By Nina Wugmeister and Rachel Raz
“Mom, when can we go to Israel?” my five year old son asked me after the first day of summer camp. I can’t even begin to describe my joy at his question.
I grew up in Connecticut and New York, with rich and varied Jewish experiences and I wanted to give my son the same in our remote and small community in southern Vermont and the surrounding area. I speak fluent Hebrew, have lived in Israel, and am eager to bring some of this to our little corner of the world. Our Jewish community is tiny and geographically spread out, and organized Jewish experiences are limited. The community includes many interfaith families. After a few parents lamented the lack of Jewish options in our area, I decided to create a Jewish day camp. How hard could it be? I figured I needed kids, a leader, and a location. I partnered with a local synagogue and a local farm, and decide to split the week between the two. I came up with a budget, recruited families, and asked two local inns to donate rooms to accommodate the leader. I asked two local Jewish teenagers to volunteer as camp assistants. I asked PJ Library Vermont to come do a program with the kids during camp as well. My goal was to be as inclusive as possible, so that all the Jewish families, regardless of affiliation or observance, would feel comfortable sending their kids. It was an enormous amount of work, but well worth it – we ended up with 15 enrolled kids, ages 4-10.
It was extremely important to me that unaffiliated families would find the camp appealing. I decided that it should not be “religious,” but rather serve to create a sense of Jewish fun and adventure.
I called Rachel Raz, director of the Early Childhood Institute (ECI) of Hebrew College and asked her to help me recruit an educator that could create a program and lead the camp. For many children and their families it might be their first or only Jewish communal experience and I wanted to make sure it would be a positive one. I described my goals and my ideas to Rachel, and told her that I would run all of the logistics.
When Nina called me I immediately identified the potential of this idea. Manchester, Vermont is not the only small Jewish community in the USA or in the world. Many small communities are thirsty for high quality organized Jewish experiences and very often don’t have the resources or infrastructure to design and run such programs. This summer camp in Vermont could serve as a pilot and if successful, could be brought to other communities. I decided to take it on myself. I invited my 20 year old daughter Dahlia to join me. Dahlia is an artist, musician, and very good with children.
I told Nina that I would like to bring Israel to Vermont. I wanted to bring them a sense of the vibrancy of Israel, which would help inspire the kids to connect with Israel. I planned to include Hebrew, and through art, music, science, games, cooking and more, bring Israel to this community and the community to Israel. In an age of rising numbers of interfaith marriage and a decline in religious affiliation and observation, offering “cultural” experiences rather than “religious” ones are usually better received. My ideas meshed perfectly with what Nina was hoping to accomplish.
Dahlia and I loaded our car with books, mud masks from the Dead Sea, shells and coins from Israel, art supplies, a guitar and much more. For five days we sang in Hebrew with the kids, cooked and ate Israeli food, went on scavenger hunts all over Israel and had fun connecting with the children and connecting with Israel. We learned about places in Israel, agriculture, kibbutzim, and some history.
On Friday, the last day of camp, we held Kabalat Shabbat with the families. Some parents shared with us that their kids asked to learn more Hebrew. Other kids told their grandparents that they couldn’t believe a Jewish experience could be “fun” and there was consensus that they’d like to do it again next summer.
Now, a few months after the camp, we reflect on this experience and its value, its potential and look to move forward.
How can we bring it back to Vermont? How can we duplicate it and bring it to other communities? How can we help parents with the logistics? Who will run them? Birthright graduates? Counselors from established Jewish camps? Schlichim from Israel? What type of training with they need, and how will that occur? Hebrew College, HUC, JTS? Who will develop the program? We have started to reach out to several organizations, funders and foundations to explore this further. If you are interested to learn more about this program, how to bring it to your community or how to get involved in it on a larger scale, please be in touch with us.
Nina Wugmeister ([email protected]) has been a camp counselor, performing arts teacher, fundraiser, and business manager. She is the Hebrew-Through-Movement teacher at Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs, NY. She formed the first regional Jewish families group (currently at 60+ members) in the area where Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts come together. She has served on synagogue boards and school boards. She is deeply interested in Jewish community, continuity, and education.
Rachel Raz ([email protected]) is the Director of the Early Childhood Institute at Hebrew College, Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish education. She is the founder of JEEF (Jewish early engagement national forum) author of the children books “ABC Israel” and “The colors of Israel.” She is an Israeli-American and living in Massachusetts. Rachel also directs Boston-Haifa Early Childhood educator’s connections through the CJP (Combined Jewish Philanthropies) of Boston.