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Op-Ed: Fulfilling summer dreams

NEW YORK (JTA) — Sammy doesn’t know I’m writing about him. In fact, Sammy probably has never heard the story that follows, though it is his story (at least at the beginning).

One May about a decade ago, while I was serving as executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, I had a phone call at the office from the sister of a close friend. Ellie and her family were (and are) very active members of a Reform Jewish congregation in Westchester County, just north of New York City."

“Sammy’s nine,” she told me. “Next year he’ll be ready for sleep-away camp. Where should we send him?”

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“I want to find a camp that will help build Sammy’s Jewish identity,” Ellie said, “but his dad thinks the main emphasis should be on sharpening his sports skills. He’s a super athlete, and Larry thinks camp should be about giving him great instruction and competitive experience. Is there someplace that will do both?”

I told Ellie that while there were no Jewish camps that had sports instruction as their principal focus, there were two camps within striking distance of their home where sports were appreciated and taken more seriously than at most others. I told her about Camp Harlam, the URJ (Reform movement) camp in Pennsylvania, whose longtime director (since retired) was Israel’s first Olympic athlete, so camp had a deeply ingrained appreciation of the importance of sport. And I told her about Crane Lake Camp, formerly a private sports camp, which had only recently been taken over by the URJ, and which had retained all of its sports facilities and much of its top staff, and which therefore had more of a sporting focus than many other Jewish camps.

Ellie thanked me, and said that they would visit both camps. Two months later she called me again.

“We went to see the camps you recommended. We can’t send Sammy to those camps,” she said, obviously disappointed.

“Why not?”

“Because they play softball.”

Period. Full stop.

It took a long moment for me to understand what Ellie was saying. At these camps, softball was played, not hardball. How serious can these camps be about competitive sports if they don’t even play real baseball?

At the time there was not a single not-for-profit Jewish camp in the United States where they played baseball, not softball. For a long time I was haunted by the question implicitly posed by Sammy’s story: Why should parents like Ellie and Larry need to choose between Jewish identity and sports as they select a summer experience for their child. Shouldn’t there be at least one place in all of the United States that takes sports and Jewishness seriously? I was convinced there should be, and I began to talk about it at every opportunity. But creating such a camp was a challenge that was beyond the vision of the Jewish community of a decade ago.

That challenge at long last will be fulfilled this month with the opening of 6 Points Sports Academy.

Sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism, 6 Points is not only for Reform Jewish youngsters, but is available to Jewish children from all backgrounds who have a serious interest in athletics. The camp promises competitive-level instruction for athletes aged 9 to 16. In addition to a boys’ baseball program, 6 Points will offer basketball, soccer and tennis programs for boys and girls. Housed on the 100-acre campus of the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, N.C., 6 Points will feature a Jewish program that includes the celebration of Shabbat, kosher food, and Jewish exploration and attention to creating an enveloping sense of Jewish community. 

6 Points Sports Academy is one of five new camps opening in 2010 as a result of the Specialty Camp Incubator, a program of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, with funding and sponsorship from the Jim Joseph Foundation. The others include:

  • Adamah Adventures, an outdoor adventure experience for teens that in 2010 is offering programs in the Blue Ridge Mountains and in Utah.
  • Eden Village Camp, 50 miles north of New York City, with a program that emphasizes ecological awareness, including organic farming, animal care, wilderness adventure, natural science and a zero-waste goal.
  • Passport NYC, a summer camp for teens in New York City offering specialty programs in film, fashion, culinary arts and the music industry.
  • Ramah Outdoor Adventure, which helps teens explore Jewish identity in the context of environmentalism and outdoor living in the Rocky Mountains.

The organizers of these new programs must have wondered: If we build it, will they come? According to Jeremy Fingerman, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp , all five of the new incubator camps have exceeded their first-year registration benchmarks. 6 Points Sports Academy, for example, has enrolled more than 200 campers from 23 states and four countries.

With the opening of five new specialty camps this summer, the Foundation for Jewish Camp has reason to celebrate its dream fulfilled.

(Ramie Arian is a consultant who works with Jewish camps, youth movements and other agencies concerned with building Jewish identity and commitment. He can be reached at ramie.arian@gmail.com.)

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