The kids watched carefully as Isaac Mamaysky and Ron Grobman demonstrated the proper defensive starting position for Krav Maga, the Israeli martial art. They each practiced the position, and then repeated with demonstrations for a hit and a kick.
Afterward, they headed to the kitchen, where they made “zeagle bars”: no-bake granola bars featuring oatmeal, rice cereal, chocolate chips, brown sugar, coconut oil, and vanilla.
Although Mamaysky and Grobman are associated with Camp Zeke in the Poconos, the kids are all students at the religious school of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield. And if the activities feel more like summer camp than religious school, that’s the point: The school and Camp Zeke are partners in a broader push to bring the success of Jewish summer camping to Jewish kids year-round.
“Camps, for many people, are the connection to joyful Judaism,” said Jeremy Fingerman, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Although FJC is not currently providing grants for year-round programs, Fingerman acknowledged that from a recruiting perspective, such camps make it that much easier to recruit kids to the summertime programs, and that is one of FJC’s prime goals. Camp Zeke is also among four camps that received grants from the specialty camps incubator sponsored by FJC with the Jim Joseph Foundation and AVI CHAI Foundation that are launching this summer.
“People are beginning to recognize that summer camps have real physical and human assets that can be used throughout the year,” said Fingerman. (The other specialty camps launching this summer are the URJ 6-Points Science Academy, a JCC Maccabi sports camp, and Camp Inc., a business and entrepreneurship camp.)
At the same time, “Congregations are looking for how they can bring the joy, community, relationships of camp into their congregations,” he added. “Camps are uniquely positioned to expand” to fill this role.
Mamaysky is founder and executive director of Camp Zeke, a new Jewish camp opening this summer focusing on fitness, culinary arts, and healthy eating. Grobman, who came from the Krav Maga Centers of America, is a former Israeli soldier who works with Camp Zeke. While the session at Beth Ahm Yisrael certainly offered a great promotional opportunity for the camp, that wasn’t the main goal of the program.
“We see ourselves as more than a summer camp,” Mamaysky said. “We’re about creating a healthier Jewish community that is more conscious of fitness and healthy food. We want to bring our model of healthy living to local synagogues.”
After being accepted into the specialty camps incubator, Mamaysky received a $25,000 grant from UJA-Federation of New York to launch a series of year-round programs in home communities, day schools, and synagogues.
Tracy Levine, coordinator of the camp initiative at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life in Whippany — an arm of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ — said she is receiving increasing numbers of requests to make these connections happen. As a result, she is actively looking for ways to further facilitate year-round camp-community connections.
“Music, creative energy, and engaging, experiential Jewish learning are hallmarks of Jewish camp,” said Levine. “This serves to both give a taste of camp to children and families to ideally spur interest in having the full camp experience, as well as brings the power of unique experiential learning to a wider population.”
Other camps and schools are taking notice of the potential for camping beyond the summer.
Camp Eden Village, another new camp that opened in 2010, designed its facility to offer programs from April through October. Based on a vision of agriculture and sustainability, its autumn activities include a harvest festival held during Sukkot. Founding directors Vivian and Yoni Stadlin also take their camp philosophy on the road to local communities, with workshops on holiday crafts like candle- or soap-making.
“All of our programs deepen our mission of living Jewishly and in harmony with the natural world,” said Vivian. “Our programs all give kids and families skills that empower them to peel back the veil to see how consumer products are made.”
The trend is not limited to new camps or even to specialty camps. Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, NY, the oldest continually operating Jewish camp in the country, recently instituted its own version of these year-round programs, opening its facility to guests for Rosh Hashana services and for a seder on the second night of Passover.
“About eight years ago, we recognized that many of the children we served were unaffiliated, and for many their sole Jewish experience was summer at camp. People look at us as their ‘synagogue,’” said Celia Baczkowski, director of retreats and communication at Surprise Lake.
The camp expected about 50 people for Rosh Hashana in 2006. Instead, 200 came that first year. For the holiday earlier this fall, 350 people came. They’ve since added a Sukkot program, an opportunity to come for Shabbat in the spring, and the Passover seder.
Robbie Bloom of New Providence sends her two daughters, Andi and Dani, to Surprise Lake Camp in the summer. The family attends a local Chabad shul; Robbie grew up Orthodox and her husband, Steven, grew up Reform.
For the past few years, they have headed to camp for the second day of Rosh Hashana.
“Camp affords us a place to be spiritually connected, but without a traditional service. We have family time, kids’ time, quiet time,” she said. “Everything is explained. It’s just a nice counterbalance to our experience at Chabad on the first day of Rosh Hashana.”
The year-round trend cuts across every denomination. Students from Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston regularly visit the religious/Zionist Camp Moshava in Honesdale, Pa., during the school year around Israel Independence Day and Lag Ba’Omer.
“We had this vision years ago to be able to use the camp as a place to do experiential learning that is so much more difficult to do in a school setting,” said Moshava director Alan Silverman.
He’s organized workshops around a model Knesset and the geography of Israel. “Our environment relaxes the students and enables them to interact in a way they just can’t at school,” said Silverman.
JCC MetroWest runs vacation programs during school holidays. The winter break session starts Dec. 23.
The Conservative Camp Ramah network launched its own year-round program, Ramah Service Corps, three and a half years ago. It is now being expanded to include camps sponsored by the Reform movement.
Ramah Service Corps brings young adult staff members into synagogues to serve as camp ambassadors, running three or four Ramah-style programs throughout the year.
“Generally, they serve as a young dynamic presence,” said Amy Skopp Cooper, Ramah’s national associate director.
It obviously helps with recruitment to have a presence in the synagogues, but, according to Skopp Cooper, like the other camps, that is not the sole raison d’etre of the program. “Our mission is to nurture and teach young adults leadership skills,” she said. “We know we give them the tools to be successful in camp settings. But we want them to continue to be successful in their synagogues as lay leaders. We need to teach them how to translate these camp tools to year-round synagogues.”
Fingerman acknowledged that the phenomenon neatly meets his organization’s goal of recruiting more kids to Jewish camps. Putting it in corporate terms, he said, “It’s a way to extend the brand.”
Mamaysky was surprised at how few synagogues turned him away. “We really thought synagogues we called would say thanks but we are already affiliated with Ramah or URJ or whatever the movement camp is,” he said. “But we got such a tremendous response that we have a wait list for programs now, and we are booked every Sunday of the year and many weekdays.”
Rabbi Cecilia Beyer, director of the religious school at Beth Ahm Yisrael, said the Camp Zeke program neither interferes with the curriculum nor competes with Ramah, the Conservative movement camp. Instead, it offers an alternative way for kids to learn.
“Happy kids mean they want to be here,” she said. “And there’s more than one path to creating a whole Jewish person.”