Four Site Visits and Some Thoughts on European Jewish Camping

Amichai Frankfurt took first place in 2018’s Jewrovision contest in Dresden, Germany. Photo courtesy.

By Daniela Greiber

A two-hour ride north east of Stockholm takes you to Glamsta summer camp, the crown jewel of the Swedish Jewish community. In consecutive operation for 109 years, Glamsta invokes cherished memories for most Swedish Jews. As the camp director showed me around in July, he pointed at a picture of his mother as a chanicha in the 1960s and showed me a carving on a door that he made as a chanich in the late 80s. Today, the site hosts three summer sessions for 100 children each, a family week camp and community shabbatonim during the year. The windows of the wooden synagogue face the beautiful Baltic Sea and all the participants can enjoy nature and the opportunity to spend time with new and old friends whom they generally don’t see during the year. In the last couple of years, the Board of the community has prioritised the need to strengthen the Jewish education content of the camp and is supporting increased involvement of Jewish educational professionals in the planning of the curriculum and the training of the madrichim.

To understand more about Jewish camping in Europe, I spent time this summer visiting four Jewish youth camps. While much has been written about the successful Szarvas International Jewish camp in Hungary, most European Jewish communities organise their own summer (and sometimes winter) youth camps.

My visits were a natural follow-up from taking a delegation of European camp professionals to the Leaders Assembly which brought together more than 800 camping professionals to the biennial conference of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) in Baltimore, USA last March. (Read all about it here). These are some of the steps that the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe is taking to explore ways of supporting European Jewish camps to deliver richer Jewish experiences.

Glamsta has all the magic associated with Jewish summer camps – a powerful immersive experience where campers get to “be and do” Jewish as part of a community of young peers, looking up to madrichim who are slightly older than they are, while developing a sense of belonging to a wider extended family.

I had a similar feeling visiting Bad Sobernheim, the legendary site for youth seminars for the German Jewish community. Fortunately, I arrived on the day the campers were preparing a show for visiting parents, some of whom are themselves graduates of the summer camps of the ZWST (Central Welfare Office for Jews in Germany which holds overall responsibility for welfare and youth activities in Jewish communities). The theme of the camps was “atzmaut” (independence) and each age group received a Hebrew name connected to that theme. Blasting notes from Israel’s winning Eurovision song “I’m not your Toy” were heard between rehearsals of songs, dances and funny sketches that were delivered to the doting audience of parents, siblings and grandparents. It’s a familiar scene from Jewish events around the world and it was interesting to note how the campers who address each other in German, sing in Hebrew and English, often turned to Russian to address their families. Second and third-generation of FSU immigrants, they constitute most of the German Jewish community. ZWST celebrated 100 years of operations in 2017 and serves nowadays close to 100 Jewish youth centres around the country. The highlights of the year are the legendary summer and winter camps for 1,400 chanichim, madrichim and roshim and for the last 18 years, the Jewrovision talent show, where close to 1,200 youngsters participate in an amicable performance competition after months of preparation, practice and expectation. While historic Zionist youth movements (Bnei Akiva, Hashomer Hatzair, Netzer) have recently reappeared in Germany, ZWST is still the main organiser of youth activities. Many young German activists who currently hold community leadership roles have cut their teeth leading ZWST’s youth activities in their local communities and at a national level.

On a sweltering August day, I travelled to the outskirts of Berlin to visit JArteck camp, a small but unique summer camp that brings together 60 Russian speaking youngsters from Germany, Russia, Ukraine and Israel for an intensive session focussing on arts, music and creativity. A dedicated group of volunteer adults, mostly from Israel lead high level music and performance sessions inspired in the annual theme. This year the campers learned about and created pieces inspired in “Pioneer Spirit.” Even though it is a secular camp, they gather for Kabbalat Shabbat followed by Oneg Shabbat with klezmer music, Jewish mayses (stories) and personal reflections on family stories of immigration and first Shabbat experiences. Every year the programme includes a memorial ceremony for the Shoah and a final drama and musical performance. The main language of the camp is Russian, but conversations also take place in Hebrew, German and English. JArteck is a camp, some say a community, that celebrates the campers’ multiple identities and offers an open approach to Jewish affiliation.

In the UK, thousands of Jewish children and youth participate in residential (overnight) summer camps organised by youth movements. Families have multiple options to choose from, reflecting the spectrum of religious observance. Most movements run a leadership training programme as part of their weekly activities which culminate in summer camp where young madrichim lead camp with increasing levels of responsibility, often for 5-6 consecutive years. Each movement has its version of pre-camp, an intensive week for the camp senior team before the campers arrive. It usually includes activities planning, skill practicing and Jewish learning.

In July, I visited the pre-camp of Noam (youth movement of the Masorti [Conservative] movement), where an advance group took over and koshered the kitchen of their camp site near Newcastle. They were expecting 100 roshim, senior and first-time madrichim that attended pre-camp before heading to lead 6 age groups of chanichim in the UK and France. Visiting lecturers and rabbis contribute to the educational programme. This year, the theme of the summer camps was “Utopia and Dystopia”; sessions at pre-camp included “Marxism and Judaism,” how would an ideal Jewish society look like, and a murder game set in a 19th-century Polish shtetl. At Noam pre-camp, the tzevatim take turns leading the Shacharit prayer service to make sure everybody knows what to do with their own chanichim. Pre-camp is a great opportunity for current and future leaders to learn from a variety of role models and experts who display high standards of Jewish knowledge and practice, encouraging a culture of commitment and appreciation for Jewish engagement.

Jewish camps in Europe have the potential to deliver impactful Jewish experiences for madrichim and for campers. It is also very easy to deliver a fun experience with very little content – campers are happy, and parents are satisfied. RFHE is keen to find ways to support European Jewish camps in deepening the Jewish content of their programmes and deliver rich Jewish experiences that are relevant and meaningful. There is no one-size fits all approach – while there are Jewish summer camps in most European communities, they vary greatly in size, languages, community and youth movement affiliation, ideology, Jewish content versus fun, level of investment in madrichim training, etc…

Watching from afar, many of the American FJC’s initiatives in the areas of professional development for camp leadership, building networks and enhancement of Jewish content in camps are very relevant for Jewish camping in Europe: bring people together, exchange best practices, model excellence, share resources, and support camps in formulating their Jewish vision. Inspired by these summer trips, it’s clear that RFHE should start focusing on three main areas:

Pan European cooperation – Supporting pan-European cooperation involves conferences, peer-visits, creating communities of practice and more. However, we are aware that the strong reliance in Europe on young volunteer leaders (as opposed to professional staff) hinders the possibilities of in-depth training, staff retention and long-term planning.

Enhancing the Jewish content in training programmes – While the young chanichim are in principle the main target audience and camps are built around their needs, the Foundation’s interest is rather on the intensive learning process that the camps junior and senior leadership go through. While preparing for camp (whether this preparation takes years of hadracha courses or a few pre-camp seminars), strongly motivated roshim and madrichim engage in experiential Jewish learning, become themselves agents of transmission, and experience what it means to raise Jewish children in a community. Some European camps are managed top-down and veteran professionals set the tone, in other cases the younger generation has much more control. In both cases, there is a strong emphasis on giving madrichim tools, knowledge, purpose, and meaning to deliver a Jewish experience.

Strengthening the role of the Jewish camp in the educational ecosystem of the local community. Since most senior madrichim are of university age, preparation for camp tends to be time-limited and camp-focused, detached from local youth centres activities. Stronger cooperation between communities and camps to build a joint leadership pipeline and where relevant, joint activities, can deliver a stronger Jewish education programme that extends the magic of camp’s immersive experience back in the communities.

Camps create a positive immersive Jewish experience; ensuring that those responsible for designing the camp’s tochnit are equipped with the skills and knowledge to maximise the unique Jewish ‘flavour’ of the camp is a welcome challenge.

Chanich/a/im – camper(s)
Shabbaton/im – overnight weekend(s) away
Madrich/a/im – Counsellor(s)
Rosh/a/im – Head(s) of camp
Hadracha – Guidance
Tzevet/tzevatim – camp team(s)
Tochnit – programme

Daniela Greiber manages the Jewish Education Programme at the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe based in the UK.