shelanu’s Mishael shared that she was in a kindergarten recently when the teacher said the classroom is a warm and welcoming place where people respect each other.

“One of the students, an adorable little girl, said, ‘That’s just like Camp Shelanu.'”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.