No Nuts About It

030714_insider-inside-scoopThe Centers for Disease Control indicate food allergies are now affecting an estimated 6 percent of children. Camp Shoresh, a kosher Jewish day camp in Frederick, provides a safe and fun learning environment to almost 400 campers and their parents each summer.

With safety as a primary concern, Finkelstein and staff are nurturing and sensitive about any health issues. “Camp mother” Phran Edelman, director of operations, takes necessary precautions from food substitutions to activity changes. Shoresh has become nut-free, and all counselors are trained to use an EpiPen.

“We’re always trying to be conscious of changes and have backup meals that are nutritious, fun and interesting,” says Edelman.

More than just a camp, “Shoresh involves the entire family,” says director Rabbi David Finkelstein. “From baby to bubbe, it’s an experience for a lifetime.”

Leading by Experience

Studies show that Jewish summer camp is a valuable and enriching experience, not only for young campers, but also for their leaders. This summer, Bradley Kerxton will begin his third season as director of the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC’s Top Notch Teen (TNT) program for rising seventh and eighth-graders.

As a TNT veteran, Kerxton is well-acquainted with the popular and competitive leadership development program that focuses on team building and group leadership activities. Teens in the program assist counselors in the care of preschool campers while they develop important leadership and communication skills and earn community service hours. As part of their training, the teens learn about basic water safety and participate in seminars on age-appropriate topics such as social media awareness. The program helps to grow future Jewish communal leaders as well as future camp counselors.

“[TNT] is an amazing experience, and I love every minute of helping teens become leaders. The program helps shape [them] during their teenage years,” says Kerxton.

In addition to helping younger children, TNTs also enjoy a variety of electives including art, drama, fitness, sports and trips. Summer registration is in full swing and filling up quickly. Contact Bradley Kerxton at 410-559-3547 or


Packing for camp is no fun. It’s time consuming (and expensive), especially for those of us who aren’t especially organized … Where did we put that flashlight from last year? And although trunks are still permitted at some camps, many overnight camps advise parents to use duffel bags instead. Any heavy duty duffel should do the job, but when it’s time for a new one, there’s no reason it can’t be cute! These duffels from Pottery Barn Teen, ( will send your child to camp in style. No procrastinating now … Get packing!

Bunk Life Revisited

simone_ellin_squareWhoever said being a kid was easy must have a poor long-term memory. Trying to navigate the big world without much experience is a lot harder than it looks. Camp offers a unique opportunity to practice many of the skills of self-preservation that will come in handy later on. I’ll never forget one of the first times I stuck up for myself in a hurtful social situation.

I was about 14 and away at camp for the first time. It was the 1970s and supervision was pretty lax at the hippy camp in Upstate New York where my parents sent my sister and me. I was a newbie, a first-time camper who came for the second session. Most of the other kids were there from
the beginning of the summer, and many of them had been attending the camp since they were 6 or 7. A girl in my bunk would sneak out most nights to meet up with her boyfriend. On one occasion, she brought the boyfriend back to the bunk when she assumed all of us were asleep. I had trouble sleeping most nights and was wide awake when they entered. I pretended to be asleep though. The boy came into the bunk and looked around. “Who’s that,” I heard him ask, referring to me. “It’s a new girl. She’s stupid,” replied my bunkmate. Then the two of them left.

All night long, I lay awake fuming and thinking about what I should have said. The next morning, I got up the nerve to confront her. I told her that I had heard them, and I pointed out that she should’t say I was stupid since she hadn’t made an effort to learn about me. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I do remember she was flustered and embarrassed. And I think she apologized. Things got better for me after that. I gained her respect, and by extension, I gained the respect of the other girls in the bunk. By the end of the session, I was beginning to feel like one of the group.

Nowadays, sneaking out of the bunk at night is a major offense, and mean behavior among campers is strongly discouraged. That doesn’t mean it never happens, but it does mean that most camps make strenuous efforts to prevent it. Counselors are trained to handle conflicts between campers, and victims are taken seriously when they ask for help. In this issue, iNSIDER looks at how today’s camps attempt to create bully-free zones so that every camper can enjoy his or her summer camp experience. At the same time, camp remains a wonderful place to practice social skills, make relationships and build self-confidence.

This month’s iNSIDER also looks at a new program specially designed for Russian Jewish campers, and also visits area yoga camps, and gets a taste of today’s camp food trends.

Namaste and Happy Trails,
Simone Ellin,
iNSIDER editor

Yoga For Youngsters

Yoga camps for kids are playful and age appropriate

Yoga camps for kids are playful and age appropriate

Ellie Schwartz of Roland Park is only 12 years old, but she’s already an experienced yoga student. Schwartz had a yoga birthday party when she was 8 and has been taking classes on and off since she was 9.

Last year, she took part in a week-long yoga camp at Baltimore Yoga Village in Mount Washington. Dianne Schwartz, who helped organize the camp, says yoga and Ellie are a good fit.

“She has mindfulness, flexibility, calm,” says Schwartz.

Guilford mom Laura Wrigley signed up her two oldest kids, Isabella, 10, and Enzo, 7, for the Yoga Village camp. (Her youngest, 5-year-old Lilly, was too young.)

“I thought it would be a great experience for them,” she says. “I like the community (at Yoga Village), so it was nice to hook my kids into that as well.”

Wrigley adds that camp was particularly helpful for Enzo, who underwent multiple surgeries last year to repair a narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to his kidneys.

“The yoga camp started right when he was able to be active after his first surgery, so it’s a really safe place for him,” says Wrigley. “It was very therapeutic.”

The half-day camp featured a yoga class, snacks and an art project that encouraged mindfulness. The campers also spent some time in nearby Robert E. Lee Park.

Through stories and games, instructor Jenny Berkowitz introduced the kids to the philosophy of yoga and the background of some of the postures.

Yoga camp helps children to be calm, centered and relaxed

Yoga camp helps children to be calm, centered and relaxed

“A lot of learning happens through exploration, through different games,” says Berkowitz, adding that campers wrapped up the day with a restorative Shavasana: kids on their backs, eyes closed, focusing on their breathing.

Baltimore Yoga Village is holding the camp again this year, although the dates and specifics are still being finalized.

Avalon Yoga Studio in Catonsville also is holding a week-long, half-day yoga and art camp. This summer will be the camp’s fourth year, and the dates will be July 7 to 11 and July 28 to Aug. 1.

Avalon owner Leslie Coombs says instructors Sara Murphy, Missy Wheeler and Emily Kimak engage the campers through stories, games and activities.

“It’s always a noncompetitive, very nurturing environment for them,” says Coombs.

During camp, Wheeler sometimes had the kids sit perfectly still and then share what they experience. “They’ll say, ‘I felt quiet in the whole room.’ ”

At the same time, says Kimak, it’s not all stillness and quiet. In fact, classes are playful and kid appropriate. “Last year, the kids were so excited and really got into the art projects and learning different yoga poses.”

Coombs believes yoga is part of a well rounded summer.

“Some of them, they do this one week, then they go to soccer camp,” she says. “The parents want to develop all aspects of the child.”

“Over the summer it’s a great opportunity, because during the school year they’re so overscheduled … summer’s a really great time to start to build the wellness habit,” adds Maura Rother-Gormley, office manager for Baltimore Yoga Village.

Kids’ yoga is a great idea, agrees Charm City Yoga instructor Edith Brotman, who says youth teachers don’t expect children to hold any yoga pose for very long, and kids’ classes are more talky and, yes, a little louder than adult classes.

Brotman is the author of a new book called “Mussar Yoga” (Jewish Lights Publishing, Spring 2014). Mussar means “instruction” in Hebrew, and Mussar Yoga combines Jewish contemplative practice with yoga.

There’s no conflict at all between Judaism and yoga, says Brotman, explaining that yoga is a spiritual practice, not a religion.

“It’s not meant to be a replacement for religion or to be a religion,” she says. “A lot of the concepts you find in yoga you also find in Jewish spirituality. There’s nothing too foreign that you’ll find in yoga, especially in a kids’ class.”

While there are a couple of local yoga-specific camps, many camps and summer programs include yoga in their roster of activities.

Camp Red Fox of the Greater Pikesville Recreation and Parks Counsel offers a Magical Mats Yoga for campers ages 4 to 12.

Magical Mats owner Chelsea Smith takes a playful approach to the lessons. She has the younger kids put a Beanie Baby on their chests so they can watch it rise and fall as they inhale and exhale. The elementary-age kids play a sort of Yoga Twister. All ages work on balance, flexibility and strength.

Of course, there’s no guarantee your child will return home from the camp yoga class calm, centered and relaxed. Anecdotally, however, it seems to do the trick.

“I had multiple parents say, ‘Our kids come home in the afternoon and they’re so calm and centered,’ ” says Berkowitz. “I had a couple of kids who came in with a little anxiety, and parents say by the end of the week the kids weren’t stressed out.”

Wrigley says Isabella and Enzo like how they feel after they’ve meditated and enjoyed meeting other kids who were into yoga, just like them. She’ll likely sign them up for yoga camp again this summer.

Interested in learning more? Visit Baltimore Yoga Village’s website at and Avalon Yoga and Wellness Center’s website at

A Culinary Revolution

Tug-of-war competitions, ghost stories, bad-movie nights and new friendships are just some of the memories that youths will take from their time at camp.

Years ago, when grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and celery were the norm in camp dining halls, food probably wasn’t part of the “remember that time when … ?” camp experience. Now, however, dining at camp might just be something that sticks with campers the most.

030714_insider-cullinary-revolutionWith numerous healthy menu options, homemade food for Shabbat, cooking classes, the burrito craze and food straight from camp gardens, Greater Baltimore-area Jewish camps have found new and innovative ways to provide a memorable and enjoyable food experience for campers.

Healthy, considerate menus
One thing camps need to consider before the start of summer is prospective campers who have dietary restrictions. While the food at Camps Airy & Louise is kosher style, and the food at Capital Camps and Camp Moshava is certified kosher, campers may have food allergies, such as soy or gluten intolerance, or may simply be picky eaters.

All three camps make sure they provide food options for those with gluten, dairy, soy and other allergies.

“One thing that sets us apart is we operate all year long,” says Sam Roberts, director of Capital Camps. “We have full-time executive chefs who accommodate dietary restrictions.”

In the case of picky eaters, oldies but goodies, such as grilled cheese sandwiches, are always an option.

“[At the start of a session] we focus on comfortable and familiar foods,” says Jen Silber, executive director at Camp Moshava. “We want them to get settled in. Later on, we’ll try to serve different things, but we always have options that are familiar and easy, like peanut butter and jelly.”

The camps also make sure that vegetarian options are available at every meal, and sometimes vegetarian meals can be a huge hit.

“One of our most popular meals is vegetarian burritos,” says Silber. “The kids love it because they can build their own burrito. For some kids, it’s new and not something they would necessarily eat at home.”

Healthy eating is another important part when it comes to camp dining. “We know camp food can be challenging, and we want to make sure our kids feel healthy and satisfied,” says Roberts.

Garden and kitchen creativity
A culinary phenomenon that has been on the rise, and usually ensures great tasting food, is the farm-to-table concept. All three camps have gardens in which campers young and old have the opportunity to plant and harvest vegetables and are then able to eat the “fruits of their labor,” as Roberts puts it.

Camps Airy & Louise have Culin- AIRY Arts, a cooking class with cooking clinics and competitions for campers, and Camp Moshava assigns groups with different jobs, two of which include gardening and vegetable cutting.

Every summer, says Silber, a group of campers cares for an organic garden, where they weed and water plants and feed farm animals. When vegetables are ready to be picked, campers harvest and bring them to the kitchens, where they’re incorporated into meals.

One year, Moshava campers harvested kale, and they were able to taste their work in an interesting way.

“Our cooks made kale chips, and the kids loved them,” says Silber. “Because they picked it, they were really excited to try it and eat it.”

Moshava has also been taking its younger campers to First Fruits Farm in Freeland, Md., where they’ve helped harvest fruits and vegetables that go to a local soup kitchen.

The dining experience
While the types of food served and how the food got to the table both show how these camps are becoming more culinarily innovative, the actual experience of sitting down and enjoying a meal with fellow campers is another camp element in itself.

“We’re deeply committed to making sure our kids enjoy their dining-room experience,” says Roberts. “We look at it from a programmatic standpoint.” Roberts says Capital Camps has musical lunches and theme-night dinners.

At Camps Airy & Louise, Airy director Rick Frankle says singing is a huge part of the dining experience, as is Shabbat.

“We have a whole bunch of programs that take place in the dining hall on an ongoing basis,” says Frankle. “It could be something simple like a bingo breakfast. [The dining hall] is definitely the hub of the camp community.”

Dining halls can sometimes even stir up controversy among campers. Silber says last summer Moshava did away with the salad bar and decided to serve salads family style on each table. The reasoning, she says, was to create a more peaceful mealtime and encourage campers to eat healthier by making salads more accessible.

For campers who enjoyed the salad bar, the change didn’t sit well. After Silber explained the reason for the change, the pro-salad bar group staged a protest. Eventually, compromises were made.

Campers agreed to take turns going to the salad bar in exchange for fulfilling a promise to eat more vegetables. “This issue became a learning opportunity for our campers — about organizing and protesting ‘unfair’ policies,” says Silber.

Who knew salad bars could become a focal point for social activism?

For more information on these camps and their programs, go to, and

Building Bully-Proof Bunks

I’m a big believer in the transformational power of summer camp. No doubt it’s a belief that stems from my long-ago Santa Cruz Mountain summers spent under the canopy of redwood trees at Camp Swig. In so many ways, camp has had a lasting influence on me; I can even credit my career as an educator back to those summers. In my experience, summer camps are wonderful places for children to engage with the world in a safe space, one that allows them to take chances, whether they are the physical challenges of a ropes course or emotional ones such as interacting with strangers in a new setting. Ideally, camp should allow children to have fun and grow at the same time.

030714_insider-Building-Bully-Proof-BunksThough I have many fond memories of camp, I can vividly recall being the object of bullying by other campers and counselors during a week spent at a YMCA camp the summer before seventh grade. I can barely remember what I ate for dinner last week, but this experience remains a clear memory. Also vivid in my recollection is the response of the camp director and even my parents that this experience was something to be endured and pushed through — a “boys will be boys” sort of thing.

Educator and child development specialist Dr. Kim Storey says that bullying occurs when a person or a group excludes, torments, ridicules, spreads rumors, strikes or insults with the intent to hurt another. It takes place when an individual or multiple individuals desire to exercise power over another and to use their power to achieve their goals.

Fortunately, times have changed. We no longer see bullying as an oppressive initiatory rite that children must tolerate. As a society, we realize that the psychological and physical suffering caused by bullying behaviors can lead to persistent negative consequences. It can undermine all the positive things that camps should offer children, their sense of personal security, connectedness and feelings of self-confidence. It affects their potential to make friends, have fun and engage in new experiences. Yet despite our new awareness, bullying still happens. What can camps do to prevent it?

According to Joan Grayson Cohen, manager of access services at Jewish Community Services, bullying happens “during transition periods, when children are not so occupied and outside the direct line of sight of supervising adults.” Children antagonize each other all the time. What makes bullying insidious, according to Grayson Cohen, “is that it is based on a large power differential between the bully and victim.” When attending school this interaction can happen in the cafeteria, during recess, in the bathrooms or hallways — wherever adult observation is minimal. At camp, bullying can occur over the course of free time, transitions between activities, in the shower or at night when counselors may be outside the bunk.

Camp Milldale’s new director, Amy Bram, says it is critical to train staff “to be able to recognize the difference between bullying and normal banter between children.” Disagreements or rough play where no one is distressed, and there was never any intention to cause hurt, is not bullying. “The tricky part is to recognize it and act accordingly,” says Bram. There must be an intention to harm a person who is perceived to possess less status. Kids who are able to resolve a conflict and emerge satisfied with the outcome is a positive result, she notes.

Bram says that in addition to having an on-site social worker during the summer, Camp Milldale’s staff spends seven days prior to the start of camp in extensive training sessions where they focus on bullying prevention.

“We want our staff to be able to identify things that may fly under the radar in other circumstances — the awkward silences, the tight cliques that exclude other children. By understanding and dealing with the subtle behaviors of kids, we can create a positive environment for all campers,” she says.

Children at Camp Milldale build friendships while enjoying aquatic activities.

Children at Camp Milldale build friendships while enjoying aquatic activities.

David Schimmel, director of Beth Tfiloh Camps, says his staff instills the idea that campers are part of a big group, one that works together as a team. “Campers should feel that they are part of a larger community, one that has responsibility for each member.” By creating strong relationships between campers and staff, and campers and each other, Schimmel believes campers will be less apprehensive about asking for help and less likely to be bullied.

Both directors feel that when problems do arise at camp, they need to be addressed immediately. Bram believes that frequent and honest communication with parents goes a long way toward building a bully-free environment. “If we think there is a problem, or have a concern about a child or group of children, we will contact parents,” says Bram. “And if they have any concerns of their own, we want them to contact us immediately.”

Schimmel agrees. “Parents should never be surprised about what their children experienced at camp. If a child tells a parent about a problem, we want to know about it so it can be solved.”

Shimmel believes Beth Tfiloh’s multipronged approach is having a positive impact.

“This seems to be less of a problem than even four years ago,” he says. “Children are more willing to report situations where they or someone else felt bullied.” That’s welcome news to Schimmel, who insists that camp is all about having fun. “Children should not be prevented from having a great time by anyone else.”

Jonathan Willis is a local freelance writer.

Home Away From Home

Growing up in Minsk, Belarus in the 1990s, Olga Cherches knew better than to call attention to the fact that she was Jewish. The post-World War II Jewish community in Minsk was already small but it became even tinier as most Jewish families began to emigrate to the U.S., Israel and elsewhere. In the early years of elementary school, Cherches was one of only three Jewish children at her school. Eventually, those children left too.

“The anti-Semitism was horrific,” she recalles. “I had one friend only. And I used to wonder, ‘Why do they tease me? Is being a Jew bad?’ When you’re raised in a community like that, you have to hide your religion.”

Yet, Cherches’ childhood was not without bright spots, and it wasn’t entirely secular either. Despite their fears of repercussions, Cherches’ parents wanted her to know about her Jewish heritage. Along with a few other families, they sent her to a small synagogue-based Hebrew school when she was 11.

“It was brave of my parents to bring me to school. Just to read from the books in the library [at the school] was such joy. There were very dedicated people working with us, and the kids still keep in touch on Facebook,” says Cherches who is now 36 and living in Owings Mills.

Several years later, when she was about 14, Cherches was sent to a three-week Jewish summer camp program outside of Moscow. The camp opened up a whole Jewish world to her. “During that time, there were pioneer camps. They were just places where you could send your kids, but they didn’t have any programs,” she says. “But the Jewish pioneer camps had an educational component. We learned about Israeli culture and Hebrew. Probably half of the kids there weren’t Jewish,” she says. “But we could speak openly about Jewish things. It was amazing, so much fun!”

Cherches came to the U.S. nine years ago to marry her childhood friend, Dmitri, who had left Minsk some years earlier. They now have three children. Cherches, who is active with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and its Shalom Baltimore program, is raising them with plenty of Jewish education but still feels it’s important that they know about their parents’ histories and their Russian roots.

Young people such as Benson Liberman of Reisterstown like the opportunity the Havurah program at Camp Tel Yehuda provides them to meet others with similar backgrounds.

Young people such as Benson Liberman of Reisterstown like the opportunity the Havurah program at Camp Tel Yehudah provides them to meet others with similar backgrounds.

Benson Liberman’s parents feel similarly. Several years ago, the Libermans, also Russian émigrés, sent Benson to Havurah, a specially designed camp program for Russian Jewish children in Barryville, N.Y. Liberman says his parents learned of the program through a cousin and thought it would be good for him to spend time with “people like me. They said I would like it there, and they were right.”

A project that grew out of a partnership between the Tel Yehudah Genesis Philanthropy Group, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jewish Agency for Israel, the nearly five-year-old program is located on the grounds of Camp Tel Yehudah and affiliated with the Young Judea movement. In addition to participating in typical camp activities, campers in the Havurah program also learn about Judaism.

Julia Smirnova was a counselor at Havurah before becoming director of the program last summer. She says the goal of the program is to keep young Russian Jews involved in the Jewish community.

“Most of the parents of the kids in Havurah didn’t identify as religiously Jewish and didn’t practice Judaism in Russia. They were outcasts
[because of being Jewish] there,” says Smirnova. “They want their children to be more knowledgeable about Judaism than they are.”

That’s the case for Vladamir Kluzner and Julia Wolfson of Rogers Forge. Their son, Daniel, a 14-year-old who attends Carver Center for the Arts and Technology in Towson, will attend Havurah for the first time this summer. Growing up in Russia, Wolfson says her experience with Judaism was limited to holiday meals at her grandmother’s home. Prior to coming to the U.S., the family lived in Israel, where Wolfson says they became more knowledgeable about Jewish traditions. She says she is happy about her son going to a camp for Russian Jews. “It’s a good thing,” she says. “It’s nice to feel the same as everyone else. It’s like being home.” Daniel says he only has one Jewish friend, who isn’t Russian, and he is looking forward to being around other Russian Jews.

030714_insider-home-away-from-home3At the beginning of the first week of camp, Smirnova says that most campers don’t understand Hebrew. Fortunately, counselors who speak English, Russian and Hebrew are able to translate. “We do a lot of activities about Israel and talk about issues that are specific to Russian Jews.” By the end of the season, most campers say they feel more connected to Judaism and to Israel.

Benson, who is now 18, plans to return to camp as a counselor this summer. “People tell me it’s the hardest job I’ll ever love,” he says with a big smile. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it were not for camp. I came home a better person. It helped me overcome shyness and brought me closer to nature.” Liberman says he also learned a great deal about Israel. In fact, he was so inspired by what he learned, he and a camp friend recently went on a Birthright Israel trip together.

“It’s unique for kids who are born in the U.S. but grew up in Russian households to have the opportunity to connect with other Russian Jewish kids,” says Smirnova. There’s a difference between being a Russian Jew compared to just being Russian.”

The distinction is not lost on 23-year-old Naomi Simanin of Silver Spring. She was born in the former Soviet Union but moved to Israel at 9 months of age. When she was 7, her family settled in Maryland. “I always had a very strong Jewish identity but not much of a Russian one. When I was in 10th grade, I remember saying something about being Russian. My father said, ‘You’re not Russian, you’re Jewish.’” Simanin says she understands why her father reacted that way. “He shut me down because living in Russia wasn’t great for him. He faced beatings at school that haunted him for the rest of
his life.”

Simanin’s mother was attracted to Havurah because it was for children who were both Russian and Jewish. After her brother had a great experience there, Simanin became a counselor at the camp.

Living among people who shared her cultural background, Simanin was struck by how much they had in common.

“Things we ate, little weird traditions, superstitions, the way Russian parents don’t baby their kids. The more you explore, the more you see that being a Russian Jew is different from being just Russian or just Jewish. It’s a completely different entity,” she says.

“I am very, very grateful to Havurah. It really gives Jewish Russian American kids a place to express these parts of themselves. It helped me figure out what I wanted to do in life,” says Simanin, who is studying audiology and speech at University of Maryland. “I found my fiance there too. I owe a lot to the program.”

For additional information about Camp Havurah, visit havurah. Tuition subsidies are available.

Immersion Technique

Campers present their names in Hebrew at the Sha'ar program piloted at Camp Ramah in Nyack, N.Y. (Courtesy of Camp Ramah in Nyack)

Campers present their names in Hebrew at the Sha’ar program piloted at Camp Ramah in Nyack, N.Y.
(Courtesy of Camp Ramah in Nyack)

It used to be that parents who wanted to expose their children to conversational Hebrew over the summer had to travel to Israel. Now a growing number of American Jewish day camps are offering Hebrew-immersion programs, where kids do the standard day camp activities — swimming, arts and crafts, music, zip-lining and field trips — but hakol b’ivrit (everything is in Hebrew).

The rise of Hebrew day camps comes on the heels of an expanding Hebrew charter school movement in the United States. Approximately 3,000 children, not all of them Jewish, are now enrolled in the tuition-free schools, which focus on Hebrew learning and Israeli culture.

The growth of Hebrew-language programs comes amid growing American interest in exposing children to foreign languages at earlier ages. Over the past decade, dual-language programs in the United States have grown tenfold, with an estimated 2,000 now operating. More than 300 dual-language schools serve students in New York state alone, Jose Ruiz-Escalante, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education, told the “Harvard Education Letter.”

At the new day camps, the idea is to make Hebrew learning enjoyable, a contrast to the traditional classroom approach of students seated at desks being drilled in the alephbet.

“We see Hebrew as a builder of Jewish community,” says Yehudit
Feinstein-Mentesh, whose HaGimnasia Hebrew day camp is launching in Brooklyn this summer.

HaGimnasia hopes to cater to two distinct groups of young children: those whose parents are native Hebrew speakers — members of Brooklyn’s large Israeli expatriate community — and American Jews who want their children to attain Hebrew fluency.

The seven-week camp will offer two tracks: total language immersion and a dual-language model for Hebrew beginners that incorporates Hebrew and English. Counselors will be a mix of summer transplants from Israel provided by the Jewish Agency and local expat Israeli teachers who teach Hebrew year-round.

“We are interested in bringing families that come from Israel and speak Hebrew at home together with Jewish American families who are far from that,” said Feinstein-Mentesh. “We want to bring these kids together to enrich and support each other in that process. We want to create a feeling of one people.”

Israeli-American families also form a large part of the constituency of Bereisheet, a camp that opened last year under the auspices of Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.

An extension of the Y’s Israeliness programs, which offer pre-K Hebrew immersion and after-school programs to educate children in Hebrew and Israeli culture, Bereisheet is a summer-long camp located in suburban New York’s Rockland County.

The all-in-Hebrew camp combines Israeli cultural activities such as sing-alongs and pita baking with classic American day camp activities. Designed for children in grades K-5, Bereisheet has attracted a mix of Israeli Americans and American Jews.

“It’s the closest you can get to a summer in Israel,” said Rebecca Singer, director of the Israeliness program, “but in an organized, American summer camp experience.”

Last year, the Areivim Hebrew at Camp program piloted at Camp Ramah in Nyack, N.Y., a day camp about 30 miles from Manhattan. Twenty children entering kindergarten participated in the summer-long program offering Ramah’s usual activities, but in Hebrew. This year, the program will expand to a second group of children at Ramah and will be introduced at JCC day camps in Cherry Hill, N.J., suburban Detroit and Toronto.

“Hebrew immersion camps are a powerful way for Americans to feel empowered in Hebrew language and Israeli culture,” said Rabbi David Gedzelman, executive vice president of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. The Steinhardt Foundation is a primary funder of the Hebrew Charter School Center and a member of the Areivim Philanthropic Group, a funder, along with the Avi Chai Foundation, of Areivim Hebrew at Camp.

“Hebrew creates a real connector for people to Jewish civilization in general,” said Gedzelman.

In addition to a foothold in modern Israeli culture, he said comfort with Hebrew provides a foundation for young Jews to become comfortable with Jewish texts.

“I believe, and there is research to prove it, that a foundation of oral proficiency in a language leads to written proficiency much more effectively than vice versa,” said Gedzelman. “If people are fully able to speak a language, they are much more fully able to understand and appreciate that language in all respects.”

For Amy Fechter, who taught in Jewish day schools for more than 10 years and now runs Strategic Hebrew, a Manhattan program she founded that offers Hebrew immersion experiences for children and adults, a desire to feel connected to traditional Jewish texts inspired her journey into Hebrew education.

“The goal [of Hebrew education] is connecting with Judaism,” said Fechter. “I had a moment somewhere in high school when I realized that I can understand the text of the Hebrew prayers and the Torah, if I look at the words.

“The prayers are beautiful on a melodic level, but being able to read and understand their meaning for yourself gives you another level of connection. It makes the language come alive, and the religion come alive, when you have that capability for yourself.”

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Flashback: Debbi Weinberg

030714_insider-flashback-thenDebbi Weinberg grew up attending Jewish camps. From Milldale to Louise to Timber Ridge, camps have been a major part of this Baltimore native and Pikesville High School graduate’s life since she was very young. In addition to her full-time role as founder and director of GEM (Girls’ Empowerment Mission), Weinberg also serves as co-chair of The Associated’s new Camp Engagement Committee.

iNSIDER: Of the three camps you attended, which stands out as your favorite?
I probably loved Camp Louise the most because sleepover camp is just such a great place to learn who you are and learn how to be independent.

Did your children go to sleep-away camp?
My children did. One loved it, one not so much.

How did you get involved in working in camps as an adult?
I feel like of all of the ways we can help our children to be excited about their Judaism, camp is the most fun way to do so.


Debbi Weinberg (left) and her friend, Barbara Schlaff, still enjoy speding time at camp.

What does your role with the Camp Engagement Committee involve?
Basically, we are trying to promote Jewish camping to the Jewish children of Baltimore. We’re trying to increase the number of Jewish children going to Jewish camps, because we know that Jewish camping really does ignite the Judaism within us.

What was your favorite activity from your camp experience?
Arts and crafts. I usually spent a lot of my time there. I also remember doing Jewish-type folk dancing at Camp Louise; I’ll close my eyes and visualize the place where we used to dance. That was something that I remember very favorably.

Do you stay in touch with any of the people you went to camp with?
Sadly, I do not, but my sister-in-law, who also went to Camp Louise, still goes there for reunions.