A couple of years ago, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Camp Shalom made a new commitment to families: “When they need us, we will be there!”
Camp staff decided on this motto when they noticed that their current families needed an increased amount of care. As a result, in addition to the existing summer and mid-year school-break camps, Camp Shalom started offering care for children from Vancouver Talmud Torah, Vancouver School Board, Vancouver Hebrew Academy and Richmond Jewish Day School on professional development days. Camp Shalom offers programs for children ages 3 to 15 for an average of 40 weeks out of the year, and is accessible to children who might have mental or physical disabilities.
“We want camp to be an inclusive environment for everyone. We want all campers to feel like they can participate in any of the activities,” said Marina Cindrich, Camp Shalom assistant director.
Supporting families and treating all campers as individuals has always been important to the Camp Shalom team. They recognize that they are a steppingstone into the Jewish camping world for many children in the city.
Director Ben Horev has committed the camp to providing a personalized experience for each family – whether it’s their first time at camp or their 10th, they will receive personal attention. This includes family meetings, scholarships and any other support a family might need for their child to attend camp. In the past, Camp Shalom has partnered with families from the Tri-Cities to bring them camp. This past summer, they introduced Kaitana Shalom, an ulpan-like day camp with Hebrew-speaking counselors and all activities in Hebrew, to help Israeli families integrate into Canada.
Camp Shalom will be kicking off 2020 summer camp registration with a Family Day concert and camp event (in partnership with PJ Library), which will feature Music with Marnie, as well as activities for the whole family. The event will take place on Feb. 17, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
New this year, Camp Shalom is introducing a major change to their enrolment. They will be retiring the two-week sessions and replacing them with week-to-week registration instead. This will allow families to design a better fitting schedule for their needs.
For more information about Camp Shalom, contact Horev at 604-638-7282 or [email protected].
At sleep-away camp, the camp counselor is the person your child is going to turn to as a replacement for you. Even if it’s a day camp, it is the counselor who will be there to comfort, encourage, discipline and befriend your child. Therefore, you need to understand the counselor’s role before you drive away, looking in the rearview mirror at the teary-eyed or over-excited son or daughter you are leaving behind – especially if it’s their first experience of going to camp.
While it can be wonderfully rewarding, camp counseling is a 24-hour-a-day commitment and the job requires a lot of skills. Most camps have training sessions, sometimes very intensive ones, before the start of the summer sessions, and only the most qualified are chosen, as they can make or ruin kids’ experiences.
New counselors who think that camp will be a long, outdoor holiday for themselves are mistaken – they are being paid to work. Theirs is a leadership role, and having fun is only part of the equation. They may have to deal with all kinds of personal problems, such as homesickness, or a child who feel inadequate at or left out of various activities.
The most dedicated counselors make time to get to know their campers. They explore why the kids came to camp and what they are looking forward to doing. They need to keep up with their charges’ accomplishments and help them get involved in whatever activities are being programmed. The object is to spend quality time with each child so that, in the new world they are in, the campers feel that there is at least one person on their side and available to help them if the need arises.
Parents should make sure to inform the camp of any special occasions or events in their child’s life that will take place while the child is at camp, such as a birthday.
A counselor has many roles to fulfil. Sometimes, if a child is homesick, for example, a counselor will need to remind them of the reasons they came to camp, get them enthused about the good times they will have once they settle in, and the great friends they will make. It’s often a good idea for counselors to discuss their own experiences when they were young campers, such as funny incidents, exciting adventures, or pranks that were played on them.
In talking to camp counselors, some of the adjectives they used about the experience were “exciting,” “rewarding,” “memorable,” “fun.” They also said, “I hated leaving my new friends”; “I felt so proud of the kids”; “it was a fantastic time.”
Most of these counselors lived in a cabin or tent with three to eight kids for whom they had full responsibility over the camp sessions. Sometimes, they had to be referee or an impartial adviser, if any disputes arose between the children.
For kids, camp is about trying new things, becoming independent and widening their horizons. Try and confirm that the counselors responsible for your child are sympathetic, conscientious, have a sense of humour and are concerned with security and safety before you wave goodbye to your child.
Dvora Waysmanis a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.
Originally, the only focus of Jewish camp was to offer Jewish children an opportunity to spend some time in a woodland environment. (photo from pxfuel.com)
Camping and camps may have been around forever. But Jewish camps, at least those in North America, have a contemporary history.
In 1893, a group called the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society organized a camp for Jewish children in New York. These women sought to create a place to give their children a break from life in the industrialized city where they worked. The initial focus of Jewish camps was on the children of Eastern European immigrants, and there was a drive to use the camps to Americanize participants. Jews were not the only ones to take an interest in this vehicle for integration. By 1900, there were 100 camps of all kinds and, by 1915, there were more than 1,000.
Originally, the only focus was to offer Jewish children an opportunity to spend some time in a woodland environment, perhaps with access to water. Camps also offered children opportunities to interact with their peers from various backgrounds, without parental oversight, something they might not find in their home environment. Over time, Jewish camp programs expanded to include acculturation into things Jewish, along with athletics, social skills-building, the arts and related activities. Among the Jewish camps, there was the development of those that promoted a particular religious observance, or Zionism, Hebrew usage, socialism and the like. Zionist camps were given a special impetus with the worldwide effort to establish a Jewish state.
What Jewish organizers found over time was that camp experiences were crucial in binding young people to the Jewish community. The relationships forged among young people through camp have played an important role in this area. Anyone who has lived through the camping experience understands the powerful emotional connections this activity can carry with it, particularly when it occurs year after year. Many community leaders believe that sleep-away camps were (and are) an important element in the maintenance of a Jewish identity in the face of all the forces that encourage assimilation into the general population.
The summer camp has become a feature of Jewish life wherever the numbers are available to support this community service. In addition to private ventures, over time, Jewish communities have invested substantial resources into these programs and see them as an important part of Jewish communal activity. Some synagogues have camps as part of their program.
Interest in this aspect of Jewish camp has increased over time. For some parents, Jewish camps are an alternative to expensive primary schooling at Jewish educational institutions.
As a reflection of the growing appreciation of the importance of sleep-away camps in maintaining strong communities, philanthropic groups funded, in 2014, an organization in the United States to assist Jewish camps in carrying out their work. The Foundation for Jewish Camp now works with more than 180 Jewish summer camps, assisting in the training of personnel and providing other services and resources. Among other things, it assists Jewish camps in recruiting professionals, offers grants to first-time campers and helps fund upgrades for camps to accommodate participants with special needs.
An estimate published in January 2019 reported that there were 77,000 attendees at Jewish camps in the United States, and the foundation reports that there are 195 Jewish camps in North America. In Canada, there are Jewish camps in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
If you’ve got a kid with special needs, it can be hard to find the right learning experiences and it can require extra work to make them accessible. (image from clker-free-vector-images (pixabay.com))
All Jewish kids deserve to have access to wonderful summer camp experiences. However, if you’ve got a kid with special needs, it can be hard to find the right learning experiences and it can require extra work to make them accessible. Every kid is different, so these tips are only a start, and from just one parent. Here’s to hoping your child has a great experience with Jewish camping, and that you do, too.
Start early. Finding the right situation takes research. For us, the best advice came from the parents of other special needs kids. Every special needs parent I’ve met wants to help others, as well. Taking care of a kid with challenges can be a struggle.
Even if your child isn’t ready for camp now, listen carefully, as advice may make it easier when the time comes. Starting early might mean gathering information years in advance or just signing up early in the new year to get into the summer program that is the best fit for your kid.
Ask for more information. Many camps say they work to meet every kid’s needs, but their program descriptions may not offer details. Contact the camp office to ask how they can meet your specific child’s needs. Be polite and detailed. The camp director should demonstrate professional competence that shows they can rise to any challenges that may occur.
Ask for a tour. If a child has physical disabilities or sensory challenges, for example, the physical environment can make or break the kid’s experience. Some places give lip-service to accessibility but haven’t tested it. Maybe a kid using a wheelchair can’t use the bathroom, or the hiking trails are too rugged for the wheelchair to manage. If a child uses an iPad assistive communication device that requires charging, check that the camp’s got adequate plugs to recharge it.
Walk through the grounds. Imagine your child on a camp day. If your child is open to it, bring the kid along. How will this environment work physically for him or her? Is it truly accessible?
Ask about professional supports. Many camps are staffed with eager but inexperienced young adults. These counselors are often full of energy and great ideas but many have never encountered special needs situations. Does this camp have a professional on staff who works with kids with challenges? Does this person have any training or experience?
In some school environments, even the teachers aren’t expected to have special education training. If it isn’t required at school, it may not be available at camp.
While professionals are essential, sometimes the best support can be an older student or even another parent who has experience with a sibling, child or friend with special needs. If the camp looks like a possibility, see if your child can be paired with an assistant who really knows what she or he is doing. Sometimes, you need to pay extra to get this help.
Good communication is key. A camp that doesn’t respond to questions isn’t likely to work out well. This is particularly true if your child isn’t verbal or can’t advocate for themself. You should feel reassured that, from start to finish, the camp is willing and able to connect with you, let you know about the successes and difficulties each day, and even ask you for advice about your kid.
It doesn’t have to be formal, it can be a few words at pick up and drop off, but communication needs to be good to keep your kid safe.
Ask if you can observe or drop in. If you can see camp in session, with or without your camper present, you may have a much better idea of whether it will work. For instance, a kid who is sensitive to noise may need accommodation to cope with common camp experiences like bunk cheers or song sessions, as these frequently offer an opportunity for over-the-top yelling. You cannot hear that noise unless you are there when the campers and counselors are, too.
Compromise. The best Jewish environment for your child may not be the one you planned on. If your family is traditional but the Reform day camp has the most accessible campus, you might choose that camp. Or, if your local Chabad provides the most supportive environment in terms of counselor/camper ratio, but you’re raising an egalitarian Conservative family, you may need to decide which values are most important. For many, there are the things that their special needs camper must have, and then there are many other compromises along the way. Do what is best for your child. Sort out the theological discrepancies later.
Trust your gut. Sometimes, we don’t have all the information in advance, but we know the people involved and their good relationship with our children. If you feel confident and trust those in charge, that’s a great start. On the other hand, if you get a bad feeling from an interaction, pay attention! Your child is dependent on the adults in charge at camp. If you doubt their ability to meet your kid’s needs, don’t sign up, or take your kid out of the camp.
Your kid (and every kid) is precious. Do your homework. A good camp is more than daycare. It’s powerful enrichment that boosts Jewish identity and enthusiasm for the whole year.
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
For many kids, camp is the only time they find themselves in a less structured environment. (photo from pixabay.com)
I remember the days when going to camp was the annual ritual, part of the summer holiday agenda. In our Winnipeg Jewish community, camps were standard practice. It seemed to me that all of my friends were going to be there, but there were always new faces. Some of them would prove to be the companions of my growing up.
Camp was there to free us from the constraints of everyday life, school and parental supervision. For some of us, being out there, in a natural setting, was the only time we ever found ourselves in a less structured environment, as most of us were city-dwellers. And there were always elements of Jewish culture to be shared.
But what I remember most of all was the consciousness that I was alone in a way different from the ordinary. I was in a cabin or a tent where most of my companions were strangers, at least at the start of the summer. Parents were far away. There was a counselor, but he or she was more like a referee than a parent. Whatever issues might arise between my companions and me, resolution would require direct negotiation without intervenors.
Here was an opportunity to test out our interpersonal skills and discover whether we would be leaders or followers, and in what areas did we have knowledge we could share. Here we could discover what issues might be important to us in person-to-person relationships. It had a different feel than our relations with siblings but with the intimacy of living together. We might even have to get into a physical fight if a conflict were grave enough. Would we allow someone to bully us? I certainly had to develop my capacities in these areas in my home environment.
In my case, I went the whole route: camper, counselor, program director. I can honestly say that the camping experience was my personal proving ground for skills I would hone and embellish throughout my life. In retrospect, I realize how important these occasions were for me.
I had the good fortune to attend a camp in my teen years that included subsisting for a few days in a wilderness environment. We hiked. We canoed. We even spent some time in a lake waiting for rescue when our canoe foundered in a sudden storm. I actually have started a fire by rubbing two sticks together. I have slept several nights in a forest with my companions listening to all the mysterious night sounds. We never saw a wolf or a bear, but we got to use copious amounts of mosquito repellent. I have lugged in the groceries and I have cooked food over an open fire. Potatoes are easy, but eggs are more difficult. The experiences were unforgettable.
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Campers at Pennsylvania’s Camp Havaya. (photo from Camp Havaya)
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), Ben Zoma says, “Who is honourable? One who honours others.” The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Shmira Initiative “aims to make camps safe, healthy and respectful model communities. Shmira, in Hebrew and in the vernacular of Jewish summer camp, means guard duty, embodying the social and individual responsibility every community member has to ensure a safe environment.”
For some camps, the initiative provides practical training that has been needed for some time. But, at Camp Havaya in Pennsylvania, camp director Sheira Director-Nowack told the Independent that they have been operating on the initiative’s principles for many years.
“We have people who go by ‘he,’ by ‘she’ and by ‘they,’ as rabbis, teachers, students, educators, campers and staff,” said Director-Nowack of the camp, which is part of the Reconstructionist movement. “So, for us, the sexual harassment piece is something we’ve always discussed, have always had a policy for. I used to work at a camp that did not have that defined as clearly and they had some real challenges. We don’t have some of those challenges here, because it’s very up front and very clear – how you treat all people, not just insofar as gender, but in all areas of inclusion.”
At Camp Havaya, respect is constantly discussed.
“The name of our camp mascot is Howie Bee,” said Director-Nowack. “We talk about ‘how we be,’ using that as a fairly common statement to talk about how we should treat each other with respect, kindness … better than you’d want to treat yourself, you’d want to treat the other person … and, not just as a Jewish phenomena, but as a human phenomena.”
While Director-Nowack acknowledged that, every so often, they run into power conflicts in a relationship, they try to ensure it never gets near the point of harassment.
At Camp Havaya, she said, flirtation is discouraged. For example, there are strict rules as to what clothing is acceptable. Everyone must wear shirts at all times and clothing should be loose fitting. They also have no boys against girls competitions. Instead, all sports are open to everyone and, while everyone swims together, there are rules about appropriate swimwear.
Language and attitude is another area that is closely monitored at the camp. “We don’t use the word ‘broad’ or ‘chick,’ we don’t use a lot of derogatory terms,” said Director-Nowack. “We don’t make jokes at other people’s expense.
“We want everyone to treat each other how they would treat their own family or themselves…. There’s not a constant need for romance or underlying things that go into that modern love thought and, because of that, we don’t see certain behaviours that other places might see.”
The concepts of the #MeToo movement are discussed at camp, as are other relevant topics, like Black Lives Matter and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Our constituency is made up of people who are interested in these things … also, things like respect for people with special needs, inclusivity, race, culture and minorities,” said Director-Nowack. “We don’t talk about these things because they’re hot topics. We were talking about them before they were considered cool to talk about.
“We also give the credit to younger people, because it is them who are changing the verbiage, changing ideas. They are bringing them to us and we are bringing them to camp, because, if camp is a microcosm of society, then we want to be part of that.”
If and when the topic of sex comes up, Director-Nowack said she teaches her staff to turn the conversation back to the camper and ask why he or she is wondering about it.
Camp Havaya has a no-sex policy. If inappropriate behaviour is observed, Director-Nowack said, ‘We don’t punish people for behaviour, but I may or may not ask them if camp is the appropriate place for it. I don’t feel like there’s any place at camp where you could be sexual appropriately, and that’s what we talk about.
“We don’t hook up in the middle of the woods – that’s just not what we do. And, we really don’t have a lot of that. I don’t think I’d kick someone out of camp just because they kissed someone. But, I’d say something like, ‘I just walked passed you kissing … not what I want to see, not OK, not cool.’ If it got further than that, it would depend on the kid, the parent, the discussion and the situation. We’re dealing with human beings and we have an environment that’s not constant.”
Still, staff members do talk with campers about consent, in an effort to ensure all of them are comfortable in their own space at all times.
“Our goal is to create young leaders in the Jewish community who are thoughtful and intelligent, and who are, therefore, going to go out and lead a Jewish life and know themselves,” said Director-Nowack. “We love that some people find their love and their relationships at camp. But, I also love that people find their independence at camp … or that they want to lead a more productive Jewish life without a partner…. We want our kids and staff to leave camp as people who are going to make decisions guided by some basic values.”
Sea to Sky Aphasia Camp provides a
three-day retreat to 30 campers and their family members at Zajac Ranch in
Mission, B.C. (photo from Sea to Sky)
Aphasia is a communication impairment most
often caused by stroke, but it can also be due to any brain injury. It impacts
a person’s ability to speak, understand spoken language, and the ability to
read and to write.
“It’s important to understand that, while
communication is impaired, a person’s cognitive function is not,” said Eavan
Sinden, a speech-language pathologist at the University of British Columbia,
about the condition. “This is something Sea to Sky [Aphasia] Camp focuses on –
that we can create a communicably accessible and supportive environment, while
acknowledging the inherent competence.
“But, there are some prominent researchers in
the world of aphasia now who are looking at expanding on [the] definition …
so that it would include the impact of aphasia on a person’s life – the impact
it has on a person’s identity, on a person’s ability to participate in social
events, their ability to work, their ability to be in the role that we assume
… mom, dad, daughter, whatever … changing the definition a little bit to
include that impact.”
Out of the 100,000 people in Canada who will
suffer a stroke this year, 35% of stroke survivors will live with some form of
aphasia. Further to that, 62% of these survivors will experience depression after
Sinden teaches and does research at UBC’s
School of Audiology and Speech Sciences. One of her primary roles within the
school is to coordinate the Sea to Sky camp every September. This fall, it will
run Sept. 20-22.
The camp, which is entering its 10th year,
provides a three-day retreat to 30 campers and their family members at Zajac
Ranch in Mission, B.C., in a facility specifically designed for people with
unique abilities and challenges.
To make the camp a reality, Sinden and UBC
partner with Douglas College’s therapeutic recreation program, and March of
Dimes Canada. “There’s a lot of support for this camp,” Sinden told the Independent.
“In addition to being a camp for people with aphasia, those 30 campers come
with family or friends, if they choose.
“We also have 36 healthcare-professional
students who come for the weekend to learn a little bit more about what it’s
like to live with a chronic impairment, such as aphasia. They are
speech-language pathology students, audiology students, therapeutic-recreation
students, nursing, pharmacy, dental hygiene and physiotherapy – a whole range
of care students who opt, every year, to do this. Without them, we wouldn’t
have enough support. It’s really great to have these layers of partnerships in the
community. They really help create that communicably accessible environment.”
There is also a group of clinical leads,
healthcare professionals in the community, who have been working with aphasia
and who volunteer the weekend of the camp to work with the students.
A disturbing trend, according to Sinden, is
that aphasia is affecting younger and younger people. “This is the frightening
part,” she said. “We have people anywhere from 30 or 31 to their late 70s or
early 80s, a real range, but the majority are in their 50s and 60s. It’s no
longer something you’d think just happens to older people. The Heart and Stroke
Foundation has written quite a few reports on that.”
At Sea to Sky, participants can do yoga,
horseback riding, cooking, singing, dancing, campfires, basketball, swimming,
arts and woodwork.
“A lot of our activities are run by people with
aphasia, as well, who have come to the camp for many years and are now leaders
in that way,” said Sinden. “The students also take a role in working on some of
All accommodations and meals are included in
the $250 cost for the weekend.
“It’s a really terrific way for people with
aphasia in the community to come together, socialize and be with people who’ve
been on similar journeys,” said Sinden. “Aphasia can be very isolating, so it
can be incredibly powerful to meet people with whom you have a shared
experience, who you can see that idea of, ‘OK, I can do this.’ Maybe, if I’m a
little earlier on in my recovery and I see someone 10 years post doing
something that I didn’t think would be possible … that can open up
“We have a great core group who come year after
year,” she added. “But, I have to say, especially this year, we had quite a
number of newcomers, which is exciting. We’re always trying to extend our reach
and support the community of people with aphasia.”
While the number of people suffering from
aphasia has increased, the camp has been able to accommodate the demand – but
just barely, due to space and funding.
“We’re fortunate in that March of Dimes, UBC
and Douglas College support us with grants, but every year we hope to still get
the funds,” said Sinden. “It’s never a sure thing. There’s a huge need for more
community support. If we could take more campers or run more camps, we would
also be happy to do that and it’s something on our wish list.”
This year, Sinden is starting a campaign called
Sponsor a Camper, asking donors to give $250 so someone can attend the camp.
Other support is raised via the Stroke Recovery Association of British Columbia
and Fraser Health.
For more information, visit srabc.ca or
Union for Reform Judaism will be
closing down their summer camp for teen leadership development: Kutz Camp, in
Warwick, N.Y. (photo from onehappycampernj.org)
It’s that time of year again – when it’s too
cold in Winnipeg sometimes to go to synagogue. For many folks, this never
happens! For others, they never intended to go in the first place. Others would
like to attend, but aren’t well enough to leave home when it’s frigid.
Once, my twins, age 2, wanted to go to a
Shabbat family service when the temperature was ridiculously cold. With wind
chill, it was below -40. We bundled them up, got outside (we don’t have a garage),
seat belted them in and, though the cars were plugged in, car #1 wouldn’t
Our hands were stiff with cold as we took off
our mitts, got the twins out of their car seats and into the other car, and
then? Car #2 wouldn’t start either. Dang.
We grabbed the kids, rushed back indoors, and
they screamed. No services. What would we do? We streamed a service from my
parents’ Virginia congregation online. The screaming stopped. The kids were
Sometimes, streaming services at home is the
only answer. However, it’s not the same as being there. No one knows whether
you stand up and sit down. And if you sing along? You’re all alone doing it. If
the streaming has a hiccup, well, I’ve been known to give up. (I’d only “give
up” in person if my kids disrupted things.)
So, it’s fair to say that technology offers
amazing benefits, but it’s not being there in the flesh. There are rabbinic
discussions on why streaming doesn’t fulfil certain mitzvot and, of course, it
certainly doesn’t abide by the traditional things you can “do” on Shabbat.
Why bring this up? I recently learned that the
Union for Reform Judaism will be closing down their summer camp for teen
leadership development: Kutz Camp, in Warwick, N.Y. In the press release
announcing its reluctant close, the Reform movement noted that, in its 54
years, the camp has been a living laboratory. Some of the best and most
innovative Reform Jewish experiences happen there. However, today’s teens seek
experiences closer to home, and at different times during the year.
As a camper for two years and a staff member
for one, Kutz offered me the opportunity both to learn a marketable skill and
to wrestle deeply with Jewish music, texts and tradition. The marketable skill,
song leading, allowed me to earn money teaching music at summer camps, at
religious schools and in adult education classes for years. It helped cover
expenses during my undergraduate and graduate degrees. It offered me a great
deal of joy and spiritual meaning. I helped create kid communities who sang
their way right through services together.
I also joined a program called Torah Corps,
which allowed me to study and learn Torah and commentary every camp day with
other similarly motivated teenagers. It was a meaningful endeavour, and it gave
me an opportunity to feel less alone about my passion for both Jewish text and
The people who attended Kutz Camp over the
years went on to be real leaders, not just in their congregations, but also in
the larger Jewish community and beyond. Every so often, I hear a name pop up
and I remember someone from summer camp. These are people who make change in
the world far beyond a single summer experience. For instance, Debbie Friedman
(z”l), the famous song leader and Jewish musician, got her start at Kutz Camp.
Dr. Andy Rehfeld, the newly appointed president
for the Reform movement’s seminary and graduate school, HUC-JIR, was an admired
mentor and song leader of mine at Kutz Camp. For years, I toted around cassette
tapes that recorded the entire NFTY Chordster, an encyclopedic “real
book” for Reform Jewish song leaders. I used a Walkman, boom box and car
stereo. I learned every single melody that Andy sang into that recording.
When I Googled Andy’s name, three or four other
names from camp popped up – all are now rabbis, cantors, educators or other
leaders. Kutz Camp was an incubator. It attracted teenagers from all over the
United States, Canada, England, Israel and elsewhere. Through Kutz Camp, I had
contacts all over the continent (and beyond) for quite awhile. When I went far
away from home to attend Cornell University in upstate New York, I wasn’t
alone! I went with several dear friends from camp.
I’m sad that Kutz Camp will close. It’s sited
in a beautiful place, though the buildings were falling down even when I was
there, around 30 years ago. However, just as online streaming has changed our
options when it comes to attending services or Jewish learning online, it has
also taken away the need for some families to send their kids away to camp.
But those face-to-face leadership incubators –
Jewish summer camps – are priceless. I met people from all over the world at
Kutz, just as I knew teenagers who did the same at USY, Habonim Dror and other
We give up some things when we stay home. Maybe
it’s the casual exchanges at shul that we miss. Or that we can’t hear everyone
singing harmonies around us in the Kutz Camp congregation. Or perhaps it’s
missing a lifelong friendship or even a spouse you might have met at camp.
Sometimes, it’s just better to be there in person. (Assuming your car will
Joanne Seiffhas written for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
BaMidbar students hike in all weather conditions, learning to live and care for themselves in outdoor environments. (photo from BaMidbar)
When she was 15 years old, now-camp director
Jory Hanselman had some family members who were struggling with mental illness
and addiction. At the same time, a couple of close friends passed away in
pretty quick succession. Hanselman was struggling to cope, until her parents
sent her to a wilderness therapy program.
“It was an extremely transformative experience
for me,” Hanselman told the Independent. “I was there over Passover and
so, while the program I was at was not in the least bit Jewish, my identity as
a Jew was really central to what I experienced and got from it.
“I really connected it to the narrative, and
thinking about finding my freedom from narrow places and overcoming obstacles
I’ve faced in life. So, I looked into how I could become more involved in
In college, Hanselman spent summers at Ramah in
the Rockies and saw firsthand the beautiful integration of Jewish learning via
meaningful, outdoor-based experiences. And, when Ramah in the Rockies started
exploring the idea of opening a Jewish wilderness therapy program, their
director reached out to Hanselman, knowing that she had been working in the
field. Hanselman was asked to provide input on how to build a therapy program.
“They decided they would move forward and
officially create BaMidbar and so I came on board at that time, in September
2016, to help move the program from a space of ideas to implementation and actuality,”
One great thing about its location – literally,
in the wilderness – is that it’s only an hour-and-a-half drive from Denver,
Colo. However, said Hanselman, “To give you a perspective, we are an hour drive
from cell service in any direction.”
The therapy retreat is for Jews from 18 to 28
years old who are struggling with mild to moderate social and behavioural
challenges, including depression, general anxiety, social anxiety and more. The
young adults in the program have reached the tipping point where the issues are
getting in the way of their being able to fully engage with the people and
things around them in life.
“We also see lots of folks who have
co-occurring substance abuse disorders, who are also using substances in
addition to working through challenges associated with other mental health
challenges,” said Hanselman.
“The idea of wilderness therapy (WT) is using
wilderness- and adventure-based experiences as the vehicle for therapy, to
grow. So, we joke a lot in the WT industry that it’s not about doing therapy in
the wilderness, it’s about doing wilderness-based therapy. It’s not just going
out and meeting with a clinician in a wilderness-based setting; it’s really
using that experiential environment as a vehicle for working through different
The BaMidbar program involves the whole family.
While students work with an individual therapist, their family is having weekly
phone meetings with the therapist who, in turn, also works with the field staff
to implement a treatment plan.
“So, our students are learning how to, for
example, build a fire with friction, and they use this opportunity to build
primitive skills to challenge themselves,” said Hanselman. “They learn what
tools they need to work through and understand what they’re capable of.
“Wilderness-based experiences are used as
metaphors and storytelling to support our students in connecting what is
happening in the wilderness environment to life outside the program.”
The small-group environment at the camp is used
as a way to help campers learn and rebuild communication skills and other
“We provide feedback and strong support for
them, as they determine how to have healthy emotional responses to different
stressful situations, or anger management strategies, and things like that,”
While there are many WT camps, BaMidbar is
possibly the only one that uses a Jewish lens and framework in everything they
do, including using the Jewish calendar as an opportunity to look at topics
that are thematically relevant to campers.
“To give an example, for Passover last year,
every day we had a theme we focused on that tied to the Passover narrative, as
well as our student therapeutic journey,” said Hanselman. “Day One, we focused
on our narrow place. Day Two, we talked about the story of Nachshon Ben
Aminadav … jumping into the unknown and what it might look like to take a
leap of faith and know that you need to change your situation, even if you
don’t know what the future holds. Day Three, we looked at manna in the desert
and talked about what sustains you physically, metaphorically, spiritually. Day
Four, we talked about receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai and did a summit hike,
talking about our personal value systems, what we live by, things like that.”
With BaMidbar being a kosher camp, Shabbat is a
break from the routine, which, in this case, is wilderness. On Shabbat, they
spend time in a cabin, while still studying texts through the lens of how they
are relevant to one’s life. This is the perfect time, said Hanselman, to talk
about family. For instance, “because, throughout Genesis, that revolves around
challenging family dynamics…. I always joke that Abraham was the first
wilderness therapy participant. He leaves everything he’s familiar with and
goes off into the wilderness on this journey of self-discovery. So, we do a lot
of programming around Shabbat.”
BaMidbar (which means “in
the desert” in Hebrew) is non-denominational and the organizers are dedicated
to meeting every student where they are in their unique journey, recognizing
and honouring that it can be very different for each individual.
“We are very dedicated to making sure that
students understand that our goal is to explore meaning, values and purpose
through a Jewish lens – not to tell them how to live Jewishly or what that
ideal Jewish life might look like,” said Hanselman. “That’s not our goal. Our
goal is to look at the wisdom Jewish tradition provides and to support students
for whole health wellness.”
Participants can expect 10 to 12 weeks in the
wilderness (Shabbat in a two-room cabin). Groups are small, with a current
maximum of eight individuals, and the program runs year-round.
In winter, said Hanselman, “We fully outfit our
students, so they receive all their gear from us. We make sure they have what
they need to be safe and warm in a wilderness environment. We have a lot of
staff practices around safety and support in that winter environment, and then
we have tents that have wood stoves in them when it gets below a certain
The camp fee is around $3,500 US per week. A
nonprofit, the BaMidbar program offers scholarships and works with every
family, regardless of their financial situation. Currently, about 75% of
students receive scholarships provided mainly by private donors and
While BaMidbar has received many inquiries from
Canadian families, they have not had any Canadian participants. “But, we can
work with them – from Canada, or Israel, or other countries,” said Hanselman.
“We just haven’t yet.”
Three years ago, Rabbi Audrey Pollack of SolelCongregation in Mississauga, Ont., decided to follow the lead of Rabbi DebraDressler of Temple Israel in London, Ont., and create an interfaith peace campin Mississauga.
Pollack, who hails from the United States,
moved to Canada in 2015. The Reform congregation Solel “had a tremendous
reputation in the movement in terms of the education,” said Pollack, as did
“the rabbi of the congregation at the time, Rabbi Lawrence Englander, who
retired after 40 years here.”
As for the idea of the camp, Pollack told the Independent,
“When I spoke with Rabbi Dressler, it sounded like a great opportunity to bring
together interfaith dialogue and cooperation. And so, I went out there that
summer for the day to see what they were doing. I thought it was a great
experience for kids, adults and the teen volunteers that we have.”
As the chair of the Interfaith Council of Peel,
Pollack was well-positioned to start the interfaith camp, and Solel does a lot
of outreach in the Mississauga community in general.
The suburb of Toronto “has about 700,000 people
and we have about 250 families in our congregation, so we’re relatively small
in terms of Jewish community here,” said Pollack. “We do a lot of dialogue and
conversation with the community, because we are a diverse community. It’s
important for people to know who Jews are and what we are about, to make
friends and to really to support each other.”
Pollack wanted to find an Islamic partner who
did a lot of English-language programs, as opposed to Arabic. They found Sheikh
Jaffer H. Jaffer from the Masumeen Islamic Centre in Brampton, who was excited
to join, said Pollack.
“The church – Canon Jennifer Reid from Saint
Peter’s Anglican Erindale – we had already been partnering with for awhile,”
she said. “I knew the minister there. They run a day camp program, like a
vacation Bible study program. So, that was helpful our first year, just in
terms of setting up and running a day camp. They already had a few people in
place that had some background.”
At first, the interfaith camp’s content was a
bit of mishmash, said Pollack, but it is continually being developed and
updated to meet the needs of the community. One of the bigger challenges has
been to maintain a balance from each denomination; the mosque membership is
much larger than that of the church and synagogue.
“The first day, we always try to do something
that everyone can do together, like a get-to-know-you day,” said Pollack. “Kids
need to get to know each other as kids. We do a training beforehand for our
adult and teen volunteers, and, I should mention that each faith centre makes a
commitment to bring a certain number of volunteers.
“The first summer we did something on tzedakah, or charity, and this summer we
did something on building friendship and peace.”
Each day of camp, they go to visit a different
faith centre. The campers learn a little bit more about what each group
believes and how they practise their beliefs. Everyone has an opportunity to
visit, have a tour and ask questions.
“We really expect the youth from each of the
faith centres to do some of that explanation,” said Pollack. “It’s an
opportunity for them as well.
“I remember the first time we came here [to the
synagogue] with the kids for summer. Our kids were so excited, because they’d
been to the mosque the day before, and they wanted to give the tour and to
explain what a Torah is, why we wear kippot and things like that. So, it’s an
opportunity – not only for them to learn about other faiths, but for the home
faith group to be proud of who they are … and to really make the connection
that there are things we share in common, and that we need to get along with
each other. Basically, we need to know our neighbours.”
Most of the participating kids go to public
schools around the city and may sit next to each other in class, but they
rarely get to share anything about their faith in class. They may have some
misconceptions or stereotypes about what someone else’s faith or culture is,
said Pollack, because they don’t really discuss it.
The camp is a great opportunity to share some
truth and dispel such misconceptions, she said.
The kids who have had this camp experience are
already looking forward to next summer, asking when registration will be open,
said the rabbi. Their parents, too, are interested in what is going on.
“On the last night of camp – we’ve been running
this as a four-day camp, maybe five next summer – we get together at one of the centres for a potluck meal,”
said Pollack. “It is all-vegetarian, so everybody can eat. There’s a
presentation and a slideshow. After the first dinner, all the parents said they
wanted to go to camp and learn, so we started doing an adult session, too.
“We did a progressive dinner,” she said. “We
started with appetizers at one centre, and then moved on to the next centre and
had dinner. By the time they got here, at the synagogue, I could barely talk,
because they were all chatting away with each other. And, it was great, because
many of them, before this, didn’t know each other well.
“It was a really great day and we’re looking at
doing some other programming this year. During the camp off-season, we’ll have
an opportunity for dialogue and discussion, and some activities.”
With budget and space limitations, the camp is
capped at 12 kids from each faith centre. While the campers pay to attend, the
camp makes sure cost is not a prohibitive factor. “We want anyone who wants to,
to be able to come, so we try to keep our costs low,” said Pollack.
The congregations are looking to create a
couple more opportunities this coming year for people to meet, she said, “and
they would like to do something for the older kids as well … to do an evening
or afternoon activity where they could do a craft or cooking or something like
that, and the adults could have a discussion on something that we have in common
with each other.”
Because the Jewish community in Mississauga is
small, said Pollack, “for our kids, when they come together at synagogue, it’s
really important for them to connect with Jewish kids. For them, the
opportunity to talk to their new friends from different religions and cultural
backgrounds, with pride and support of each other, is important. It’s also
really important for them to see that there are ideas and values and ethics
that we hold in common. Often, we talk about what divides us.
“For younger kids, they just like hanging out
with their new friends. They’ll talk about the activities they did together,
while, for the older kids, they’ll articulate and express what they’ve learned
or didn’t know before. Each time they go back, they gain something a little
“A very valuable part about this camp
experience,” she continued, “is building relationships through intentional
dialogue and intentional conversation, and the opportunity to do that in a camp
setting means that people are doing it in different modalities. They are
connecting with each other through play and through giving back to the
“One of the other things we’ve made part of our
program each day, in addition to the activities we are doing, is giving back.
We’ve invited representatives from the hospital to come and the kids have made
cards for people in the hospital. We’ve invited people from our greening and
planting area of the city to come also. So, they understand that, no matter
what community you come from, there’s a value in supporting community.”