In Israel, Summer Camps Rock With Joyous Judaism

Chabad operates the largest Jewish camping network worldwide, in which hundreds of thousands of children participate.

Preparing for a photo of Chabad summer day campers in the Har Homa neighborhood of Jerusalem; courtesy
Preparing for a photo of Chabad summer day campers in the Har Homa neighborhood of Jerusalem; courtesy

By Sarah Leah Lawent

Ra’anana, Israel – Driving down the tree-lined Rashi Street in this upscale suburb of Tel Aviv, before turning onto Yitzhak Nissim Street one will find a well-kept neighborhood with people out tending their lawns. A short way later there’s a lovely playground and beautiful yard, part of the Ilan Rimon School, where Rabbi Eliyahu and Sima Shadmi run the local Chabad-Lubavitch day camp. Their welcoming countenances extend to both children and adults; their warmth and wide smiles belie the enormous amount of energy humming beneath the surface.

What’s immediately apparent is the amount of activity going on in the yard, on the playground, in every corridor and classroom, and the pleasantness and politeness of the children emitting gales of laughter that echo from one end of the school grounds to the other.

Wafting up to the second floor of the school came the eager voices of the girls. They were on the edge of their seats, calling out what is referred to as the Rebbe’s pesukim – the 12 Torah passages that the Lubavitcher Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory – selected to be taught as the first Torah ideas and foundational concepts to Jewish children.

Some 260 children attend camp here, with a separate site providing summer activities for an additional 100 preschoolers. The children are divided up into groups of boys and girls from nursery-school age to 6 years old, and from first through sixth grades.

Across the country in Jerusalem (less than an hour’s drive outside of rush hour) head counselor Malki Levine, 20, makes the trip from Beitar Illit – about six miles south of Jerusalem and where most of her staff of counselors hails from – to Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood. Levine has been involved with the camps for several years – first as a junior counselor, working her way up to being in charge. The Har Homa camp is under the direction of Tehila Turkov, who is also the general director of the Chabad kindergartens in the city.

“We have seven groups of 4-year-olds to 6-year-olds, and another three groups of 7- to 11-year-olds,” explains Levine. “We have 250 kids who attend camp here, making it one of the largest day-camp programs in Jerusalem, and everyone gives their all to make sure the kids have good, creative fun.”

Israel’s Ubiquitous Camps

Like most everywhere in the world, summer in Israel represents much-needed downtime for parents and children alike, and camp is a big part of that time. In Israel, almost all kids go to some kind of camp program – long or short, day or overnight. One of the most popular options for parents from all walks of Jewish life are the local Chabad day camps, which provide an active, safe environment that offers the opportunity to teach values of sharing, tolerance and sportsmanship. They also expose campers to positive Jewish experiences, no matter what a camper’s knowledge level or background.

Chabad operates the largest Jewish camping network worldwide, in which hundreds of thousands of children participate. Since 1956, day camps, overnight camps and winter camps have attracted Jewish children, the majority of whom come from unaffiliated homes.

Chabad Youth Organization of Israel runs the largest network of camps in the country and each day hundreds of aides, junior, senior and head counselors – under the supervision of directors specifically dedicated to running the individual camps in their own communities – are in place waiting to welcome campers with open arms. The camps operate in big cities and smaller towns, and even on some of the more rural moshavim.

So Much to Do in a Day

Jerusalem’s Malki Levine explains how a child’s age and temperament influence his or her camp experience. For instance, when 5-year-old David Meir was asked what he liked to do most, he soberly and determinately answered: “What I like best is to help.” And help, he does; he is the ‘go-to’ guy for putting papers and other things in order for the counselors. As serious as he takes the role he adopted, his second favorite thing to do at camp was to “eat the rolls covered with chocolate spread.”

“Groups are basically gender-separated,” she explains, “and there are activities that appeal to both. For instance, the older boys love to play soccer, and there are about 30 of them, so they really have a chance to work off some of that boy energy in a way they love and which teaches them how teamwork can accomplish a lot.”

Li’am, a seasoned 6-year-old camper, noted that this was her third year at camp. “I really liked the petting zoo they had. And then there are those jumping castles – I love jumping up and down, and laughing. But I also like Friday mornings, when we learn about the weekly Torah portion and get to eat chocolate balls. And I love the jewelry classes we get to do sometimes because we can make really pretty stuff.”

Activities run the gamut and are custom-tailored for different age groups. For example, the girls learn to make and braid challah. There are athletic events for all, as well as time to learn how to blow big soap bubbles. Both boys and girls get to design treats out of chocolate and candy, and could there be a sweeter pastime than a workshop where the goal is to sculpt shapes from fondant, that uber-sweet cake icing? Another workshop details the preparation of wine – wine and grapes, of course, playing a big role in Jewish rituals and holidays.

Rhythm class allows the younger set to play percussive instruments – banging away while they also develop socialization skills, and furthering their physical co-ordination and sensitivity to rhythm and music. And never underestimate the joy that dancing elicits, as well as a chance for little ones to “work it all out.”

One of the counselors is quite an artist, her portrait work extraordinary in its own right. A high-school student, she shares her talent with the older boys by giving them art lessons. Said 10-year-old Chen Cohen of the opportunity to work with her: “We get to learn how a face is built – where you put the eyes and the ears. And we work with pencil, but we learn how to make hair look like hair, and make shadows and things so that it looks real.”

“All of us like to make candles,” continues Chen, raving about the candle-making workshops that Rabbi Yaakov Shemli conducts with several of the groups. “Even the little boys like it when we color a holder and then we pour in the candle. When it burns, the light flickers with pretty colors. It’s a great thing to bring home to our mothers to light for Friday nights.”

Of course, talk to any of the kids in any of the camps, and when asked about their favorite activity, there is a consensus: field trips. The waterparks are always a blast, and the camps have days dedicated to either boys or girls so that children of all backgrounds can have a chance to cool off. The older kids also revel in nature hikes, Jeep rides and kayaking.

Workshops Emphasize Artistic Skills

Such extensive happenings at a day camp might seem natural for a big city like Jerusalem, but smaller towns, too, offer a similar roster of activities.

In Ra’anana the preteen/teenagers have their own section that they’ve dubbed “The Mini Camp.” Both boys and girls take part in prayer and learning the Torah portion of the week. When asked about their favorite endeavors, the consensus remains the same: field trips.

“We love to go on this boat called the ‘Tornado’ in the marina in Herzliya,” piped up 11-year-old Tal. “And don’t forget when we get to go to Superland amusement park,” interjected Shani, 10. “I really love when we go to the waterparks,” called out another girl named Shani, this one age 12.

Images of challah covers made by older girls at the camp in Ra’anana; courtesy
Images of challah covers made by older girls at the camp in Ra’anana; courtesy

Many other activities are provided, including several workshops. The girls were able to create imaginative challah covers under the instruction and supervision of Rabbi Yossi Farber, 32, who belongs to “Workshops to Promote Knowledge of Jewish Holidays.”

Besides the trips and soccer games, the boys are treated to an extraordinary “Sofer Stam” (defined as a scribe for holy articles) workshop from the same organization.

First, the young rabbi set up a display on a table the different parts of a cow that are used in making holy items, such as tefillin or a shofar. There are cowhides, sheep horns and samples of parchment of varying delicacy, depending upon what purpose they will serve; for instance, the parchment used for a Torah scroll is different than the parchment the Torah verses are written upon for tefillin. Next to a large cowhide were straps and housings so the boys could see the starting point upon their journeys to become scribes.

Then the work began. Each boy was given a template of sorts showing the Hebrew letters with their specific crowns and markings as they are to be used. Each also had at his disposal an actual feather quill and some India ink. The youngsters were diligent in their efforts, taking in the fact that becoming a sofer was not something that could be accomplished in the wink of an eye. They seemed to acquire a respect for the hard work, concentration and skill needed for the matter at hand.

Camp counselor Rachel Podorovski, from the southern desert town of Netivot, summed up why she returns to do her part year after year: “It’s the satisfaction of seeing the kids have fun and develop in prayer, as well as in arts-and-crafts. It is a real challenge to continually seek new and inventive ways for them to play and be educated – ways the children are equipped to absorb.

“It brings a huge amount of satisfaction to be part of this.”