Jewish Summer Camps: Director’s Cut

Basketball at the Neil Klatskin Day Camp in Tenafly; NJ. courtesy Stacy Budkofsky/Neil Klatskin Day Camp.

by Robert Gluck
JointMedia News Service

At age 8, when Molly Hott stepped off the bus to complete her first summer of overnight camp, she told her parents she was going to “do this forever.”

She wasn’t kidding. Hott spent the next 14 years of her life as a camper, waitress, bunk counselor, group leader, events specialist and division head. As a college student, she pursued an independent study on camp programming and camp’s influence on children. Now, she is director of the 92nd Street Y’s Passport NYC camp in New York.

To fully understand the Jewish summer camp experience, it’s helpful to listen to directors like Hott – whose own camp experiences shaped their lives and careers. Why do camp directors do what they do?

“I do what I do because I have the chance to change lives, positively,” Hott told JointMedia News Service. “The impact that camp can have on a child or a teen is significant. You discover yourself at camp. I hope that summer after summer I can enable that same discovery for others.”

Many Jewish camps offer traditional activities such as field sports, aquatics, drama, arts and crafts, outdoor adventure, nature, sports, music, Israeli dance and culture, field trips, playground, swim lessons, photography, and cooking. But under this umbrella of fun are deeper things.

Take Passport NYC’s mission. It provides teens entering 9th through 12th grades opportunities to explore culture, community, and creativity through Jewish values-driven specialty camps: fashion, film, culinary arts, music industry and musical theater. Hott said teens are encouraged to explore their personal connection to Judaism while immersing themselves in the camp’s programs.

“They explore New York City through a Jewish lens by framing each and every experience in a way that leads to asking ‘why’ or ‘what’ or ‘how,’” she said. “When our group visits ‘Top of the Rock’ at Rockefeller Center, they receive two pieces of paper with Talmudic quotes. The piece of paper in their right pocket says, ‘The world is created for me,’ and the one in the left pocket says, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ The focus of this experience is to find balance in our lives.”

Hott added that each teen has the opportunity to earn up to 30 hours of community service credit by giving back throughout different areas in New York City.

Like Hott, Stacy Budkofsky, director at the Neil Klatskin Day Camp in Tenafly, NJ, has been a camper all her life.

“When I was younger I started as the youngest camper and left as the head of the girls’ camp at Tranquility Camp in upstate New York,” she told JointMedia News Service. “The motto in the camp world is 10 for 2, which means we live ten months out of the year for the two months of camp. There’s a lot of planning that goes into the eight weeks of camp.”

The Neil Klatskin Day Camp, Budkofsky said, is a place for a child to have fun while maturing through interactions with others. Staff members create a “communal group” where campers and staff participate to provide experiences that challenge the body, mind and imagination. Parents can expect campers to progress, not only through physical activities like swimming and soccer, but in the realms of social and emotional growth, according to Budkofsky.

“Children spend 10 months out of the year in a school setting and there are opportunities for socialization, but they are different than what we provide at camp,” she said. “At camp it’s a much more social environment. They are not sitting at a desk all day. There’s a lot of team building and more freedom than in school.”

According to Mallory Saks, assistant director at Camp Poyntelle Lewis Village, Penn., staffers have been enriching the lives of campers for over 60 years. During that time, the camp evolved into one of the premier Jewish overnight camps in the U.S.

“We are very proud of all of our amazing traditions, beautiful facility, dedicated staff, core Jewish values, and incredible culture,“ Saks told JointMedia News Service. “We offer a wide variety of athletic, waterfront and arts programs for campers in second through eleventh grades.“

Mallory Saks, assistant director at Camp Poyntelle Lewis Village, Penn., said this Jewish overnight camp unique because it has two separate camps – Poyntelle and Lewis Village. Second through 7th grade campers live at Poyntelle and engage in age-appropriate activities and programs there, and 8th through 11th grade campers live at Lewis Village, where activities and programs are more challenging and appropriate for teenagers.

“We function as one whole camp during special times like Shabbat,” Saks told JointMedia News Service. “We do our best to continue our relationship with our campers long after they leave the gates of their summer home.”

How has the camp industry changed over the years? Phil Liebson knows. His best memories and friends are from growing up at camp. Today, he is director at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center’s summer camps.

“When you work with kids and they experience or complete things, their happiness is amazing and it hits you,” Liebson told JointMedia News Service. “Camp is an ever-changing environment. Years ago there was a push to keep camp rustic and outdoors and now they have transitioned into electronics and specialty camps. It’s great. Every kid should get to go to camp, but not every camp is for every kid. When you find the one that fits your child, you will know.”

Liebson’s camp integrates Jewish learning and Jewish living by incorporating Judaism through song and activities.

“We like to make it fun and exciting and not in a top down or lecturing way,” he said. “Learning through games or art projects is the best way for kids to learn, and they have so much fun with it they don’t even know they are learning.”

Liebson said he is a Jewish camp director because he wants to “provide the same experiences for future campers” that he had as a camper himself. The same is true for Passport NYC’s Hott.

“I had been given the greatest experiences, friendships, community and love of myself through my summer camp opportunities – and I had to do that for others,” she said.