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Campers catch a wave
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Campers catch a wave

Surfing, sports, arts are specialties among new Jewish sleepaway camps

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Zachary Brooks, 11, of Randolph, is a sporty kid. He plays center in two hockey leagues and is on a travel soccer team where he enjoys being the goalie. 

His parents, Lori and Len Brooks, members of the Conservative Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, sought a Jewish sleepaway camp, but the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah in the Berkshires wasn’t a good fit for his interests. “I do a lot of sports,” said Zachary. “Ramah just did not have that kind of feel for me.” 

When the Brooks family heard about Ramah Sports Academy, a new camp launching this summer, they signed him up. “It’s the best of both worlds — sports and a Jewish camp,” said Len.  

“It’s intensive, high-level sports instruction with all the ruach of a Ramah camp,” said director Dave Levy. Although there’s no hockey at the camp, based at Fairfield University in Connecticut, it does offer baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, and tennis. Zachary has signed up for a two-week session of soccer.

Ramah Sports Academy is one of six camps launching this summer developed in the third cohort of the specialty camp incubator created by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, with funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation. The first three specialty camps launched in 2010, with another cohort of four in 2014. The goal of incubator camps is to deliver intensive training in a specific field, such as wilderness adventure, technology, or environmental sustainability, with Jewish content incorporated into the specialty. 

“I think we’ve changed the landscape of what Jewish camp can be,” said Michele Friedman, director of new camp initiatives at the Manhattan-based Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Now specialty camps can attract the children looking for something special in their summer.” 

Three of this year’s six new camps are located on the East Coast. Each offers three two-week sessions. 

In addition to Ramah Sports Academy, the new camps include Sababa Beachaway, a beach-based camp offering sailing, scuba, surfing, and seaside media in Virginia Beach, Va., and URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) 6 Points Creative Arts Academy, with a focus on theater, dance, music, and culinary arts, located at the Westtown School in West Chester, Pa. 

Jessie Weiman, 10, of Randolph didn’t like the Jewish camp she tried last summer because “I didn’t get to do art,” she said. While her parents are wary of a new camp — her father Jon Weiman compared it to buying the first version of a new car — they’re familiar with URJ camps; Jessie’s sister attends the SciTech camp in Boston. “We know the structure of URJ 6 Points and we trust them,” he said. 

Ramah Sports Academy is the third sports camp to come out of the incubator program. This new camp is open to sports newbies and seasoned athletes. At Ramah, the goal is to bring Jewish values onto the field and athletics into Jewish practice. So Zachary Brooks may find himself participating in a Zumba Shacharit service, a tefillah run, or a nature walk focused on creation.

At the URJ 6 Points Creative Arts Academy, “Judaism informs how we see the world as artists and art informs how we see the world as Jews,” said director Jo-Ellen Unger. She offers as an example the blessing in morning prayers thanking God for removing sleep from our eyes which can be interpreted “in many different ways by visual artists.” That’s the kind of lesson that will make its way into campers’ lives.

It’s hard for Unger to separate art from Judaism. She talks about throwing pots on a wheel and she’s immediately into a conversation about tzimtzum — the kabbalistic idea of contracting to make space for creation — keva (structure or order), and kavanah (intention), terms usually applied to prayer that she fits into the creative experience. 

The melding of Judaism and the arts seems to come from deep within her. Maybe that’s because she’s the daughter of a rabbi and the product of Jewish camp, with her own passion in the theater — she holds a BFA from Florida State University and attended the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York City. She also holds a master’s degree in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. 

At camp she anticipates “digging deep into skill building” with a focus on process: high-level training, technique, and discipline.  

Liz Kaplun, 15, of Livingston can’t wait to get back into surfing at Sababa Beachaway. The camp started in 2015 as a Jewish surfing day camp in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., which Liz attended last summer. In addition to surfing, she said, “We talk about how ‘sababa’ we are — how relaxed and in the moment we are.” She said she’s eager for the 24/7 immersion in camp culture. 

“Sababa” is Israeli slang for “no worries” or “cool.” But on a deeper level, “It means you’re fully present,” said Sababa Beachaway director Danny Mishkin, who learned to surf on his honeymoon and never stopped. 

“We are teaching kids to be fully present in the moment,” he said. While the camp incorporates Jewish culture, it also includes mindfulness and meditation. Each camper receives a mantra for their stay. Last summer, Liz meditated on one from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers: “Who is rich? The one who is happy with his portion.”  

She loved the atmosphere at camp, which Mishkin called “laid-back intensiveness.” There’s a structure to the day and water safety is taken seriously, but “there is built-in ‘sababa’ time for relaxing,” he said. 

Liz noticed a big change in herself through the first week of camp. “The first day I think I was about a six” on the sababa scale of relaxation, she said. “On the last day, I was a one or a zero.” 

But it also had a deeper impact. “It changed the whole way I look at things,” she said. Her mother, Katy Kaplun, added, “It was not only about surfing. It was also about attitude and gratitude.” And Liz also pointed out that now, “I know how to meditate if I want to.”

Mishkin’s inspiration came from his experience working with teens through NFTY, USY, and synagogue programming. “I would see kids come in stressed and tired and a little overwhelmed. It’s a real issue, anxiety, stress, and depression,” he said. “This [camp] is a response to dealing with an overprogrammed, overstressed world. That’s the essence. We’re all moving so fast. We need a little more ‘sababa.’ A beach is the perfect place to
experience it.”

And just in case this sounds appealing to adults, stay tuned. Mishkin and camp cofounder and codirector Lynn Lancaster promise that their ultimate vision includes a parallel program for parents. Don’t know about you, but this reporter is in.

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