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Russian-speaking families go to different kind of camp
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Russian-speaking families go to different kind of camp

Retreat offers chance to explore change and Jewish tradition

Participants took part in sessions to discuss issues of importance to them as individuals and as a community. Photos by Mark Lazar
Participants took part in sessions to discuss issues of importance to them as individuals and as a community. Photos by Mark Lazar

Over Labor Day weekend, New Jersey Y Camps held its first-ever Retreat for Russian-Speaking Jewish Families at its campgrounds in Milford, Pa.

The three-day event gave parents and youngsters an opportunity to enjoy a full range of camp activities, along with sessions exploring family dynamics within a Jewish context. The goal, said organizers, was to help participants appreciate the fact that “happiness comes when you are understood.”

The Lazar family of Leonia were among the “campers” — parents Mark and Anna and their children, Sophie, 16, and Jacob, 13.

Sophie, a junior at Leonia High School, wrote about the experience.

Naturally, being 16 years old, I was a little skeptical when my parents informed me that we were going to a family retreat. Fortunately, the NJ Y Camps Family Retreat for Russian Speaking Jewish Families was actually really fun, and my entire family enjoyed themselves.

When we first arrived at the camp, we were given a schedule that told us when all our mealtimes and activities were, which we followed — for the most part. There were many awesome things for people of all ages to partake in, such as family kick ball, jet-skiing, tie-dying, a scavenger hunt, a bonfire, and much more. Although we were there for only three-and-a-half days, the amount of activities we had fun doing made it seem like much longer.

But we were a little confused when we first saw the schedule — although we were excited about the fun activities we had the option of doing, we did not exactly understand what the word “session” referred to. Later we found out that these interactive sessions allowed us all to explore the value of strong families in our lives.

During these sessions, families separated into four groups: for children ages three-10, another for teenagers 11-16, and two separate groups for parents so that spouses could be divided. These sessions turned out to be very informative and even life-changing for some.

Over the three days there were five sessions, each lasting three hours. Because of these sessions and the information we shared with each other, all of us became very close with others who attended the retreat in a very short period of time, and saying goodbye was a very hard thing to do. Most were already talking about “the next time.”

On our way home from the retreat, my family talked and argued — a lot. This happened because so many things that we never talked about before were now out in the open, out there for us to discuss. By the time we got home, although almost nothing had actually been resolved, we felt like we all knew each other a little bit better.

But my story will not be complete if I didn’t mention the event that stands out the most for me — Cafe Midrash, which took place Saturday night. “Midrash,” in Hebrew, means “study” and that was exactly what the night was about — and more. The atmosphere inside the “café” was enchanting; the lights were dimmed and there were candles on every table. Everyone was seated at small tables in groups of four or five with people whom they met for the first time during the weekend.

Enter Dr. Dima Zicer, director of the Institute for Informal Education. (The institute was established in 2006 to improve the field of informal education for Russian-speaking Jews around the world.) He was brought to the retreat by NJ Y with the support of the Genesis Philanthropy Group to lead all educational activities (including Café Midrash). He is a very intriguing man who has an even more intriguing way of doing things. He explained to us that in Cafe Midrash the appetizers were already on our tables: 12 questions on each table that each group could discuss. The questions ranged from “Is there a special Jewish model of family relationships?” to “Can the age-old traditions be respected, if one only follows the rituals related to those traditions?”

We were told that it was up to each group as to how long we could stay on each appetizer and whether we wanted only a little taste or the entire thing. Each question was different yet equally thought provoking, with the groups exploring issues connected to their identity, Judaism, values, community, and of course, family.

After we finished our appetizers we ordered the main course: a two-page story of intertwined questions about Jewish traditions — how they were created and whether or not it was right to blindly follow them, whether questioning traditions is a good thing, and more.

Lastly, we had the option of ordering a dessert: a short story serving as a light and tasty finish to an interesting evening. Cafe Midrash was a completely different world, in which we intimately met with strangers and discussed our most hidden thoughts.

Overall, the NJ Y Camps’ Retreat for Russian-Speaking Jewish Families was a wonderful experience for my entire family. We had lots of fun, banana boating and learning how to shoot a bow and arrow, and other outdoor and recreational activities. But most important, we were able to finally talk with our parents and siblings about issues that are meaningful to us and discuss mind-provoking topics with people from our community.

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