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 telyehudah.wordpress.com/ 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.”

Think Jewish Summer Camp is Out of Reach? Think Again.
BunkConnect.org – the newest way to find camp experiences at introductory rates. We match 1st time campers with available sessions at over 35 camps, at 40-80% off.

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?
Weinberg:
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.

030714_insider-flashback-now

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.

Beware of Poison Ivy!

020714_insider_bmore-healthyIt’s green, bushy and lurks in leaves of three: It’s poison ivy. Urushiol is an oily allergen that is found on the leaves of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. This toxin causes an uncomfortable skin rash that can easily spread to another person. With an abundance of nature-rich camp activities, it is important to familiarize your children with the appearance of these plants and ways to prevent this unpleasant itch.

Susan Schwartzman, head nurse at Camp Ramah, encounters less than four cases of the rash each summer.

“Historically, we have had more kids come to camp with poison ivy,” says Schwartzman.

Ramah’s camping and nature specialists recommend wearing additional clothing when hiking and gardening, and Fels-Naptha bar soap is helpful to remove the offending oils. Melaleuca and purification oils also can bring success, if calamine is not enough. Inform your children now about poison ivy, so they can enjoy camp this summer.

It’s Spring Break: Time for Camp!

020714_insider_educationSummer is not the only time that kids can enjoy a fun and educational camping experience. Nip boredom in the bud: Get your 9 to 12-year-olds away from TV and video games and give them an enriching spring break by enrolling them in Junior Achievement of Central Maryland’s Biz Town Spring Break Camp in Owings Mills from April 14 to 18.

Campers will have a chance to see what it’s like to work in the field of their choice, whether it’s operating a business, being an ad executive or financial professional or even being the mayor.

“A BizTown Spring Break Camp encompasses important elements of work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy, providing students in grades four through six with a solid foundation in business, economics and free-enterprise education,” says Jonaye Ford, JACMD’s vice president of education and outreach.

For information, call 410-753-3289 or visit jamaryland.org.

Great Beginnings

One dollar was all it took. At least, that’s how longtime director Sara Yudlson recounted the start of Camp Louise in a self-published history.

Post World War I, she writes, immigrants were pouring into the United States. Many young women worked long hours in crowded, unsafe factories. Lillie Meyer Straus, the wife of Aaron Straus, a Baltimore merchant, and Ida Sharogrodsky initially operated a small vacation home in the Blue Ridge Mountains to provide fresh air and outdoor experiences for these young women.

When Sharogrodsky stumbled upon a hotel and property for sale in nearby Cascade, Md., she asked the owner’s son to take a $1 deposit to hold the property until she returned with her husband. Initially poker faced about the property, Aaron Straus was smitten with the views from a third-floor window. Soon after, his sister, Louise, passed away. His only request? That the new camp be named in her honor. On June 22, 1922, Camp Louise opened with two campers.

Today’s 155 Jewish overnight camps owe their legacies to thought leaders in the early 1900s who imagined an outdoor environment infused with Jewish values and sensibilities. Their histories tell us a great deal about our Jewish past and set the groundwork for a strong Jewish future.

“Did they know what Camp Louise would become nearly 100 years later and how it would positively affect so many lives?” asks Alicia Berlin, camp director as well as former camper and counselor. “We create a sense of community, different from that found in a school setting. The values of our founders — Miss Ida and Miss Sara — remain.”

Neighboring Camp Airy began as a result of a conversation about Camp Louise between Aaron Strauss and Julius Mintz. When asked what he was going to do about helping boys, Aaron Strauss suggested that they find the land. In 1924, he did just that, opening Camp Airy and welcoming a dozen boys to the first summer session.

Camp Airy director Rick Frankle, who plans to retire at the end of the 2014 season, has spent 50 years associated with Camp Airy — as a camper, counselor and director. He notes that the camp, like all camps, has grown over the years to include bunks, pools, recreational facilities and other activities, as the mission evolved from providing respite for impoverished young people to providing a recreational camp experience.

Aside from their shared sibling history, the two camps share Jewish values without being affiliated with any major denomination.

“Judaism has always been an important part of who we are — to communicate Jewish life to children who may not have it at any other time during the year,” says Frankle.

Capital Camps was founded in 1987 on the Catoctin Mountain site of former Jewish camps Wohelo, Comet and Comet Trails. Recognizing the value and impact of the Jewish camp experience, it was a dream of the Jewish communities in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Virginia to offer Capital Camps and its pluralistic approach to camping, explains Jonah Geller, executive director. As one of the 12 independent camps affiliated with the Jewish Community Center Association, Capital Camps promotes the value of Jewish camping beyond summer by hosting on-site conferences and programs for families and individuals year-round. “We help people of all ages with their Jewish journey,” says Geller.

“I think of camp all the time,” says Rabbi Joel Seltzer, director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. Reflecting on his years at camp — as a camper, counselor and now director — he believes “Jewish camping is the single most important contribution to modern Jewish education in America.”

The Ramah movement began in the 1940s when the Jewish Theological Seminary initiated programs to connect youth with synagogues. One of the initiatives was Camp Ramah, developed by educators Moshe Davis and Sylvia Ettenberg. The first camp opened in 1947, followed by camps throughout the United States, including the Poconos site, founded in 1950, for campers in the New Jersey, Philadelphia and Baltimore areas.

“JTS considered summer camping an investment,” says Seltzer. “We provide a vibrant Jewish experience with modern Hebrew, love of Israel and text study. Our campers are studying, but they do not notice that they are studying. Education happens with active learning.”

Established in 1969, Camp Stone, an Orthodox camp in Western Pennsylvania, is situated on land once owned by Camp Deer Run, also a Jewish camp. Camp Stone is named for philanthropist and American Greetings CEO Irving Stone, who purchased the land for use by Young Israel, a synagogue-based Orthodox organization. Today, the camp is part of the Bnei Akiva movement and affiliated with Young Israel of Cleveland. With a strong emphasis on learning, the program is curriculum driven with a focus on Israel and text study, says director Yehuda Rothner.

Love of Israel also drives the mission of Habonim Dror Camp Moshava, in Street, Md. As part of the national Habonim Dror, an international Labor Zionist youth movement that began in Europe more than 70 years ago, the camp was founded in Annapolis in 1935.

“The idea from the beginning was to create camp youth with skills to go to Palestine and build kibbutzim,” says camp director Jennifer Silber, also a former camper and counselor. The camp promoted hard work, building and farming to help Palestine and then Israel grow.

Over time, says Silber, the camp has evolved to become more of a traditional summer camp, though the founding legacy remains. The camp emphasizes cooperative living, and campers still “work” by contributing to camp operations. “We focus on the group process, acceptance of every individual and the philosophy of the kibbutz movement.”

Just as it was a century ago, Jewish camp, she says, is about survival. “It’s how we ensure that our values, religion and our culture are transmitted to the next generation.”

During preparations and research for “Cabin Fever: Jewish Camping and Jewish Commitment” at the Jewish Museum of Maryland that opened in March 2006, assistant director Deborah Cardin found herself becoming a convert to the cause. “I was not a product of Jewish camping, though I had friends who absolutely lived by the rhythms of camp,” she says. As she learned more, Cardin says she began to realize that “camp is a powerful Jewish experience filled with informal Jewish education.”

“Something happens at camp that you cannot find elsewhere,” she says. “It’s a totally different experience than learning Hebrew in a classroom. Camp shows the beauty of Jewish life, builds friendships and is fun.”

‘They Were So Cool’

020714_insider_counselors2

Jennifer Wingrat, her daughter, Rachel, and niece Maya Glass say having fun counselors is key to the camp experience.

She met them nearly 30 years ago, but Jenny Wingrat still remembers her three favorite counselors from good old Camp Wohelo.

Even though Camp Wohelo is no more (the Waynesboro, Pa., property is now Capital Camps), Wingrat will never forget the impact Penny, Beth and Jenny had on her life when she was a camper in the mid-1980s.

“The thing that stands out the most is just how much fun these people were to be around,” the Mount Washington resident says. “One of them was the pioneering counselor, and we did all the outdoorsy stuff with her. And it was a really big deal if you could learn how to light a bonfire with one match. You got to be in the One Match Club. It was such a big deal, something as simple as lighting a bonfire.”

Key to Wingrat’s experience was that the counselors weren’t just going through the motions. They were having as much fun as the kids.

“They were so cool. You wanted to be like them,” says Wingrat.

Ilene Cohen, a former  Camp Wohelo camper, says a favorite counselor helped her to acclimate to bunk life. (Provided)

Ilene Cohen, a former Camp Wohelo camper, says a favorite counselor helped her to acclimate to bunk life.
(David Stuck)

Inner Harbor resident Ilene Cohen was also a camper at Wohelo. She attended from 1967 to 1969, skipped a few years and returned from 1973 to 1975.

“When I went back to camp, it was a rough time,” Cohen recalls. “The other girls’ friendships had strengthened while I was away.” A counselor, Bobbie Berman, helped her reintegrate into camp life. “I really connected with her.”

Wingrat and Berman’s experiences aren’t so unusual. Camp professionals say people are always asking about staffers who have since moved on to other jobs.

“You hear that all the time,” says David Schimmel, director of Beth Tfiloh Camps in Reisterstown. “What ever happened to person X? I loved them.”

Each summer, thousands of young men and women take jobs as counselors in the region’s day and overnight camps.

Although most are still in or barely out of their teens, good camp counselors often have skills way beyond their years.

Campers spend their days making friends, learning about nature and often just doing goofy stuff. All of this is wonderful, but without those special staff members who spend every single day — and night — at overnight camps, doing everything from being substitute parents and role models to soothing homesick campers and mediating spats, the experience wouldn’t be the same.

“It’s very similar to finding that wonderful teacher that you make a connection with,” says Rick Frankle, director of Camp Airy in Thurmont. “It’s somebody who has you as a priority. It’s an intangible trait. They’re willing to spend time with you; they’re willing to listen to you, to offer you advice. It’s that really cool guy who is going to talk to you about things and teach you to shoot a basket to boot.”

Area camps take the responsibility of hiring counselors very seriously. Camp Airy and its sister camp, Camp Louise in Cascade, have a three-year training program for counselors. Young men and women who complete the training are hired right out of high school. Prospective employees who haven’t done the training need a year of college before the camp will consider hiring them.

At Beth Tfiloh, Schimmel looks for staffers who have a sense of fun partnered with a sense of responsibility. Most of BT’s 270 summer staffers are college students, with a strong contingent of teachers and other adults heading up the specialty areas and leadership roles.

Schimmel uses the interview to assess if a candidate who looks good on paper really does have the right stuff for the job. “My feeling always is, if they can have fun in the interview and if they can show maturity in the interview, typically they can carry it over for the summer,” Schimmel says. “If they’re a dud, I don’t want them.”

Obviously, not every camper-counselor match is a good one, and Schimmel admits his own kids have complained about a counselor or two over the years. However, most work out well.

The interview process is also an important prerequisite for Michelle Sugarman, assistant director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. Ramah hires 200 people every summer, most of whom are alumni of the camp. Three minutes into an interview, her gut will tell her if the applicant has what she’s looking for: “This is going to be a good caregiver,” she says. “This person has good energy.”

Sugarman takes care to chat with applicants to see how they’ll handle common situations, such as cheering up a homesick camper or dealing with kids who are fighting.

In addition to the in-person interview, prospective camp employees generally are fingerprinted, undergo sex offender and background checks and must provide solid references.

After getting used to the freedom of dorm life and living on their own, counselors must be willing to give up some of their independence.

“Living in a room with 13 8-year-olds is a whole different ballgame,” says Frankle.

Camp professionals strongly believe counselor jobs provide young people with life skills they can carry into nearly any profession. Sometimes, however, it’s a battle to get college students to choose color wars and campfires over a summer spent in an air-conditioned corporate cubicle.

“We have some staff who go to Ivy League schools, and they chose to come back to us year in and year out,” says Schimmel. “This is a chance to have an impact on children’s lives as well as to make friends with peers that you can’t make anywhere else.”

“The skills you get as a camp counselor, especially an overnight camp counselor, can train you for whatever you want to do in life,” says Sugarman, who notes that Ramah brings in a career specialist to guide staff on how best to position their counselor experiences on their resumes. “Whet-her you want to be a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher or in marketing, the skills you get being in this 24/7 hands-on environment are better than any internship you can ever get.”

Thanks to Facebook, Cohen still keeps in touch with Berman, who now lives in Germany. Wingrat is also Facebook friends with her favorite Wohelo counselors. And Wingrat’s daughter, Rachael, 16, is the second generation of Wingrat women to feel that powerful connection with a special counselor: She started at Camp Rim Rock in Yellow Springs, W.Va., when she was 6. This season, some of Rachael’s friends are moving on to other summer adventures. But Rachael plans to spend another summer at Rim Rock, where she will be a junior counselor, helping a new group of campers experience a summer of treasured memories.

Best Of Both Worlds

Camp Ramah in the Poconos now offers a basketball academy run by Tamir Goodman.

Camp Ramah in the Poconos now offers a basketball academy run by Tamir Goodman.

When the first Jewish summer camps were founded over a century ago, they offered youngsters respite from urban blight and disease, opportunities for friendship and independence and a taste of Jewish culture.

Nowadays, the relationship between Jewish summer camping, Jewish identity building and the continuity of the Jewish people is well documented. Yet, in order to keep Jewish families interested, camps are finding they must offer more than those traditional benefits to keep campers engaged … and enrolled.

“This is [now] a trend at Camp Ramah in the Poconos; [we are] driven by external trends,” says director Joel Seltzer. “Parents are looking for specialties. They want to see growth and increased skill levels in their kids by the end of the summer. We have to really think about the level of instruction we are providing.”

To meet this need, several years ago, the camp began offering the Ramah Basketball Academy, run by Baltimore basketball star Tamir Goodman. This year, it will add the Ramah Tennis Academy, run by Julian Krinsky.

“Julian is an amazing guy who runs phenomenally successful camps [with] a high level of instruction,” Seltzer says. “He told us, ‘What we don’t have [at my tennis camps] is community. We miss that. I would kill to have that sense of community in a camp.’”

Seltzer points out that community is something that Ramah can offer. “It’s a camp within a camp,” he says. “Kids can come to camp and have a specialty experience along with the warm embrace of the Jewish community.”

Ramah is not the only camp adding specialty programs this summer. Although Camp Milldale, a JCC camp, has offered an arts specialty for many years, this year, the JCC will offer another option, says Melissa Berman, assistant director for arts and culture. Habima Performing Arts Camp, which will take place at the Owings Mills JCC instead of on Camp Milldale’s campus, is part of the JCC’s new emphasis on the performing arts. Berman says Milldale’s arts camp will still exist, but it will focus on the visual arts; the new camp at the JCC, for children entering first through fifth grade, will focus on theater arts.

In addition to a more intensive focus on the performing arts, the JCC has also added some aquatics camps that will take place at the JCC in Owings Mills: Kickstarter will serve first- and second-graders; Junior Varsity will be for third- through fifth-graders; and Varsity will serve sixth- through eighth-graders. Tiyulim Travel Camp, for fifth- and sixth-graders, is also planned for 2014; for teens, the JCC will offer a new leadership training camp for those entering the ninth grade.

Also new, Camp Milldale will be led by first-year director Amy Bram.

At Beth Tfiloh, campers can take advantage of a new theater camp for grades 3 to 5. The camp, directed by Doug Kotula, head of theater at Pikesville High School, will be getting a new space on the Reisterstown campus as well.

“We built a brand new barn with a hayloft, where light and soundboards will be set up,” said director David Schimmel. “We’re also building a new stage. It’s all in the tradition of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies: ‘Let’s put on a play!’”

Like Camp Milldale and the JCC camps, Beth Tfiloh also will be making changes to its travel camp. This summer, says Schimmel, “the camp will be running out of [Beth Tfiloh’s] Old Court campus.” This will make the camp more affordable, he says.

Travel camp will feature day trips in and around the Baltimore-Washington area, and overnighters will include a visit to Hershey Park for younger campers and Kings Dominion for the older set. For the first time, Beth Tfiloh will offer travel opportunities for 10th- and 11th-graders as well. The weeklong overnight sessions will take campers on trips to Cleveland, New York and areas of New Jersey.

At the Shma camps, which include Camp Sternberg, Camp Anna Heller, Camp Avraham Chaim Heller and Camp Mogen Avraham, every summer brings changes, says Racheli Indig, co-director of Shma’s teen girls’ division. Indig says the most noticeable changes at the camps, located in New York, have been in facility improvements. The aquatics program includes new kayaks, a water trampoline, pool water slides and paddle boats.

This summer, Shma’s boys’ camps will offer Blitz flag football, a program designed to take campers’ skills to the next level. The boys will have access to professionally lined football fields and stadium lighting. A new game room will include foosball, air hockey, dome hockey and dance machines.

“We know Jewish families are choosing all kinds of wonderful camps, but we also know the choice of a Jewish camp is very important to the longevity of the Jewish people,” says Seltzer.

Habonim Dror: A Recipe For Engagement

Girls at camp Moshava celebrate Shabbat.

Girls at camp Moshava celebrate Shabbat.

When asked to summarize the 78-year-old Habonim Dror Progressive Zionist movement, Camp Moshava executive director Jen Silber is understandably overwhelmed.

“It’s a kibbutz-like environment dedicated to inclusion and social justice; campers are challenged to develop a strong and personal connection to Israel and the Jewish people and in doing so gain leadership skills and form friendships that last a lifetime,” she says, adding memories that take her back to her first summer at Habonim Dror camp at age 11. Since then, Silber has been a camper, counselor-in-training, counselor, unit head, kitchen manager and an alumni representative on the board of directors. But Silber’s story of successful Jewish engagement through Habonim Dror is just one of many.

Habonim Dror North America, with its local affiliate Camp Moshava, recently conducted an in-depth alumni study, Building Progressive Zionist Activists: Exploring the Impact of Habonim Dror, which asked 2,000 alumni of all ages and generations whether the Habonim Dror movement and its camps are truly effective in fulfilling the goals of its mission.

The study was conducted by Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College, and Steven Fink, a local survey and evaluation specialist and sociology teacher at Montgomery College in Rockville. Fink is also a Camp Moshava alum and the parent of a current camper.

Some of the most impressive statistics concern Israel: The study found that 97 percent have visited Israel, and 44 percent have lived there for five months or longer. Thirty-one percent give to their local federation; 49 percent contribute to Jewish and Israel-related social-change organizations; and 64 percent contribute to nondenominational social change organizations.

Abby Levine, a Camp Moshava alumni and director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, says, “The greatest thing to come out of the study is evidence of the source and persistence of the pride in being Jewish, which the [recent] Pew survey [of American Jews] highlighted.”

Beyond the philanthropy-related data, Habonim Dror Jewish marriage rates are unusually high with 78 percent of respondents married to a Jewish spouse. This clearly surpasses the intermarriage rates released in the Pew survey.

Based on the results of the study, Levine believes that Camp Moshava and all of the Habonim Dror camps in North America are “factories for Jews with strong values and passions for critical thinking and social engagement.”

Hadar Susskind, a Camp Moshava alum who serves as director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, shares Susskind’s sentiments.

“[Camp Moshava] creates a community based on independent and critical thinking. It’s a youth movement that is youth led, and it teaches campers how to be engaged members of their community,” she says.

The study also shows that with regard to developments in Israel, Habonim Dror alumni are especially engaged. Sixty-six percent of respondents “agree to a great extent” that Israel should freeze the expansion of settlements on the West Bank, and 62 percent of alumni respondents disapprove of the way Benjamin Netanyahu is handling his job as prime minister; 8 percent approve, and 30 percent are not sure.

“These results excite me, both personally and professionally,” says Levine. “I am thrilled to see the enduring commitment to social justice that the study found among Habonim Dror alumni.”