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At Camp Conference, Directors Talk Anything but ‘Bunk’

Binyamin Murray grew up on a poultry farm in rural Connecticut, learning to hunt with a bow, and catch fish in lakes and rivers. Spiritually, the 2006 University of Vermont graduate has traveled a long way from his secular upbringing: He’s studying for rabbinical ordination at the Rabbinical College of America, aChabad institution in Morristown, N.J.

Now, the avid archer—since becoming observant, he only shoots at targets—hiker, gardener and cyclist is living his dream. He’s combining his love ofYiddishkeit and nature as the co-founder of Pioneers Camp. It’s a Jewish survivalist camp situated in the Green Mountains National Forest in Vermont. Pioneers is under Chabad auspices and entering its third summer. Boys ranging from 11 to 17 learn to live in military-style tents, spin tzitzit from sheep’s wool and connect with their ancestors by learning how to keep Shabbat in the wilderness.

“I’m a strong believer in experiential education,” said Murray, who expects the number of campers this year to increase from 23 to 30. “Whether you are from a city or a suburban community, to go out into nature and experience settings that our ancestors experienced,” he added, teaches a great deal about the Jewish tradition.

He was one of 700 camp professionals, lay leaders, philanthropists and educators who attended the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Biennial Leaders Assembly, held March 22-25 in New Brunswick, N.J. The foundation is considered a leading champion of Jewish camps across the denominational spectrum. The organization funds a wide array of camp scholarships and awards grants to camps, both overnight and day, and also provides money for camp improvements.

Murray was one of eight participants affiliated with Chabad-Lubavitch—the biggest representation yet from the foundation’s previous four conferences. Chabad runs the largest network of Jewish camps in the world, with hundreds of them spread across the globe, serving more than 100,000 children.

The other Chabad participants in the conference included Rabbi Yitzhok Steimetz of Camp L’man Achai in Andes, N.Y.; Rabbi Itchy Grossbaum of Camp Gan Israel Toronto in Canada; Rabbi Zalman Gerber of Camp Gan Israel in the Philadelphia area; Rabbi Yisroel Mockin of Camp Gan Israel Montreal in Canada; Rabbi Yossi Goldblatt of Camp Gan Israel Florida; Rabbi Gershon Sandler of Camp Gan Israel in the Poconos in northeastern Pennsylvania; and Rabbi Avraham Laber of the Jewish Girls Retreat in Troy, N.Y.

A Transformative Experience

The Rebbe—Rabbi Menechem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—taught that an overnight camping experience was one of the Jewish community’s most powerful tools for inculcating Torah values and building a strong identity.

During his half-century as head of the global Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the Rebbe rarely traveled outside of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. But in 1956, the camp’s first year, and in 1957—and again in 1960—he made repeated visits to the first Gan Israel Camp in Swan Lake, N.Y., demonstrating his commitment to the camping ideal. He also visited CampEmunah for girls.

Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said that “it’s very compelling to me that one of the foremost leaders in the Jewish world in the last century has said that Jewish summer camps are vital to giving kids their soul.”

He added that the organization was “thrilled with the amount of participation from all walks of Jewish life.”

Fingerman said he is looking for ways to grow his organization’s partnership with Chabad camps. He noted that Chabad in the Poconos is taking part in a pilot program called “Bunkconnect,” which matches families that meet income-eligibility requirements with needs-based camp scholarships.

After more than a decade of focusing solely on overnight camps, the foundation is now becoming involved with day camps. There’s a growing sense in the Jewish world that overnight camps aren’t for everyone, and that day camps also provide transformative Jewish experiences for young families.

Rabbi Zalman Gerber of Camp Gan Israel in the Philadelphia area—the camp is actually situated in Collegeville, Pa.—is in the opposite position. For 25 years, he has run a day camp. A longtime friend of Fingerman’s, Gerber said he attended the conference to share his experiences in running day camps and was hoping to learn more about overnight camps, as he’s thinking of starting one of his own. By attending, he was able to network with overnight-camp directors from across North America and from a wide array of Jewish movements.

Gerber said he came away with some practical tips regarding security, as well as building a network of alumni to help support the camp. He also got a sense that he and his Chabad colleagues have a profound appreciation of their mission and responsibility as camp professionals.

“We educate the neshama, the spirit,” he explained. “School is about getting the A-plus. Camp is about getting along with the group, letting someone else go ahead of you in line, sitting next to someone that you have never spoken to before.”

Focusing on the Practical

Grossbaum’s Camp Gan Israel in Toronto is entering its third summer and expects to have 200 campers, up from 150 last year.

Running a Jewish overnight camp has been a dream of his father, Rabbi Zalman Aaron Grossbaum, for years. Grossbaum has long been preparing for the role of camp director, but still thinks he has much to learn. He attended the conference hoping to soak up all the knowledge he could, particularly when it comes to the administrative aspects of running a camp.

“I was able to do lots of networking and meet with other Jewish camps that are in close proximity to us,” he said. “The conference focused on how to strengthen the Jewish camping community, and gave us ideas how to empower our youth and encourage children to attend a Jewish camp.”

Murray said he also concentrated on skills-building workshops and learning about the practical, more prosaic matters of camp administration and budgeting. He noted that he’s going to work on communicating with donors to give them a better sense of how their dollars are improving the facilities.

One powerful workshop, he said, focused on evaluating camp from both the experiential and financial perspectives.

The speaker “gave us a wonderfully clear matrix to use for these evaluations. We are going to incorporate this into our staff training,” he said.

Murray also plans to make changes to “camper evaluations, so we can get a better picture of how the programming is affecting our campers and staff.”

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