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Using Dance and Nature, Fellows Bring Judaism into Summer Camp

It’s a cool late spring evening in the rural Georgia mountains and a dozen somewhat scruffy young actors are standing in a circle on an outdoor stage, silently showing each other movements and gestures they’ve developed to express certain words and concepts.

A barefoot woman stretches out her arms and thrusts herself forward to show “loving.” Another woman delicately twists her body and, an awe-struck smile on her face, looks up to show “glory.” A man acts out the word “redeeming.” Their faces are intent with concentration.

The words they are “performing” all come from the blessing for the Amidah, a prayer chanted on Shabbat. Silently and gracefully, as jazz music plays softly in the background, they proceed to a moonlit amphitheater made of Jerusalem stone, each gesturing and creating something that is part dance, part theater, part prayer.

Half a mile away, 12 aspiring environmental educators are on a nature hike, looking up at the sliver of moon that marks Rosh Chodesh, the new Jewish month, and discussing how the Jewish calendar is both solar and lunar.

Both groups are part of the training session for a competitive fellowship program that helps Jewish summer camps recruit specialists who integrate Judaism into all aspects of the camping experience. The fellows are being dispatched to 27 camps this summer.

Funded by Stephen Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the year-old program pays each fellow a $4,500 stipend — far more than the typical camp counselor earns in a summer.

The fellowship program is one piece of the Foundation for Jewish Camping’s effort to increase attendance at Jewish summer camps.

Because camps provide a hands-on Jewish experience and are generally more fun than, say, Hebrew or day schools, they are considered an important tool for shaping Jewish identity.

Currently 50,000 North American Jewish youth attend overnight camps, and most camps have long waiting lists. However, more than 90 percent of Jewish kids don’t go to Jewish summer camps, whether because the camps are too expensive or simply not on their families’ radar screens.

Created in 1998 by New Jersey camping enthusiast Robert Bildner and his wife, Elisa Spungen Bildner, the foundation aims to help camps recruit staff, build new camps and upgrade existing ones, to ensure that camp is financially accessible to all Jews and to develop specialty Jewish camps, such as those that combine Jewish activities with high-level arts and sports training.

The fellows are not involved with the specialty camps, but they do bring expertise in theater and the environment and are trained to use their expertise to teach about Judaism.

For example, the theater fellows might help campers create their own works — based on discussions of Jewish values and texts — rather than putting on existing secular or Jewish-themed plays.

At the recent training session, environmental education fellows learned how to make fire without matches and that the Hebrew words for man and woman both share the same root as the word for fire.

Gershon Sandler, an environmental education fellow this year and last, said he led camp activities based on the concepts of awareness, ecology and use of resources in a responsible way.

Sandler, who will teach this summer at Gan Israel, a Lubavitch camp in New York, said that when talking about appreciation and respect for nature he also teaches about Jewish blessings, the Jewish life cycle and the Jewish concept of ba’al tashlich — the idea that “God created the world and gave it to us as a gift, so we have a responsibility to take care of it.”

With new advocacy groups and a proliferation of Jewish wilderness retreats, Jewish environmentalism in general is a growing field. Many involved in the fellowship program hope it will groom a new generation of activists who are interested in the ties between Judaism and nature.

“To be here today and see there’s this generation taking over, for me my heart soars,” faculty member Gabe Goldman said as he helped a fellow carve a bow drill, a device for creating fire.

Like many of the environmental fellows, Goldman, director of the New Jersey YMHA-YMWA Camps’ Jewish Nature Center, is what some might describe as “crunchy,” wearing his long, blond hair in a ponytail and often going barefoot.

Goldman seems unable to stop teaching about nature and Judaism. As he talks to a reporter, he points to a leafy plant nearby and explains how it can be used to heal bee stings and cold sores.

When a fellow asks why he can’t just skip the bow drill on overnight trips and instead make fire using a battery and steel wool, Goldman says, “Because I don’t have a lesson to teach that way. This gives you the ability to teach Mishna. It’s a means to an end — the real end is teaching a lesson.”

At the recent training at Camp Ramah Darom, a Conservative camp in Georgia, the fellows seemed enthusiastic about the program.

“There has not been one second of this program that I haven’t been learning something new,” said Amy Kopkin, 27, who will be an environmental fellow at Camp Chi, a Jewish community center camp in Wisconsin.

Kopkin, who is getting a masters degree in environmental education at Colorado State University and describes Jewish environmental education as “my path,” said she had initially been planning to lead a teen tour to Costa Rica or work with a student conservation group this summer.

But then her old boss from Camp Chi called and Kopkin was impressed by the fact that “the title ‘fellowship’ does look good on a resume.”

Benjamin Pither, 20, a theater fellow who will teach at the Reform movement’s Camp Swig in California, said he had been planning to perform this summer, “but this was an opportunity to combine my love of theater and love of Judaism into one.”

Pither had taught drama at summer camps before, but sometimes felt like he was just trying to stick Jewish themes onto standard theater exercises, rather than creating something uniquely Jewish.

“This is more of a creative process,” he said. “It’s hard to live a Jewish life in today’s society, but when I’m at camp it’s like living in Judaism.”

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