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Passports to identity

An ‘incubator’ hatches five new camps, each with a special niche

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Ramah Outdoor Adventure, one of the new camps launching through a Foundation for Jewish Camp incubator, will offer the Ramah brand in a wilderness setting in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
Ramah Outdoor Adventure, one of the new camps launching through a Foundation for Jewish Camp incubator, will offer the Ramah brand in a wilderness setting in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Within two weeks of learning about Ramah Outdoor Adventure — a new Jewish overnight camp in the Rockies launching this summer — Gail Gendler of South Orange had signed up both her daughters.

“It’s Outward Bound meets Ramah,” she said. “What a great way to find Judaism and Shabbat off the grid in the middle of the Rockies!”

New options for outdoorsy young Jews. A Jewish arts camp that uses Manhattan as a living classroom. The country’s first Jewish overnight camp devoted exclusively to sports. And an environmental camp offering organic farming.

Five new Jewish overnight camps opening this summer were hatched in a summer camp “incubator” established by the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

Sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation, which gave each camp a $1 million grant, the incubator is intended to launch a new wave of camps that “weave Jewish culture values, and learning” throughout their programs. All are sparking interest and heavy registration, even in a poor economy.

“These new camps bring excitement and specialties for kids with specific interests who are not interested in a traditional all-around camp,” said Tracy Levine, manager of the MetroWest Jewish Camp Enterprise at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life. “They are attracting people who may not have been attracted to Jewish camps in the past,” she said.

‘A Jewish mission’

Elise Oliver of Randolph, a member of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, had been looking for a Jewish teen arts or travel camp for her 15-year-old daughter, but nothing really grabbed them.

Then she chanced upon Passport NYC, a partnership between the New Jersey Y Camps and the 92nd Street Y offering teens a chance to live in New York City and explore a specific interest, from culinary arts to baseball to fashion.

“It was just what I was looking for,” said Oliver. “It has to do with fashion, living in New York City, and meeting new Jewish teens” — the perfect trifecta for her daughter. Jenny signed up that same week.

Passport NYC looks to combine the top talents found in New York and a focus on Jewish values. For example, in the fashion program that Jenny Oliver has signed up for, she will work with industry designers as well as professors at the Fashion Institute of Technology. While campers learn to stitch and sew, they will also participate in the philanthropic work of organizations like Dress for Success, a not-for-profit organization that provides interview clothing for women looking to enter the job market.

Similarly, teens in the culinary arts will work with chefs in their restaurants — but they will also learn about the Jewish values of not wasting food and sharing with others. “Our vision is to engage Jewish teens in a program that is fulfilling to them but also has a Jewish mission. We want them to feel a part of the Jewish world and lead a more participatory Jewish life,” said Leonard Robinson, director of the NJ Y Camps.

Eden Village, started by Yoni and Vivian Stadlin, is among those filling up the fastest. The site, in Putnam Valley, NY, will have an organic farm; campers will be involved in growing and preparing food and then composting the organic leftovers. They will care for animals and even make cheese from goat’s milk.

The camp will have a wilderness and science component, including multi-day forest expeditions during which campers will learn how to make a fire, build a shelter, and identify edible plants. They will be part of what Vivian calls a “homegrown creative community” — “recognizing and appreciating each person’s unique gifts.” The camp is “postdenominational,” offering kosher food and Shabbat observance.

As with each of the new camps, Eden Village is drawing registrants from around the country, including eight so far from New Jersey.

Now a resident of Brooklyn, Yoni spent his teenage years in Princeton, having moved there in eighth grade. His stepfather is Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, who has served as religious leader at synagogues in Princeton and Montville.

Before the end of February, 90 youngsters had already registered.

“Eden Village is part of a Jewish response to global climate change,” said Vivian. “We are creating a living model of Jewishly rooted sustainable living.”

Athletes, ‘proud Jews’

Six Points Sports Academy — a Union for Reform Judaism camp based in Greensboro, NC, on the campus of the American Hebrew Academy — calls itself the country’s first Jewish sports overnight camp. It includes specialties in soccer, baseball, tennis, lacrosse, and basketball.

“We wanted to provide an option for Jewish parents and Jewish campers to get a high-quality sports environment,” said director Randy Colman.

The camp has high school and college coaches lined up, and young athletes will spend four-to-five hours a day on their sport of choice in two-week sessions. Buildings will have Hebrew names, and all counselors will be former Jewish college or high school athletes, said Colman. A Jewish hero of the day and value of the day will be reinforced on the field.

Colman’s target audience includes campers whose religious and sports responsibilities are often in conflict.

“Due to the nature of when sports activities are, it’s usually Hebrew school versus soccer practice,” he said. “At Six Points, these values are not at odds. We hope our campers will enter as athletes and leave as proud Jews.”

The clergy on staff will be athletic, too. Colman said he wants his campers “to learn from the rabbis how to kick a ball or swing a bat. That will give them a totally different perspective.” So far, 75 campers have signed up, including two from New Jersey.

Environmental adventure

Adamah Adventures is one of two new camps offering that rare combination of Judaism and the wilderness.

A travel camp based 60 miles from Atlanta, it offers 18-day treks in the Blue Ridge Mountains and in Utah, with white water rafting, rock climbing, and camping; eventually, it will add treks in South Carolina and Tennessee.

“There’s no arts and crafts or drama. This is for kids looking for something else,” said founder and director Adam Griff. “This is a fun, exciting environment, but it’s also a Jewish environment. We’ll be able to teach what Judaism has to say about the environment.”

Jayson Friedman of Watchung, a high school sophomore and member of Temple Sinai in Summit, was intrigued when he found Adamah.

“I was looking for an adventure camp, something with hiking, backpacking, camping, but not necessarily something Jewish,” he told NJJN. But when he read about Adamah, he said, “It really caught my eye. Meeting Jewish people from all over the country would be really interesting.”

Is he nervous that the camp is brand new and has no track record?

“No, I always think it’s an adventure to be the first to do something,” said Jayson. “It’s an opportunity, and I like to be outside.”

Changing the model

Ramah Outdoor Adventure, located in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, is similar to Adamah in its focus on outdoor adventure, but there are differences. ROA is not a travel camp; its Denver site serves as a base camp. Campers will live in tents or cabins or rustic ranches. They will at times cook their own food, other times eat in the cafeteria, and they will often go on five-day backcountry camping excursion.

One selling point is the Ramah brand; the Conservative movement’s camp network offers a 60-year track record in creating Jewish identity through intensive Jewish experiences. That’s attractive for parents like Gail Gendler, herself an alumna of Ramah Canada.

Director Rabbi Eliav Bock explained that this Ramah is for kids looking for a Boy Scout- or Girl Scout-style camp but with a Jewish setting.

“It’s for kids who are observant of Shabbat and kashrut, but who aren’t interested in blow-drying their hair before Shabbat,” he said.

Fifty-nine campers have already signed up, four from New Jersey, including Gendler’s two daughters.

At ROA, even the outdoors experts will be Jewish role models. At most Jewish camps, Bock said, “the outdoor educator is outsourced — a cool guy or girl from Sweden running the biking or rafting program,” and Jewish education is kept separate. The JTS-trained rabbi and outdoor educator said he wants to change that model.

“They’ll see me haul a canoe and build a fire and also teach [Abraham Joshua] Heschel and put on tefillin. I want Ramah Outdoor Adventure to be a training ground for people to create change in the Jewish camping world.”

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