Play Hard, Pray Hard

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Ah, summer. For children across the country, this anticipated time of year brings to mind dreams of kayaking, making lanyards and toasting marshmallows over a campfire at summer camps.

And for those children who are Jewish, it might also mean Israeli dancing, baking challah and reciting Birkat HaMazon.


“I spent every summer at summer camp growing up, and it was an immersive experience in which Jewish was on the soccer field and in the swimming pool and in the art shacks,” said Rabbi Jessy Gross, senior director of Jewish Learning and Life at the JCC of Greater Baltimore. “So much of Jewish education in its pure form is supposed to happen in the places where we’re actually living our life.”

Jewish kids and teens have a variety of options when it comes to summer fun. They can do drama, explore sports or have a more traditional overnight camp experience. Different camps also offer a range of Jewish components for campers such as different levels of kosher food and prayer.

Campers come to Jewish summer camps from a range of religious backgrounds, so parents shouldn’t feel nervous about sending their kids to a camp that practices Judaism in a way they may not be familiar with.

“We [have] a come-as-you-are, welcome-to-camp kind of atmosphere,” Camp Airy director Marty Rochlin said. “Some kids might do Jewish day school, then Jewish camp in the summer. For other kids, camp might be the most Jewish thing they do. Whatever it is you come to camp with, you’ll find a piece to connect to.”

At Camp Airy, located in Thurmont, Md., about 730 to 740 boys participate in camping, sports, arts and a variety of other activities at the sleepaway camp. Camp Airy also has a sister camp, Camp Louise.

The religious components of the camp mostly revolve around Shabbat. Friday nights feature Kabbalat Shabbat services as well as singing and Israeli dancing, and Saturday mornings see another Shabbat service, a reflection from a staffer and the recognition of some campers and staffers as “mensch on a bench.” Shabbats end with a Havdalah ceremony. Camp Airy also offers kosher-style food, said Rochlin, which means no meat and dairy together and no pork or shellfish.

Judaism at camp often twists tradition with summer spirit. For example, Camp Airy calls Hamotzi “Go-motzi” because it’s Hamotzi on the go.

“We’re trying to do traditions in a way that feels different from home,” Rochlin said.

At the JCC’s 11 main summer camps, 1,300 campers over the entirety of the summer eat kosher food, celebrate Shabbat on Friday evenings, learn about Israeli culture and participate in community service projects in partnership with the Jewish Volunteer Connection.

One of the JCC’s camps is Camp Koolanu, which offers a more religious experience for those interested, with daily davening in addition to sports, science, swimming, arts and crafts and day trips. This camp is tailored to boys entering kindergarten through fifth grade at yeshiva day schools.

Then, of course, there are non-Jewish camps that can provide campers with a completely secular summer experience or even provide opportunities to learn about other cultures.

Camp Puh’Tok in Monkton is one such example. A good number of Jewish kids from across the region attend this camp, said camp manager Lindsay Laker, where — in addition to many standard camp activities — more than 1,000 campers learn about Native American culture through a program called Indian Lore.

The camp consults with E. Keith Colston, administrative director at the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, to ensure the program is respectful and culturally sensitive.

“We’re doing it out of honor, not out of mocking,” Laker said. “It comes from a really good place.”

While the camp does not offer religious programming, Camp Puh’Tok can meet different dietary needs including kosher food, Laker said.

Ramah Sports Academy, which expects about 150 campers for its first summer, welcomes kids from different backgrounds and familiarity levels with Judaism, said the camp’s director, Rabbi Dave Levy.

At the camp, which is located on Fairfield (Conn.) University’s campus, campers rising into fifth through 11th grades will play different sports while participating in daily tefilot, exploring Jewish values and partaking in discussions that connect sports with Judaism. Food at the camp is kosher and prepared under the supervision of a mashgiach on campus.

“Shabbat will be an amazing part of each week,” Levy said. “On Shabbat, we will rest as hard as we play.”

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