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Focus on Issues: Camps Focus on Jewish Content While Tailoring It to Kids’ Interests

Camp Surprise Lake, a 775-acre wooded haven that attracts mostly "minimally affiliated" Jewish kids from the New York area, is sprucing up its Judaic programming.

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, one of the Conservative movement’s nine Jewish overnight camps, is beefing up its offerings in sports, crafts and music. Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake, run by the youth movement of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, is making designs to distinguish itself through fine arts.

These camps aren’t looking to attract more students — Jewish camps around the country are filling to capacity, with waiting lists hundreds of names long. Camps are going through a boom time now because of a strong economy and a camper-age population bulge.

But the estimated 100 Jewish overnight camps are hoping to remain competitive against private specialty camps, other summer experiences — including trips to Israel — and eventually one another.

"We want to feed into all the different passions" kids have, said Ron Polster, assistant director of Camp Ramah of the Berkshires, which is the summer home to approximately 550 campers between 9 and 16, most of whom attend Jewish day schools.

"We pride ourselves on being a Jewish camp with general activities, but we want to be able to compete."

This year, Polster applied to the Foundation for Jewish Camping for a grant to fund "A.I.R.: Artists and Athletes in Residence," which brings in professional coaches, musicians and artists to work with campers.

"There is no reason why someone should have to choose between being a serious Jew and a tennis player," said Rabbi Ramie Arian, the foundation’s executive director.

In the last decade, the Jewish community has sought out the factors that contribute to what is often termed "Jewish continuity." Overnight Jewish summer camps — along with day schools and Israel trips — rank high on the list of factors that make for strong, life-long Jewish connections.

The foundation’s goal is to build awareness of the positive, long-term effects of Jewish camps on Jewish identity. The goal, ultimately, is to create more camps to attract more Jewish students.

Arian believes that there are about 350 private for-profit summer camps with no Jewish mission that serve "overwhelmingly Jewish clientele."

The roughly 30,000 Jewish youth attending Jewish overnight camps each year represent only 4 percent of all Jewish young people, according to the Jewish camping foundation, which began operating last August and announced its first $200,000 in grants this March.

Arian and Robert and Elisa Spungen Bildner, a New Jersey couple who started the foundation in 1997, hope to triple that number and to help finance the building or acquisition of at least 100 new camps located near cities where Jews live. Three of the foundation’s grants went to planning studies for the creation of new camps.

But half of the grants went toward recruiting specialized staff and bolstering creative and outdoor activities and Hebrew and Jewish programming.

At Camp Sprout Lake, one of Young Judaea’s six overnight camps, a new air- conditioned cheder ochel, or dining room, dominates the small campus in Verbank, N.Y.

But the camp’s focus is its art studio — which was converted out of the old dining hall that stands in a shady spot overlooking a creek.

On a recent afternoon, members of the art "chug," or activity group, were piecing together a major oeuvre: making clay plaques and other decorative designs to designate each of the camp’s 16 bunks with the name of an Israeli city.

With intense concentration, Hannah Grossman, 11, guided a small blade through three blocks of clay to create a design of stone walls and ocean waves.

"Akko," the second-year camper from New Jersey said, indicating the three Hebrew letters for name of the ancient town on Israel’s northern coast.

Grossman and 27 other artist-campers this session are being guided in their creative efforts by Judith Resheff and her husband, Ori, artists from Israel, and two graduates of the Bezalel fine arts academy in Jerusalem.

The artists are fundamental to the camp developing an art program that is "serious, interesting and challenging" said the camp’s interim director, Yardena Spector.

The foundation deemed the effort worthy of a $10,000 grant.

The project is part of "a new tradition," said Spector, an Israeli shlichah, or emissary. Campers used to clamor "to take stuff home," but now the camp is encouraging them to "put things back" into the camp structure.

Last session, the art chug made an outdoor sculpture — a 10-foot yellow "monster," that stands outside the new dining hall — a project they directed from sketching the preliminary design to painting the final polka dots on the beast’s back.

The improvements in the art program have impressed the campers and helped to undergird the Zionist youth movement’s emphasis on peer leadership.

"The kids have more say in what they do," said Sara Penchinar, 19, a two-year veteran counselor. "They make all the decisions. It’s like they run it almost. Last session they were so excited about the monster."

Creating excitement, of course, is the key to successful youth programming.

At Surprise Lake Camp, which is one of 23 camps affiliated with the Jewish Community Centers Association and supported by UJA Federation of New York, the challenge was to stimulate interest in Jewish activity.

Most of its 500 campers are what the director calls "the prototypical continuity target" — children from interfaith families or homes with minimal active Jewish connection.

There is no formal Jewish instruction, said Jordan Dale in an interview at the idyllic site an hour’s drive north of New York City.

"Our philosophy is if they have a good time, they’ll have a positive association" with Judaism.

"We’re looking to turn them on to who they are."

With almost 14 summers under his belt, Dale has infused the camp with Jewish programming with the help of two Jewish resource specialists.

Former campers say there is more Jewish singing in the dining halls, more Hebrew terminology and more ruach, Hebrew for spirit.

There are also weekly limud, or learning sessions, on Saturday afternoons, when campers discuss contemporary issues from a Jewish perspective, and Teva programs, in which campers explore Judaism’s connection to nature.

But "we’ve always had problems in the past — how can one person run an oneg" or Friday evening Sabbath reception "for 250 people?" Dale said.

This year, a grant from the Jewish camping foundation helped him recruit eight additional counselors with Jewish educational and professional experience to work primarily on improving Jewish content.

Sean Zam, a former camper and camp counselor who is entering his sophomore year at Penn State, was considering a professional internship to propel his business career.

Instead, he was convinced to return to Surprise Lake by the salary bonuses Jewish program staff receive — up to $500 over the base salaries that run between $1,200 and $1,900, depending on experience.

Money aside, Zam is committed to turning up the Jewish volume of camp. He leads the more traditional prayer service on Shabbat and tutors kids for their bar and bat mitzvahs — some of which take place at the camp.

But he thinks what the kids will remember most is having fun.

Lately he’s been "fooling kids" by reading them Torah portions as bedtime stories — they think it’s "cool" — and having the campers count off in Hebrew.

He takes some ribbing form his fellow counselors for being "the Jewish kid," but, he said, "I think it’s rubbing off on them."

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