News from Camp L’man Achai

Resurgence in Jewish Camping

Songs, friendship, kosher hot dogs roasted over an open flame: These are just a few of the joys of Jewish summer camp, a place where memories made last longer than even the smoky smell of a bonfire clinging to an unwashed sweatshirt.

With this in mind, several hundred staff-members, lay leaders, philanthropists and community professionals affiliated with non-profit camps around the country gathered recently in New Jersey for a biennial Leadership Assembly organized by the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Joining the conference were representatives of 11 Chabad-Lubavitch run camps, including the flagship network of Camp Gan Israel, which serves hundreds of thousands of children at branches in the Unites States, Europe, Russia, Israel, South African and Australia.

Yitzchok Steinmetz, director of Camp L’man Achai, an eight-week overnight camp for boys in upstate New York, says that the back-and-forth drew attention to the benefits of Jewish camping, a time-honored tradition in years past, but one that now competes with a host of non-Jewish programs.

“Jewish camp is definitely the most effective and positive experience a kid can have, period,” states Steinmetz, whose camp annually serves about 160 boys, primarily from families affiliated with American Chabad Houses, “especially nowadays, when kids in general are lacking so much of what camp offers, such as the person-to-person relationships and outdoor experiences that you don’t get from today’s computer-centric lifestyle.”

Rabbi Asher Hecht, camp director at Camp Gan Israel in South Padre Island, Texas – another FJC-affiliated institution – agrees. Calling his camp “a bold, new concept in Jewish camping,” he says that combining Jewish instruction with the outdoor can have a profound effect on children.

“We’re based around the Gulf of Mexico and our sports are 99-percent water sports, with a great emphasis on surfing,” he explains.

Some 90 percent of the South Padre campers have never attended a Jewish camp before, and they benefit from the institution’s relatively-small bunk size.

“We’re quality over quantity on every level,” says Hecht.

Turning to the FJC, he notes that more and more people are looking into the benefits of summer camp.

“There’s no question in my mind that they have accomplished unbelievable things,” he says. “They’ve brought Jewish camping to the front page.”

At L’man Achai, which has been an FJC member for almost a decade, incentive scholarships sponsored by the foundation help first-time campers and their families afford the experience. Such grants, according to the FJC, have helped attendance figures nationwide increase by about 10,000.

“We’re growing,” says Steinmetz.

The statement dovetails with a vision articulated by the foundation’s new CEO, Jeremy Fingerman, who talked at the conference about strengthening camps “one kid at a time, one family at a time, one community at a time.”

“Effort in the field needs to be that one more kid has that same experience, one at a time,” says Fingerman.

At the end of the day, camping is about bringing kids and families closer to Judaism, adds Steinmetz, noting that recent research shows that just 10 percent of Jewish children attend a Jewish summer camp.

“[Camp] is the most important way for educating children that don’t get a Jewish experience,” he explains, “in some cases, more than Hebrew school.”

By Jessica Naiman

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