The Campfire

Gather round for news, perspectives, and tales of Jewish summer camp.

Posts Tagged ‘Making Jewish Camp Jewish’

Startup Entrepreneurship at Summer Camp in the Rocky Mountains

The following post originally appeared on Blog.RabbiJason.

After finally making my way up the mountain in Golden, Colorado (just outside of Boulder) the other night, I pulled my rental car into the parking lot of Camp Inc., the world’s first Jewish specialty summer camp with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. My interest was piqued half a year ago when I met with the leadership team of Camp Inc. and heard about their lofty plans for their inaugural summer. It all seemed like a great idea conceptually, but I didn’t know quite what to expect when I arrived.

Camp Inc. - Jewish Summer Camp for Startups

I stepped out of the car and walked into the “Ulam” (Hebrew for meeting hall) where the music was blaring and dozens of Jewish teenage boys and girls were dancing. I was greeted by Josh Pierce, the camp director, who yelled to me over the music, “Welcome to MJ’s bat mitzvah party!” The campers and staff of Camp Inc. were holding a mock bat mitzvah party for one of the camp’s counselors, complete with a bat mitzvah candle-lighting ceremony, a DJ playing the standard bar mitzvah music, and the hoisting of Jewish teens in a chair for the Hora dance. Meals at Camp Inc. start and end with Jewish blessings. Morning flagpole includes several Jewish prayers and Hebrew songs. Signs around camp are in both English and Hebrew. And a number of the counselors are Israeli, part of the Jewish Agency’s Summer Shlichim (emissary) Program. I have been to countless Jewish overnight camps and, at first glance, Camp Inc. seemed no different from the rest. Until…

What I then saw was amazing. At the end of the evening’s activity the campers begged their counselors to not make them go back to their bunks for “lights out.” However, they didn’t want to go on a night hike or stay up late playing card games in their cabin. Rather, these campers pleaded with the camp staff to let them stay up for another hour so they could work on their logos for their new startup companies. These Jewish campers, ranging in age from 12-17, morphed from your typical summer campers to CEO’s, CFO’s and Marketing Directors right in front of my eyes. They grabbed their black leather portfolios emblazoned with the Camp Inc. logo and fully charged notebook computers and headed to their workspace. There they met with their startup teams to put the finishing touches on their logos which will be printed on different colored t-shirts for them to wear at their pitches to business mentors and startup investors at the conclusion of the camp session.

Camp Inc. campers pitch DiabeTech at a practice pitch day in Boulder, Colorado
Camp Inc. campers pitch DiabeTech at a practice pitch day in Boulder, Colorado

My second night at Camp Inc. was no different. Campers were engaged in games of kickball and volleyball, preparing for a Beit Cafe (talent show), and just hanging out in the woods by the ropes course with their friends. And then they were instructed to go rehearse their pitches with their startup teams. Groups assembled to go over the final plans before they headed to Boulder the following day for a practice pitch day. I heard teens excitedly talking about their plans to make a mobile app to help the millions of people who deal with Diabetes on a daily basis, and teens building a prototype of a car that could display rotating ads for nonprofits, and teens creating a platform to schedule meals for groups of people based on dietary restrictions, food allergies and preferences, and geography. I was blown away. There was so much creativity in the room that I was left excited to see what these young people would do in the future. And, yes, once again the campers pleaded with their counselors for some extra time before bed to work on their startup businesses. Camp Inc. is a typical Jewish summer camp… plus.

Rabbi Jason Miller with the leadership team of Camp Inc. (Dan Baer, Jonathan Lev and Josh Pierce)
With the leadership team of Camp Inc. (Dan Baer, Jonathan Lev and Josh Pierce)

During the day, I had the opportunity to meet with the high school campers and discuss the importance of social media to their startup initiatives. That evening, I met with all of Camp Inc.’s campers in K’far Baya’ar (the village in the woods), where we discussed business entrepreneurship from the Torah (Noah didn’t wait until the rain started to build the ark and Abraham enjoyed a successful career as a shepherd instead of going into his father’s idol business). We talked about the ethic of social responsibility in business. Many of the campers relaxed in hammocks as we discussed what they are passionate about and the challenge of making their passion contagious to others. I asked each camper to choose a person from Jewish history (from the biblical period up through modern times), come up with a business, and then offer a startup pitch as if they were that Jewish character. Standing in the woods in the Rocky Mountains I listened as the Snake from the Garden of Eden, the Prophet Jonah, Moses, Theodor Herzl, Mel Brooks and Seth Rogen enthusiastically talked about their new businesses. It was amazing. This is what a Jewish summer camp that focuses on entrepreneurship looks like!

Rabbi Jason Teaching at Camp Inc. in Rocky Mountains
Teaching at Camp Inc. in Rocky Mountains

Not all Jewish kids will get excited about an outdoor wilderness camp, a sports camp or a drama camp. The founders of Camp Inc. have hit on something big here. There is an entire cadre of Jewish youth in North America who are business savvy and eager to start their own company. Camp Inc. gives them all of the experiences of a dynamic summer camp while also providing them with a high-energy environment in which they can dream, build, and create. The future is very bright!

Coming Home Different

I didn’t expect to cry when I picked my kid up from camp.

When I dropped him off at the bus? Totally. I skulked past the more experienced parents doing the hora in the parking lot as the bus pulled away, got into the front seat, shut the door and started crying.

But when I picked him up, I expected it to be all sunshine and happiness.

And it was.

But there was another component to it.

See, I mistakenly expected to get back the same kid I sent to camp. And I didn’t. And that made me cry tears of happiness.

This kid was taller. His hair was longer. He was definitely dirtier (“This IS my clean shirt!” he said as I pointed out that the shirt he was wearing looked a lot like he had cleaned the bunk floor with it before putting it on.). But I don’t sweat the small stuff, and that is all small stuff.

My son had changed for the better.

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Robots, Minecraft, and Shabbat

The following post is the next in our summer series hearing from the camps that were launched as a result of FJC’s Specialty Camps Incubator.

6 points2How does one describe the feeling of opening a new specialty camp? Awe inspiring, and an amazing challenge. I came into the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy with ideas, a framework, and a mission: to instill Jewish identity through science and technology. Over the last year, while fleshing out those ideas and expanding that framework, I still had only an inkling of what an incredible place this camp would become.

Sci-Tech is a specialty camp; similarly to our sister camp, URJ 6 Points Sports Academy, we offer dedicated periods of time to specific activities where our campers can learn about a subject in which they are passionate. In our case, those activities are robotics, digital media production, environmental science, and video game design. These workshops are supported by a variety of chugim (electives) taught by our stellar staff with backgrounds in programming, chemistry, and virology (just to name a few), who teach their subjects at a level very approachable by 5th-9th graders, but much more intellectually complex than I ever expected. Surrounding the workshops and chugim are camp’s core Jewish valuescuriosity, discovery, respect, and connectionand a Jewish camp frameworkmorning blessings, song session, and Shabbat.

We’re creating an environment for a group of campers who might have never experienced a Jewish camp if it weren’t for the science and technology. Our goal has been to meld in-depth science and technology learning provided by our workshops with a campy and fun feel that only song sessions and cabin bonding can offer. In daily song sessions, campers look forward to singing “Why Does the Sun Shine,” an informational, yet energetic song by They Might Be Giants, followed by “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.” At breakfast, a staff member examines a great Jewish scientist or innovator before we join together in Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) full of ruach (spirit).

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Making a Healthier Jewish Community

The following post is the second in our summer series hearing from the camps that were launched as a result of FJC’s Specialty Camps Incubator.  

06.18-21.14 Jewish CampsIn an often-told story, Rabbi Hillel was asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot. His response was, “What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow person.” This is the foundation of the most basic rule of Jewish ethics: We should do no harm to other people.

Most of us don’t think of skipping the gym or choosing fries over salad as ethical decisions. These are personal decisions, the rationale goes, because they don’t harm others. But before deciding on your next snack, you might consider a very new perspective on Jewish ethics: Making unhealthy decisions is unethical because of the impact those decisions have on our peers.

Let’s use a brief thought experiment to understand why: If I were to tell you that most of my friends are health-conscious gym members, what would be your most reasonable conclusion about me? If you answered that I am also a health-conscious gym member, then you have successfully learned something about me from a statement about my friends.

Continue reading on The Canteen.

Summer 2012 Highlights

The last of 70,000 campers and 10,000 counselors return home this week from Jewish camp to parents asking questions like, “What was your favorite thing?” “What was the best part of the summer?” “What did you do that was new or different?”  The answers are as varied as the kids themselves – some may have soared across camp on a zipline for the first time, others may have read from Torah for the first time, made a new best friend, a counselor may have been swabbed for Gift of Life and learned they are about to save a life.  Each summer the staff of FJC crisscrosses North America visiting camps, learning something at each and every one. Like the kids coming home from camp, it is so hard for us to put the intangible – the magic of camp – into words.  These are a few of our favorite moments. The ones that make us realize we have some of the coolest jobs in the world.


We Loved…


  • Learning of the story of a couple who met at Camp B’nai Brith Montreal in the sixties and wanted to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary there this summer. The husband offered to take her anywhere in the world. She wanted to go back to the ‘scene of the crime’. They renewed their vows on the camp beach, where they first met, in front of the entire camp and then stayed for a cook out!
  • Seeing the brand new woodworking program at CBB Montreal. They had a counselor who was interested, gave him a very small budget and now it’s one of the most popular programs in camp.  Campers have made some incredible stuff from wood!
  • Hearing the campers cheering in Ladino at Sephardic Adventure Camp.
  • Seeing the incredible diversity of Jews who attend Be’chol Lashon and experiencing how intentional they are with their ‘global Judaism’ approach to program and teaching so that every Jewish origin is celebrated.

Scott McGrath – Associate Director, New Camp Initiatives


  • Seeing the amount of cross-camp programming this summer.  From Maccabiah at URJ Camp Kutz with BBYO Kallah, to July 4th in Mississippi with URJ’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp and Camp Darom, and the Matisyahu concert at NJY camps, this summer was all about collaboration and community.
  • Learning how some camps rent out their sites after camp (e.g. immediately afterwards and year-round) and bring in SERIOUS additional revenue to fold back into core camp programming and infrastructure.
  • Hearing that the Houston Federation provided Houston teens incentive dollars to WORK at Jewish camp.

Seth Cohen – Program Director, One Happy Camper


  • Seeing that URJ Newman has a whole upper campus that is a very long hike to get to where all outdoors projects/activities live. What was magical was that the oldest campers live up there for about 4-6 days building up and working on a kibbutz. They are isolated from the rest of camp overlooking gorgeous California Mountains. Amazing!

Melissa Levine – Assistant Program Manager, New Camp Initiatives


  • Hearing about Camp Tevya’s Israeli Cash cab.  During free play, Israeli staff would decorate the golf cart and drive around picking up campers. They would ask them questions about Israel, and if they got the answers right, they would win candy. It was really fun and creative!

Jillian Weinstein – Events Coordinator


  • Experiencing Alexander Gold’s mobile office at Camp Dina and Dora Golding.  As a creative solution to running back and forth between two camps, they converted an RV into his office!

Alina Bitel – Program Director, Engagement Initiatives


  • Being with NJY Camps, Habonim Dror Na’aleh, URJ Camp Kutz and Young Judaea Camp Tel Yehudah as they all sang “Salaam” at the top of their lungs waiting for the Matisyahu concert. The concert itself was pretty cool, but being with 4 camps (over 1000 campers!), all with very different and distinct Jewish missions, as they all sang the same songs was incredibly moving.
  • Sharing evening tefillah at 10,200 feet at Shwayder Camp. Services were led by the youngest boys. Loved seeing the campers get up to stand by the water or take in the view to say their silent prayer.

Allison Cohen – Director, Marketing & Communications


  • Stepping into a magical kingdom the afternoon I visited Camp Simcha. Counselors were dressed in head to toe costume and the dining room was converted into the theme of the week: “Game On”.   I took part in a crazy dance party they do each day at the end of lunch; the counselors and children danced their butts off and sang at the top of their lungs.  Some of the children were on breathing machines, feeding tubes, and in wheel chairs but the counselors made them feel like a million dollars.  I had never experienced ruach like this.  That was a moment I tucked away and will cherish.

Sarah Weiss – Events Manager


  • Watching the “Storming of Formandy” at Pinemere Camp – a re-enactment of Normandy on the camp beach with boys trying to cross the beach without being hit by water balloons.
  • Seeing first-hand the beauty and amazing programming taking place at camps in the West.
  • Meeting the team and learning about the amazing programming taking place at Bechol Lashon.

Rebecca Kahn – Senior Program Manager, One Happy Camper


  • Being at Henry S. Jacobs for an engaging and fun evening prayer service.   The tiles that go along the pool tell the story of the book of Genesis through pictures (made by the campers two years ago).  Led by the song-leader, kids had to swim to tiles that corresponded with wherever they were in the service.

Rebecca Leibowitz – Senior Program Manager


  • Feeling the warmth and inclusiveness at B’nai B’rith Beber Camp’s talent show. Everybody who performed, no matter their talent level, got huge ovations.  The FUNNIEST moment was at that talent show where two teenage boys, straight-faced, with blind-folds on performed the following.  One is playing a kind of “circus” song on a keyboard and the other is in front of a pile of clothes, shoes, and hats and has to put everything on by the end of the song.  Priceless!  I laughed really hard.

Abby Knopp – VP, Program & Strategy


Tell us your favorite part of the summer!


How is Nature Jewish at Camp?

At Pinemere Camp we want the fact that we are a Jewish camp to mean a lot more than that we have services on Friday night and Saturday mornings and keep a Kosher kitchen.  We aspire to incorporate Jewish values, Jewish teachings, and Hebrew language into all of our activities – whether it’s by referring to the lake in Hebrew as the “agam” and the pool as the “breicha,” by learning about Rosh HaShanah while baking apple cakes and honey cakes, or by incorporating the values of “shalom bayit” (peace in the home – and by extension, the camp bunk) into our bunk activities.

In our outdoor nature program, campers learn from Stacy Grossfeld, our nature specialist, about the Jewish value of being “shomrei adamah” – keepers of the earth.  As they learn how to grow and tend to plants, the campers learn that we have to take care of the plants, just as they take care of us.

Campers are actively involved with Stacy in beautifying our camp community.  Every Friday a different bunk works with her to create flower arrangements which decorate our camp Shabbat tables.  Stacy explains to the campers that unlike the busy days of the rest of our week, Shabbat is a time for relaxation and a time to appreciate the beauty of creation and the natural world around us.  Our campers learn that by creating special Shabbat flower arrangements, they are taking part in the Jewish act of “hiddur mitzvah” – they are beautifying that which is sacred in their lives.  Campers also pick and learn about spices that are used as the “b’samim” (spices) in our Havdalah service which we all celebrate together at the end of Shabbat.

Campers have fun in nature while they learn about Judaism!  And as with much good informal education, they are often having so much fun that they do not even realize how much they are learning.

–Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Jewish Program Supervisor, Pinemere Camp

Another Happy Camper

One thing that makes Jewish camp, well, Jewish is the happy campers that take home a stronger Jewish identity.  Everyone at the FJC offices smiled with pride today when we received this note:

My son, Noah, returned from camp at JCA Shalom. He is a One Happy Camper recipient. He LOVED it! He was nervous about going since he’d never been there and didn’t  know anyone but the staff quickly put him at ease and he bonded with his cabin mates. We enjoyed seeing the daily pictures of him on the camp website where we could see for ourselves that he was having a wonderful time. He is now connected to friends all over the west coast and he enjoyed meeting counselors from Israel. He said that he learned more Hebrew, the Birkat HaMazon and enjoyed celebrating Shabbat with everyone. He also said that he looks forward to returning.

The experience did many things for him- improved his confidence in being able to be on his own away from home with all new people;  built his self-esteem as he tried and succeeded at so many new things; connecting him with Jewish peers; and strengthening his  Jewish identity. All of this in just 12 days!

We cannot thank the Foundation enough for making it possible for Noah to attend a  Jewish sleepaway camp.  With three older siblings in college we could not have afforded to send him without this support. We look forward to someday being able to return the favor. Please extend our gratitude to all who are involved with this wonderful program.


The Fischer Family

Hello from Judaica!

Judaica at Camp Seneca Lake (CSL) is so much more than Shabbat!  As much as possible we strive to organically infuse Judaica into all aspects of camp life.  For example, during staff orientation the staff had the opportunity to play “Middot-opoly,” a take-off on Monopoly based on “middot” or “virtues” developed at the JCC of Greater Rochester.  Instead of buying properties staff had the opportunity to purchase virtues or values that one could do any day, such as taking care of one’s body, and caring for animals.  Everyone had a great time bonding and playing the game, while learning about core Jewish values.  Staff will be reminded throughout the summer to look for opportunities to infuse the teaching of these values into daily camp life, creating “Jewish teachable moments.”

Judaica is also coming to the Craft Shack!  We are thrilled to welcome visiting artist Nancy Gong later this summer, an incredibly talented Rochester-based glass artist with a special connection to CSL.  Nancy will be leading our first “Hiddur Mitzvah” project, based on this mitzvah to beautify Jewish ritual objects.

We also have five great Cornerstone Fellows!  This past May these five counselors spent a full week with me at the Foundation for Jewish Camp Cornerstone Fellowship learning about Jewish leadership and exploring ways they could personally give back to CSL in a way that enhances and expands the Judaica program.  More info to come as these amazing initiatives continue to unfold.

Shavua Tov!

–Joy Getnick, Judaic Educator, Camp Seneca Lake

What else makes Jewish camp Jewish?

The 10 Commitments

I’m often asked what makes the Cohen Camps “Jewish” and how we differentiate our camps from other Jewish camps. There is no simple, quick answer – it’s more than just being Kosher, observing Shabbat, and reciting blessings before and after meals.  We have a set of values that underlies the type of Jewish community we create at all three of our camps.  We have been using these values recently as part of an organizational-wide effort to explore new ways to enhance the way Jewish elements are integrated into camp life, make Jewish learning more experiential, and get staff and campers more involved in the Jewish pieces of the camp experience.

At the Cohen Camps we seek to nurture in our campers and staff a love of being Jewish and an ongoing desire to be involved in and to contribute to Jewish life.  We view Judaism not just as a rich heritage but as a powerful tool for personal growth – a set of values and practices which helps build one’s character, mind, and spirit, which helps each individual, in their own unique way, understand themselves and the world around them.  A strong Jewish identity grounds young people, contributes to their confidence and sense of self-worth, and informs the choices they make.

We view Jewish community as joyful, dynamic, and creative.  Positive Jewish values infuse everything we do as a community – from the dining hall to the cabins to the playing fields.

We embrace Jewish community as a wonderfully colorful mosaic which supports a range of beliefs and practices around a common core of values and commitments.  We honor each camper’s unique place in the community, and support their personal exploration of their Jewishness as we cultivate their feeling part of something larger and enduring.  We do not tell campers how to be Jewish; we empower them to discover that for themselves.

We understand Jewish life as an ongoing process: we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, draw from the wisdom and experience we’ve inherited, and try to create a world of Jewish meaning we’re proud to pass on to the next generations.

We view Jewish life as deeply connected to the broader world – with an ultimate aim of helping to improve and perfect the world.

In the spirit of Sinai here are “The Ten Commitments” of the Cohen Camps – how Jewish purpose is expressed in the fabric of camp life. In additional posts, I’ll explain more what we do and how we incorporate these ideas in our camps.

1. Friendship and teamwork (חברות).
2. Diversity and inclusiveness (קהילה).
3. Shabbat (שבת).
4. Learning (לימוד).
5. Rituals (מסורת).
6. Service and responsibility (תקון).
7. Roots (שורשים).
8. Israel (ישראל).
9. Nature (טבע).
10. Leadership (מנהיגות).

What makes Jewish camp, well, Jewish?

What makes Jewish camp, well, Jewish?

As professionals at FJC, we get asked this questions all the time. And surprisingly, there is not an easy answer. Each Jewish camp is “Jewish” in its own way. Yes, at most there are services. Some once a week to celebrate Shabbat, some every day. Most camps have Israeli staff to help infuse learning about Israel in to the camp.  Being a Jewish camp goes far beyond calling the dining hall the Chadar Ochel and making a Star of David out of popsicle sticks.  It is about the ruach (spirit) the campers exude or the kavanagh (intention) behind the programming.

Jewish camp is camp with a soul. We asked a few camps to give us some insight into how they infuse Judaism and make it part of camp.  Here’s the first post…

Swimming – A Lesson in Judaism and Independence

When we think about the skills we need to be successful in life, swimming doesn’t make most of our top 10 lists.  Here at Camp Interlaken, on the shores of beautiful Lake Finley (pictured), our campers get to choose their own chugim (activities).  Over the course of the day, they attend five different chug periods, one of which is a mandatory swim chug.  Of the almost 50 different activities that we offer here at camp, why do we require swimming of our campers?

According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), a parent must teach their child:

1)      Torah

2)      A profession

3)      To swim

Why, in Judaism, do we put swimming on such a high pedestal? In my opinion, there are two focal reasons for swimming: safety and independence.

At the time of the Babylonian Talmud, swimming was likely being taught as a survival skill.  Many of the daily chores required accessing a body of water.  For the safety of the children, it was necessary to teach them how to properly swim to take care of themselves.  Today, we send our kids sailing and surfing, water-skiing and windsurfing, on canoe and kayak trips, and more.  Each of these activities has a level of associated risk, for which we prepare our campers.  We build swimming skills and confidence that allows for participation in many different areas.  Much like in the time of the Talmud, we are diligent in preparing our campers for their daily schedules of activities.

For some campers, the first risk that they are taking is when they jump in the pool/lake for swim testing on the first day of camp.  We start our campers’ summers by emphasizing the importance of swimming.  In teaching the children to swim, they also learn a great deal of independence; a value we rank very highly at camp.  They are learning to take care of themselves, react properly in case of danger, apply their skills to other areas and grow confidence.   Additionally, they receive additional rights as campers when they hit certain milestones such as the ability to take a boat out on their own, or participate in the other activities.

We pride ourselves in the ability to teach and grow our campers.  At the beginning of each summer, we tell parents that we hope to return their child to them as better version of themselves.  Teaching swimming helps parents to fulfill the Talmudic commandment and make them more independent adults in the future.

- Daniel N. Baer, Associate Director, Camp Interlaken JCC (Eagle River, WI)