Fun is serious business at Bay Area day camps

It’s official. The downpour we called winter of 2006 is over, and summer’s around the corner. Which begs the question: What will your kindela do with all the free time?

Around the Bay Area, JCCs, synagogues and community organizations are cleaning their pools, waxing the basketball courts and stocking up on beads, thread and other arts and crafts sundries — all in preparation for the day-camp season.

“Our goal is to have as much fun as possible,” says Joshua Kramer of Camp Tzofim, run by the Jewish Community Services of Oakland.

Fun is a pretty serious business for camp directors like Kramer, who work to imbue each camper’s summer with a strong sense of Jewish identity, too.

Many of the day camps also stress an education of Israeli culture by welcoming shaliachs (Israeli emissaries) and teaching Israeli customs.

At the Albert L. Schultz JCC in Palo Alto, J-Camp is hosting an Israel Day this summer, where campers eat Israeli food and learn Israeli songs and dances. It’s like a complete trip to Israel minus the stamping of the passport, and the security threats.

J-Camp is also offering an expanded menu of specialty programs this summer — ranging from “Gizmos Robot Factory” for the technically inclined to “Hogwarts Camp” for the Harry Potter-heads to chef, chess and circus camps.

The JCC of San Francisco also will offer a smattering of specialty camps including programs focusing on building with Legos, creative arts, cooking, various sports and nature adventures.

So many Jewish day camps in the Bay Area, like Temple Beth El’s Camp Kayetz in Aptos, strive to throw in a bit of Jewish education along with the summer fun. At Kayetz, campers focus on a different holiday each year. This year they’ll learn about conservation and environmental issues by celebrating Tu B’Shevat, the festival of trees.

Many of the day camps have a summer theme, too. But camp directors try to keep it easy enough for children to understand: Often it’s no more complicated than the world needs peace, and we should help make it happen.

“Wanting to make the world a better place is not an exclusively Jewish concept,” says Kramer of Tzofim, “but we present it based on Jewish writings and teachings.”

The Berkeley-Richmond JCC will host two four-week day-camp sessions this summer, highlighting tikkun olam as this year’s theme. The first session will “put into practice the idea that giving is more fun than receiving — through activities like planting trees, cooking for loved ones and sharing food from our gardens,” according to the camp Web site. In the second session, campers will get to meet people (including other children) working for peace.

What separates a Jewish day-camp experience from the experience of regular old day camp “is the feeling of family that is created,” says Meryl Selman, camp director of Kayetz, whose Web site totes “Reform Judaism, Santa Cruz-style” as its slogan.

“That feeling of family then extends through all [the children’s] experience at the temple, where they develop strong friendships with children and staff of all ages.”

Indeed, family inclusion is another theme of Jewish day camps. Most camps host at least one day of family-oriented activities, where campers share their camp songs, artwork and newfound knowledge with family members.

The last day of camp “we have an art show, and the kids dance, and they sing,” Selman said. “And they’re so happy because they’ve made all these friends, their art is on the walls — the whole room is just filled with really happy people.”

For a listing of local Jewish camps, go to j.’s Resource: A Guide to Jewish Life in the Bay Area at