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Campfire Stories and Lumpy Pottery Make Way for Jewish Specialty Camps

June 23, 2006
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This summer, campers at the New Jersey “Y” Camps will be shooting three-pointers under the tutelage of one Herb Brown, assistant coach with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and former coach of the Detroit Pistons.

Others at this group of Jewish overnight camps will have the chance to perfect their flutter kick with Lenny Krayzelburg, a four-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer.

For the more artistically inclined campers there will be ceramics, jewelry- making, painting and drawing lessons with Michal Ozeri Goldberg, a professional artist with a Master’s degree from Israel’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.

Some will get behind the camera with filmmaker Eric Goldman, founder of Ergo Media and a film teacher at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Queens College, while others will aim another kind of lens heavenward as members of the camp’s astronomy program.

In an increasingly competitive summer-camp market, and with a proliferation of camping opportunities available outside the Jewish world, several Jewish camps like the New Jersey “Y” are beginning to offer specialty programs to attract Jewish campers.

“We think it’s going to be the trend in the next five years – the growth of the concept of specialty camping for Jewish kids to meet a need of the community,” said Jerry Silverman, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping. “There’s a realization that we need to modernize our thinking to be able to grow this concept of 24/7 immersion” in a Jewish atmosphere. “We need to be nimble, to grow in different ways.”

At the New Jersey camps, the specialty camp – being offered this year for the first time – is embedded within a general sleep-away camping program. For a fee, campers can enroll in one of 10 specialty camps; they’ll still take part in the camps’ general activities but will focus on their specialties four periods a day, six days a week. Other campers use the same facilities and instructors, but for fewer hours each week.

Other camps, such as the Berkshire Institute for Music and the Arts, or BIMA, are strictly specialty camps. Set in a pluralistic Jewish community and held at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., Berkshire campers from eighth to 11th grades major in music, painting or creative writing and explore the relationships between artistic expression and Jewish living and learning.

At the Genesis summer program, students who’ve finished the 10th and 11th grades get a taste of college life in a three-and-a-half week program at Brandeis University with a curriculum centered around social justice. Course topics range from journalism, Judaism and ethics to an exploration of identity through theater arts.

Jewish camps are coming to the specialty concept later than general camps. Though it’s not entirely new among Jewish camps, insiders say it has begun to grow in recent years in response to the unprecedented number of camping choices available to today’s youth.

The general “camping market in the last 20 years has gotten into things that are more niche,” said Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. “I think the nature of young people today seems to be to collect a menu of opportunities.”

“We evolve with the society in which we live,” Smith added.

The Foundation for Jewish Camping says there are approximately 190 Jewish camps in the United States, including about 130 not-for-profits. Only a handful are specialty camps.

Some camps hold specialty weeks, hosting, for example, families during Jewish holidays and interfaith families. Camp Ramah Darom, located near Clayton, Ga., runs Camp Yofi for the families of autistic children. Several Ramah camps run Tikvah programs for special-needs children. Camp HASC, operating under Orthodox auspices in the Catskills, serves mentally and physically disabled children and adults. Reform movement camps and JCC camps mainstream some kids with special needs.

The New Jersey “Y” camps also offer a camp for children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, Asperger Syndrome and multiple social-skills disorders.

Camp Simcha, run by Chai Lifeline with an Orthodox staff, provides a free-of- charge camping experience for Jewish children of all denominations with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses.

Then there are the private, for-profit Jewish camps, some of which are niche- oriented, largely toward sports: the All Star Academy in upstate New York; Camp Seneca Lake in upstate New York; and the Julian Krinsky Camps, which run several camps in the Philadelphia area, one of which is Orthodox.

Still, some Jewish camps have resisted a move to the specialty camp model.

“From our perspective, in essence, we are already a specialty camp,” said Paul Reichenbach, director of camping and Israel programs for the Union for Reform Judaism. “We provide the unique intense environment filled with Jewish values, Jewish role models. Parents who choose to send their kids to a Jewish camp are looking for something very specific: a warm and welcoming environment that has as its principle mission Jewish identity.”

Robinson said his camps – which offer Friday night and Shabbat morning services, kosher food and weekly exploration of a Jewish hero – allow parents and campers to get the best of both worlds.

“The goal was to raise our program level so that we would be competitive with the best private camps in the industry,” Robinson said.

That message seems to be hitting its mark. Although the “Y” camps only recently sent out brochures for their specialty camps, 70 kids have already signed up, and more are expected.

Among those enrolled is Aaron Campeas, a 13-year-old who at 5’7″ hopes to make the middle school basketball team when he enters the eighth grade next year at the Solomon Schechter school in West Orange, N. J. He had considered leaving the camp in favor of a basketball camp, but decided to stay when he learned of the new sports program.

“He would be less competitive, absolutely,” if he didn’t have this opportunity, said Aaron’s mother, Dr. Lynn Reyman. Kids at basketball camps “drill, they have shooting videos and defensive drills. It is a huge competitive advantage to attend one of these intensive clinics.”

Not only that: Attending the Jewish specialty camp has a religious advantage as well. The family keeps kosher and observes Shabbat, Reyman said, both of which proved challenging when her daughter attended a non-Jewish basketball camp during a previous summer.

“It started on a Saturday and it ended on a Saturday,” she said.

For Aaron, though, it comes down to hoops.

“You really don’t get to play with a guy like Herb Brown anywhere else,” he said.

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