At Camp Shomria, it’s all “about equality and giving the power to the youth,” says one parent. (photo from Camp Shomria)
In Ontario, Camp Shomria was established based on the principals of Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard), with its Zionist and socialist principles, including that building a strong community is just as important as building strong individuals.
Camp director Uri Ron Amit is an Israeli who runs the only chapter of Hashomer Hatzair in Canada, which is based in Toronto. He comes from a background of working as an educator in international development and community management.
“The kids are from Grade 2 (7-year-olds) all the way up to Grade 11 (17-year-olds),” said Amit. “By Grade 12, they become first-year youth counselors in the movement. And then, later on, they can continue working to make an impact in the camp, either as youth counselors, as head of camping or as head of programs.”
Most families involved at the camp are from the Toronto area but some campers also come from the United States and a fairly large number come all the way from Israel. The camp is situated an approximately four-hour drive northeast of Toronto, and about an hour and a half southwest of Ottawa.
“Starting in Grade 2, the kids spend a week away from home at camp,” said Amit. “Grades 3 and higher stay at the camp for at least two weeks at a time, and sometimes for five weeks. Having young kids sent by their parents to be away from home … brings both opportunities and challenges. The further away you are, the more remote [it is, and] it can create a sense of independence and a different world for the kids and youth counselors.”
Hashomer Hatzair was established more than 100 years ago, he explained, “with the idea of having youth of different ages develop an independent youth community that stands for the ideals of humanistic Judaism and Zionism. The main difference in sending your kid to experience camp away from home is the added layer of independence – a level of ownership over the community … self-reflection and personality development.
“I think the main reason parents send their kids away from home for a couple of weeks with minimal communication with them is because they want them to go through a meaningful learning process that can help them pick up a strong group dynamic in the youth community.”
Amit described one particular child who came to the camp. This child had never been to a sleepaway camp before, and was dependent on his parents for almost everything. “After a couple days, this child became a star,” said Amit. “He became independent and took to different stages of sharing feelings and emotions…. We gave him the opportunity to lead discussions … with group members. His parents said it was a life-changing experience.”
Camper Zoe Friedman, 13, who lives in Toronto, started attending the camp last summer, choosing to do so after she learned that some of her friends from Israel go there.
“It’s a camp that really builds character,” she said. “And it gives you time to expand on things … expands character, responsibility and social skills. Every morning, we have something called toranuyot (chores), where we get split into groups and go clean up the camp…. So, we might clean the washroom, pick up trash, or something else that helps everybody. The theme of Shomria is socialism. We all do everything together and support each other. It’s a really good vibe.”
As for being away from her parents and home, Zoe said she felt it was sometimes very difficult, as, at night, it is extremely dark and you feel very far away from it all. But, at other times, she said, it is tremendously fun.
“It was really fun to disconnect from the outside world and focus on what’s in front of you,” she explained. “It’s just interesting to see how such a big group of kids can just disconnect from technology and focus more on social skills, responsibilities, and just on having a good time, without focusing on technology.”
Zoe and her family – mom Eilat Bakerman, dad David Friedman and younger sister Gaia, 9 – have been living in Toronto for the past 12 years, and are very involved in the local Jewish community. Bakerman heard about Shomria from friends and decided to send both Zoe and Gaia there.
“They thought it really helped to build kids’ character, and they support the values of what the camp aims for … about giving the power to the youth,” said Bakerman. “The camp is run by youth and they are leading other youth, a bit younger kids, in whatever they do. The only adults they have there are the operational staff – cooks, doctors, nurse, drivers, and so on. It highlights what you’d imagine a kibbutz life was like when it first started.”
According to Bakerman, one example of the unusual way in which the camp is run is how, when the kids first arrive at the camp, any money parents send with the kids is pooled together and everyone is given back an equal share. “Nobody feels they have more than others,” she said.
“When they go to Perth, which is the closest city,” said Bakerman, “everybody gets the same share of money – no matter how much they each may have brought into the camp – and that’s what they have for spending money.
“No matter if you came from a wealthy home, where you don’t need to do any chores, or not, at camp, in the morning, the kids decide what kind of chores they’ll do and everybody in the group does it,” she added. “Everybody is eating the same food. It’s about equality and giving the power to the youth.”
Bakerman also regularly sends her daughters to stay with family in Israel while she stays to work in Canada. The location of the sleepaway camp was not a deterrent.
“I think the kids are so engaged, it really doesn’t matter – the distance,” said Bakerman. “The distance is neither a barrier nor an excuse to come home or to call home. To me, it was about character and values…. The camp gave them independence and they have something to aspire to become. They’re really looking forward to next year.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.