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Niche camps help kids connect to Judaism
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Niche camps help kids connect to Judaism

‘Specialty’ programs like science and tech lure local youngsters

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Campers at Camp Zeke in Pennsylvania — which focuses on fitness and health — learn Krav Maga, the Israeli martial arts program.
Campers at Camp Zeke in Pennsylvania — which focuses on fitness and health — learn Krav Maga, the Israeli martial arts program.

At camp this summer, 11-year-old Benjamin Brenner of Fanwood started his day blowing something up. 

At the Reform movement’s new science and technology camp, launched this summer in Massachusetts, the morning ritual is known as Boker Big Bang. After morning prayers and singing, the counselors blow something up. 

Brenner’s mother, Dana Lav, is now trying to find things that he can blow up at home.

The URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy is the latest entry in an increasingly crowded field of Jewish summer specialty camps, each attracting local campers, each developed with the help of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s “specialty camp incubator.”

At Camp Inc., an overnight business and entrepreneurship camp run by the Boulder JCC in Colorado, 14-year-old Adam Klein of Millburn, with a team of peer entrepreneurs, created Babel Tech, a translation app, and together they pitched it to a group of venture capitalists. Along the way, he wrecked a pair of sneakers rock climbing and hiking — a real accomplishment for a kid who never showed an interest in the great outdoors.

At Camp Zeke in Pennsylvania, which focuses on fitness and health, 12-year-old Poe Rosenberg of Maplewood and his nine-year-old brother, Charles, fell in love with Krav Maga (Israeli martial arts) and took up cooking with a passion. They are planning to continuing studying Krav Maga locally.

All three of the camps, each new this summer, represent the second round of specialty camps emerging from the FJC incubator, which launched in 2008 with a $10 million investment from the Jim Joseph Foundation. 

Runaway numbers of kids enrolled in the three new camps, and all three surpassed their enrollment goals. URJ 6 Points, located 30 miles north of Boston, had hoped to recruit 120 campers; it ended up with 160. 

Directors and parents agreed that the numbers were high because the camps were filling an unmet need. For science-minded kids like Ben, it’s a place to fit in and find other kids with similar interests and values. 

“Other camps felt too overwhelming, too big, with too many choices. Focusing on science, his favorite thing in the world, felt comfortable,” his mother said. 

For Poe and Charles, it was finding a camp that would excite them, since “in the abstract, they didn’t want to go,” said their mother, Caryn Rosenberg. “They were intrigued by the culinary aspect and the athletics. I wanted a camp with down time, where the boys could enjoy walking through the grass and not always have to go to activities, and where there is a balance, or at least an alternative, to athletics.” 

As Camp Zeke director Isaac Mamaysky put it, “A Jewish camp that celebrates healthy, active living and fitness reflects many parents’ values and appeals to kids who are into cooking or fitness as well as kids who are couch potatoes but want to get more active.” 

For Adam Klein, the aim was to find a good fit for a young teen outgrowing day camp who wasn’t interested in traditional sleepaway or travel options. With a head for business, and a desire to travel, Adam himself felt Camp Inc. fit the bill.

In each case, kids came home with newly honed skills. Benjamin, as part of a team on a robotics project, ended up building a kind of Rube Goldberg machine, with tubes and weights and pulleys — the kind of project his mother said he had only read about.

Adam gained insight into how to launch a startup company.

And the Rosenberg brothers have become active participants in the kitchen, making smoothies and other items.

But all of them have come away as well with an understanding of Jewish values and community and the connections between their personal interests and Judaism. The FJC says in a report that “the key purpose of establishing the new specialty camps was to attract Jewish teens who were not attending other Jewish camps.” Previously, many Jewish teens were choosing non-Jewish camps and camps focused on “skill-building.”

At Camp Inc., in addition to celebrating Shabbat, campers explore how Jewish values impact their lives now and as future business leaders, according to marketing director Cynthia Weinger. They examine Israeli startups and learn how to network with other Jewish teens. 

At Camp Zeke, participants learn “a Jewish approach to healthy living,” according to Mamaysky. “It’s about shmirat haguf,” he said, or taking care of the body. 

URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy director Greg Kellner offered the example of a conversation about Moses and the Burning Bush. “If it came up, we’d take a science approach; maybe it would lead to the question of what compounds can burn without being consumed” — the answer has something to do with water and alcohol — “or how long Moses would have to watch the bush to realize it wasn’t being consumed.”

Kids also come home with a newfound sense of confidence and maturity.

Shari Klein said of her son Adam, “The person who came back from camp is different from the one I sent. The person who came back is much more secure and self-sufficient. He takes responsibility for his actions. He initiates things without prompting, and he came back concerned with the world around him.”

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