New camp in Atherton blends sports, Judaism

The West Coast’s first overnight Jewish sports camp is opening this summer in Atherton.

The JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, to be held on the campus of Menlo College, is designed to get kids passionate about sports and Judaism.

Josh Steinharter

Camp director Josh Steinharter said the specialty sports camp  — an officially licensed program of the JCC Maccabi Games — is a natural extension of the games’ core mission.

“We’ve taken the idea of the games, which is more of a team-based competition for teenagers, and moved it into a camp environment that’s more about developing individual skills,” Steinharter said. The goal is to “extend the reach of the games to a larger audience of Jewish athletes, and deepen their connection to the community and their Jewish identity through sports and an overnight camp experience.”

Each of the three two-week sessions will feature baseball, basketball, soccer or tennis. Open to youth in grades four to nine, the camp can accommodate up to 50 boys and girls per session. The first session starts June 17.

Campers and counselors will stay in student dormitories. The college’s food supplier will prepare meals, with vegetarian and vegan options served at every sitting and kosher food available upon request.

Outlining a typical camp day, Steinharter said campers will start by joining a camp huddle for a mental or physical exercise. Each camper will spend the rest of the morning doing drills and exercises in his or her core sport. After lunch, kids will have a choice of playing in any three electives they choose: options include swimming, volleyball, Ultimate Frisbee, badminton, bocce ball, or even a fantasy football roundtable. Later in the afternoon campers will return to the field or court to play scrimmage games in their core sport. The day wraps up with free time, dinner and an evening program.

The camp aims at instilling Jewish values through sports and communal Jewish experiences, Steinharter explained. Shabbat plays a large role, with special activities in the evening and on Saturday, culminating with a campwide Havdallah service. The camp is guided by four core Jewish values: Tikkun Middot, building character; K’lal Yisrael, welcoming Jewish people and friends; Shmirat Haguf, guarding the body; and Shabbat, time of rest.

“Showing kids those parallels between the secular world and the Jewish world, showing how they overlap and how they’re very similar, is really powerful,” Steinharter said. “It shows kids how amazing it is to be Jewish, and that things they may already be doing in their lives are Jewish things they’re not even aware of.”

Soccer is one of the core sports to be offered at the new camp. photo/wikimedia commons

Steinharter, 39, brainstormed the idea for a Jewish overnight sports camp while in Israel on a Merrin Teen Professional fellowship. His inspiration for merging a Jewish camp with a specialty sports camp was rooted in his experience attending overnight camps, as well as his seven years as the athletic program manager for youth and coach development at the JCC of the San Francisco. He also served five years as head of the San Francisco’s JCC’s delegration to the Maccabi Games.

“Growing up, I went to Jewish camp and I went to sports camp, and they were always separate, different experiences,” said Steinharter, who lives in San Francisco. “Being at camp as a grownup [counselor] kind of took hold and I think that’s where the idea of then bringing those two worlds came together.”

Jodi Sperling, vice president of camping for the JCC Association of North America, said the concept of an overnight Jewish sports camp makes sense given the popularity of the Maccabi Games. “It seemed like a really great market to connect with the opportunities in overnight camps, especially in a setting where they wouldn’t have to pick sports or camp but could actually get both.”

The new camp is one of four opening across the country this summer as part of a specialty camp incubator program under the Foundation for Jewish Camps (FJC). The FJC launched its first incubator camps in 2010 and was able to fund a second incubator program for 2014 through a grant of $8.6 million raised by the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation.

Sandra Edwards, associate director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, said the organization funded the incubator program as part of its mission to increase the number of Jewish youth and young adults engaged in compelling Jewish learning experiences.

“Camp is probably one of the top-three most effective ways of achieving that priority for us,” Edwards said. “We know that Jewish camp offers a dynamic and immersive learning environment. And the specialty camps came about because in the Jewish camping world they wanted to attract more teens, from diverse Jewish backgrounds, who were not already attending Jewish camp.”

The combination camp idea has been achieving strong results: 38 percent of the campers who attended camps in the first incubator had never been to a Jewish camp before, according to Edwards. She also noted that 75 percent of returning campers’ parents said the experience had a positive impact on their child’s identity as a Jew, which is a crucial goal for the incubators.

“The importance to us of having a direction, for having a camp incorporate Jewish education into sort of a cool, fun, Jewish experience is critical,” Edwards said. “That’s what we learned from the first incubator, so that’s why we’re funding a second cohort.”

Steinharter hopes that, above all, the inclusive nature of his camp will be the key to its success.

“This camp is really for any kid who’s passionate about sports and wants to improve their skills and wants to do it in a Jewish environment,” he said. “It’s for any kid who plays one of these sports and really enjoys it and who says, ‘You know what? I want to devote part of my summer to getting better at it.’ ”

For more information on the JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, call (415) 997-8844 or visit