Yehuda Pinson is not your typical 9-year-old. Living in Brussels, Belgium, he is one of the few Jewish males (and among the only children) in the city to openly identify as a Jew, proudly sporting a kippah on his head at all times. As the child of Chabad emissaries, he knows that he is different than his neighbors.
In recent weeks he was counting down the days until winter vacation (he commutes daily to a Jewish school in Antwerp), when he flew to Florida to attend the Young Shluchim Winter Camp, which began this week. He’s now among peers who also understand what it means to live far from larger Jewish establishments, constantly serving as an example of Judaism to their local communities.
For 10 days, he will be immersed in a world of fun, song, learning and the joy of just being himself. The camp ground, in Lake Worth, Florida, has capacity for 90 people and includes a heated swimming pool, rope course, zip line, activity room, sport fields, hiking trails and much more.
A major part of the experience, organizers say, is that the children get to interact with fellow children of shluchim, who share similar experiences, challenges, and triumphs.
The camp runs two sessions, first for girls (which began on Dec. 13 and has ended) and now for boys (which began Dec. 22).
“The camp serves to give the children of shluchim in remote places a real sense of pride in their identity, as well as a healthy dose of good old fashioned fun,” says Rabbi Benzion Shemtov, who co-directs the camp with his wife, Simi,
The winter camp was founded 22 years ago in Arizona as a project of The Shluchim Office, which was established in 1986 following the request of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, that a central organization be established to assist the global network of Chabad emissaries and their families. The camp is highly subsidized by donors, including Rabbi Don Yoel Levy of OK Kosher Laboratories, and is but one of a myriad of projects offered by the organization.
The simplest pleasures are often the most memorable
For many of the children, some of the simpler pleasures will be the most memorable. Eight-year-old Chayale Mendelsohn of Jackson Hole, Wyo., is currently attending camp for the first time. Living many hundreds of miles from the closest kosher grocery, fresh milk is a rarity at home. Thus, filling up a bowl of cornflakes at the cafeteria has been an experience in its own right.
Taking advantage of the opportunity, Chayale first spent a few weeks with her grandparents in North Miami Beach, Fla., before attending camp. “She loves every minute of it,” says her father, Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn, who has co-directed Chabad Lubavitch of Wyoming with his wife, Raizy, since 2007.
“Last year, we visited Bubby and Zaidy for a few weeks and had the kids enrolled in the local Chabad day school,” he continues. “When it was time to leave, Chayale tried to hide, hoping she would be able to stay. That told us that she was really thriving immersed in the Jewish atmosphere. From then on, we made the conscious decision to attend every program available to families like ours, seeing how crucial it is for their development, to feel like they are part of something great.”
“After a healthy experience like this one,” Mendelsohn reports, “Chayale comes back home with a renewed sense of purpose and satisfaction in her life. The kids are such an integral part of what we do here in Jackson Hole. They greet guests, teach children and adults about Judaism, visit people in the hospital, and just live a life of sharing and giving. Camp allows them to take the role of receiver that they sometimes do without.”
Mendelsohn says he and his wife have been happily receiving pictures and videos from the camp’s staff via WhatsApp, greatly relieving the jitters most parents have when sending a child away from home for the first time.
“We see her singing, laughing, playing, and being cared for, and that makes it much easier for us,” says the rabbi. “Chayale is also enjoying the experience of being together with classmates from Nigri International Shluchim Online School, which she attends daily. Even though they are meeting in person for the first time, Chayale knows them and they know her.”
While the Mendelsohns have the comfort of knowing that Chayale’s maternal grandparents live nearby, Yehuda Pinson’s parents do not. Shulamit Pinson, who has been a Chabad emissary with her husband, Rabbi Shmuel Pinson, since 1988, says she was reassured after her son came back glowing from the children’s program at the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchim) earlier this year.
“We talked about how he is bound to find some relatives there,” says Pinson, who notes that both she and her husband have many siblings and cousins who serve as Chabad emissaries all over the globe. “And besides, we are really all part of a large, extended family—the Rebbe’s family.”
Girls’ Winter Camp 5776
Here are some photos from the girls’ winter camp that concluded this week:
Boys’ Winter Camp 5775
The boys’ winter camp just started. Here are some photos from last year: