Hike, swim, fix the world: Kids mix it up at Gilboa camp

Summer camp for Eliza Smith includes more than the typical swimming and s’mores around a campfire. It also includes discussion of Middle East peace and cleanup duty in the bathrooms.

That’s how they roll at Camp Gilboa, a Jewish summer camp in Southern California to which the 15-year old Berkeley High School junior has returned every year since she was 8.

Located in the San Bernardino Mountains, Gilboa encompasses 40 forested acres where campers age 8 to 17 — many from the Bay Area — can hike, make artsy crafts and engage in other typical summer camp activities.

Campers commune with nature and each other at Habonim Dror’s Camp Gilboa. photo/courtesy camp gilboa

But there’s a big distinction: Gilboa is one of seven North American camps run by Habonim Dror (Builders of Freedom), a global Labor Zionist movement founded in 1935. The movement’s mission is to build connections to Israel and develop leaders in the realms of social justice and coexistence.

At Gilboa, the emphasis is on Israel, Hebrew, understanding current events and, most importantly, making campers personally responsible for the success of their Gilboa experience.

As on an Israeli kibbutz, everybody works.

“Certain kids do cleanup, wash dishes or set tables,” Smith says. “There’s also a period in the morning where you sign up for work you want to do, so that you have responsibility.” As a young camper, “I started out picking up trash,” she says, but now “mostly I clean bathrooms.”

These tasks, called “avodah” (Hebrew for “work”) are part of the responsibility training that infuses life at Gilboa every summer.

“It’s each person’s responsibility and the responsibility of we as a community to effect change,” says Israeli-born camp director Dalit Shlapobersky of the Gilboa philosophy. “The education [campers] receive at Gilboa recognizes that the world is not a perfect place. There’s a lot of work to be done. We teach the kids that it’s their responsibility to effect change on any issue, whether talking about racism, gender inequality or Israel.”

Noah Hansen, who moved up the ranks from camper to head of camp during his years at Gilboa, leads an activity.

It’s not just about cleaning up or solving problems. In the spirit of team building, campers of any age serve as models and mentors for those younger. The older campers are given much authority. For example, 16- and 17-year-olds plan most camp activities.

They also write and perform comedy skits, organize talent shows and lead discussions about current events, especially related to social justice issues and the Middle East. They start from scratch for each three-week session.

Shabbat becomes a communal experience. Campers clean the dining hall, set tables, bake challah, sing Kabbalat Shabbat songs or prepare a skit about the Torah portion of the week, always from a more secular perspective.

Sometimes adult staffers just sit back and watch the kids run the show.

“When kids come here, they’re not consuming a preconceived experience,” Shlapobersky says. “They come to be creators of an experience themselves. From a very young age they accept actual responsibility for programming.”

Gilboa alumni say the camp experience impacted them dramatically. Many — like Noah Hansen, 26, of Richmond — go on to do a Habonim Dror-sponsored gap year in Israel. Hansen is now completing his doctorate in English literature at the University of Chicago.

A graduate of Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, Hansen says Gilboa’s “youth-driven approach,” as he calls it, inspired “a completely different energy, a spirit of adventure and experimentation. It was a very liberating atmosphere because of this alternate universe the counselors create. It’s a dream world.”

Campers take a walk through the woods. photos/courtesy camp gilboa

Hansen first attended camp as an incoming ninth-grader in 2004. He eventually became a counselor, education director and rosh (or head of camp), the latter two posts filled by older campers. “When you tell someone ‘now you’re responsible for something,’ ” he says, “it makes [him or her] feel cool and strong and independent.”

In addition to the emphasis on camper responsibility, in-depth discussion is also part of the daily agenda at Gilboa. It often centers on critical issues of the day, from the environment to LGBT rights. Because of the camp’s ties to Israel, the Jewish state is often the main topic.

“What the camp tries to do is go back to a spirit where [Zionism and progressivism] are not contradictory,” Hansen notes. “Zionism was originally a critique of Jewish history, so that aspect is emphasized. There was always a deep connection to Israel, based on wanting to shape Israel in a positive way and uphold its values, not just [make of it] an empty vessel we defend uncritically.”

Hansen has fond memories of creating the agenda one session, an experience he calls formative. He and his fellow camp leaders decided to give their session a theme: the “gehr” (Hebrew for “stranger”) and how the stranger is treated in the community.

They created a skit called “Gary the Gehr,” an alien going from planet to planet seeking sanctuary. “Obviously,” Hansen says, “he was an allegory for the Jewish people.”

Parents of Gilboa campers say they appreciate the camp’s liberal philosophy. Berkeley resident Nina Schulman and her husband have two children who are dedicated campers. Daughter Lydia, 20, is currently in Israel with a Habonim Dror Birthright trip, while son Saul, 14, is a confirmed Gilboa regular.

Schulman says she appreciates the camp’s “strong sense of community. It’s very loving, very casual, very secular but very Jewish-identified. They spend so much time talking to kids about progressive values, tolerance and empathy.”

Having fun remains a priority.

And there’s another benefit she sees in the camp experience.

“It’s the only time my kids have their face out of the [digital] screen,” Schulman adds. “The kids make eye contact. They’re kind to each other. There’s not an electronic device in sight.”

In 1982, Gilboa closed down due to years of declining enrollment. But in 1995, alumni raised money and reopened the camp, purchasing the current site near Big Bear in 2011. In recent years, enrollment has increased, with around 200 campers each summer.

Shlapobersky, the mother of a former Gilboa camper, loved the camp’s ethos, and became a volunteer and fundraiser before becoming director six years ago.

Though the camp has secular socialist roots, Zionism and Judaism remain front and center. Shlapobersky says whatever social or political topic campers discuss, Judaism is always part of the conversation.

“So if we have a special day on environmentalism, the question will be, how does Judaism make us responsible for the environment?” she explains. “For the older kids, [Jewish] text will be involved, too.”

Though Gilboa is not a Hebrew immersion camp, Hebrew pops up everywhere. Every activity at camp has a Hebrew name, and a Hebrew word-of-the-day — often hip Israeli slang — is part of the daily agenda.

Gilboa and Habonim Dror also run year-round programming, holding regional reunions (called kenim) up and down the state, including in the Bay Area. Annual conventions for older campers help share best practices, and a yearlong Israel experience is popular among Gilboa alumni.

One thing Gilboa definitely shares with other camps is the quality and endurance of the friendships made there. Hansen says he is still very close with friends from camp. Eliza Smith says her camp friends are her best friends.

“It’s an environment that’s more positive for building friendships,” Smith says. “I’m a lot more comfortable and closer with them. It’s harder because some live in L.A., but we keep in touch all the time.”

For Jewish parents worried the allure of modern society might cause their children to drift from their Jewish roots, camps such as Gilboa serve as a welcome anchor.

“I’m very grateful we were able to find a Jewish summer camp that was such a positive experience for our kids,” says Schulman. “It ended up leaving them with a strong sense of Jewish identity in a way that was both joyful and progressive.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.