At-risk Jewish teens thrive at Marin camp &mdash and beyond

Sandy-colored waves peak out beneath the hood of his gray New York Jets sweatshirt, which is pulled tight against the chill of the West Marin morning. The boy looks young — very young — and at odds with the unlit cigarette he’s holding tightly in his hand.

“I know people want to smoke cigarettes, but we need to finish this,” says Yosi Golberstein, gathering the attention of 23 teenage boys, sitting around on picnic table benches at Samuel P. Taylor Park, where they have lived for the past week.

Welcome to Camp Extreme. Golberstein, the camp director, has an audience comprised of 14- to 18-year-olds who are in trouble. Drugs, alcohol, violence, truancy and crime are part of their young lives. So at Camp Extreme, though there is zero tolerance for drugs or alcohol, cigarette smoking is quite acceptable.

Part therapy, part outdoor adventure, part Jewish studies program, Camp Extreme is a four-week summer camp for at-risk teens which A.Y. Weinberg, founder and director, says is the only one of its kind for Jewish youth in the United States. Though the camp is always held in Marin, participants in this year’s boys’ group (which is held separately from the girls’) come from all over: Brooklyn, Toronto, Baltimore, Miami, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, even Jerusalem.

“These are bright, sensitive kids who earlier in life would have given you the shirt off their backs. Then they were hurt badly,” explains Weinberg. “They never developed coping skills, so instead, they put up walls for defense and turned to behavior that they thought would make them feel better. It didn’t.”

Drugs, drinking and associated self-destructive behavior are problems that are escalating in Jewish communities throughout the country — and Weinberg believes the Jewish community is choosing to ignore the problem.

An ordained rabbi who worked with teens for more than two decades with the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, Weinberg says, only partly tongue-in-cheek, it was the hand of God that directed him to the project for at-risk teens. In 2000, NCSY asked him to lead a new initiative for troubled youth called Project Extreme. After the first summer, NCSY opted not to fund it again, but Weinberg was hooked. He became the director and chief fundraiser for the new, independent, tax-exempt organization in March 2001.

Warm, laid back, but clearly in charge, Weinberg leads a staff of 22 trained counselors — making a 1-to-1 ratio of counselors to campers. Attention and caring are key, along with a fairly rigid structure and strict rules designed to teach life skills and coping mechanisms.

“It’s comforting to be in a group where the counselors care,” says Avrami, a 16-year-old from Chicago who still has braces on his teeth. He’s been kicked out of camps the last three years, but he thinks this one is right for him. Avrami has just finished a 20-minute study session with his “learning partner,” Shmuel Newman, 23, a counselor who grew up in Staten Island, N.Y., but now lives in Israel.

Sitting on a log, the two are dissecting the meaning of “anointing with oil” from a passage in the Mishnah, when Ben, 17, from Detroit, stops by and the discussion changes from esoteric to practical. “I’m thinking of going to Israel,” Ben says. “I’ve got to get out of Detroit and go to a safe environment.”

Camp Extreme is just a small part of the Project Extreme program. The next step is placement in a school (often living with an unrelated family) where the new behavior patterns learned in this intense four weeks can be enforced and reinforced. Only about 30 percent of the campers return to their homes.

“Why don’t you come to Memphis with me?” Avrami suggests, referring to the Memphis Jewish day school where he will study English and journalism. No way, Ben responds. He’d have to give up smoking, and he’s not willing to do that.

Wherever Ben ends up, his counselor will stay in touch with him, by phone, email and, if feasible, in person. “Once we get a kid in a summer program, that kid is stuck to us,” states Weinberg.

Besides camp, subsequent placement and the long-term counselor connection, Project Extreme, holds several weekend retreats and a monthly Shabbaton throughout the year. There is also a session for at-risk girls, held the month before the boys’ camp. Screening of prospective campers is thorough, and includes interviews and the teen’s “buy-in” to the rules. “We want kids who will benefit, not fail. They don’t need another failure in their life,” Weinberg says.

Back at the campground, there’s a rowdy volleyball game in progress — campers against counselors. The losers have to do 100 push-ups, collectively. As the shouts ring out each time a point is scored, Weinberg looks on. “This is very precious,” he says with the pride of a dad watching his child succeed. “They’re working together, as a team. They’re participating.”

The group is halfway through week three and friendships and camaraderie have developed, but it took almost two weeks to break through, he explains. When the boys arrived, they were closed down, fearful and suspect. A variety of activities — from ropes courses based on Outward Bound models, to water-tubing, scavenger hunts, a visit to Alcatraz and good food prepared by the group’s cook — help to break down barriers and develop trust and confidence.

Morning prayers are also part of the routine, and like all activities offered, the boys can choose whether they wish to participate. The rule, says Weinberg, is that “you don’t have to participate, but you must show up.”

His biggest challenge, Weinberg says, is money. The four-week camp costs $8,000 per person, and about half is subsidized for many of the campers from charitable donations. Project Extreme also subsidizes the post-camp school tuitions for those who need it. So during the year, Weinberg finds himself constantly on the road, meeting with potential donors.

The next step is a full-time residential school for girls. Plans are underway: A site has been selected in Bricelyn, Minn., south of Minneapolis, and a capital campaign with a target of $750,000 has been launched.

“Our camping and Shabbaton programs have an 80 percent success rate,” says Weinberg. “Year-round residential schools for both the boys and girls will enable us to reach more teens with addiction and behavioral issues. And if we have the resources, we can do it.”

For information about Camp Extreme, contact A.Y. Weinberg at (516) 897-4448 or [email protected].