This Sunday concluded a week long overnight camping experience that will never be forgotten. The 8-day winter camp, located in the heart of the Catskill Mountains , was sponsored by Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe ( F.R.E.E.) directed by Rabbis Meir & Hirshel Okunov.
The camp, headed by Rabbi Mendel Okunov and Rabbi Dan Dashevsky, was specifically geared for public-school boys from Russian immigrant families, with little or no religious background.
UPDATE: More pictures in the Extended Article!
The days were filled with a blend of Yiddishkeit and great winter sports. The campers went ice skating, bowling, snow tubing, rope-course climbing, swimming, roller skating, and Skiing, preceded by davening and learning.
The structured learning sessions were only 45 minutes a day, but the whole day was one big lesson on how to live and act like a Jew. The desire of the campers to learn more about their Jewish heritage was never ending, and every spare moment was filled with discussions on Jewish topics.
“I learned two new things here in camp – how to daven properly and how to ski down a mountain. It was just so much fun” said Simon, age 11, from Flatbush, Brooklyn.
On Shabbos the boys davened at the Landfield Avenue Synagogue where they participated in the beginners service led by Rabbi Chanowitz, Shliach of the Rebbe to Monticello, NY. After davening the children had the shabbos meal followed by a farbrengen at the house of Rabbi Chanowitz. The children sang songs, heard inspiring stories and tried to stump the rabbi with their never-ending questions.
“This is the first real shabbos that I have ever experienced” said Eric, age 12, from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
On motzaei shabbos the boys went bowling, followed by the Grand Banquet. During the banquet the children sang camp songs and danced. Each of the campers then said a few words expressing their feelings about camp, and they announced new resolutions that they promised to keep even after returning home.
“Although my family is not from a religious background,” related Sam from Mill Basin, Brooklyn, “what I love most about camp is that I had the opportunity to learn what being Jewish really means and the importance of reciting the ‘Shema’ every evening.”
The campers’ words at the banquet and the feedback from their parents indicate that they were inspired by the conduct of their counselors even more than by what they were formally taught. The personal example of our dedicated staff was the best teacher of all.
The day after camp a mother related that she had been trying to convince her son to don his Teffilin ever since his Bar Mitzvah, but to no avail. “The morning after camp as I was coming in for breakfast, I couldn’t believe my eyes! There was my son, putting on the Teffilin on his own! I just want to thank you so much for all that you have done, he really grew in Judaism and had a great time as well…”
Special thanks to Rabbi & Mrs. Chanowitz, Moshe & Maya Katzen and the rest of the staff whose selfless dedication made this camp a great success.