If you’ve ever been to a Jewish summer camp, you probably have memories of lifelong friendships, campfire sing-a-longs and the excitement of getting a package from home.
But did you get a chance to run the camp for a day with your teenage friends? Perform a Broadway musical all in Hebrew? Customize your camp day with your favorite activity? Speak nothing but Hebrew for an entire summer?
Four popular Wisconsin Jewish summer camps offer these and other special activities along with the usual lake swimming and Shabbat celebrations.
K’far Takes Over at Camp Interlaken
A camper’s final year at the Steve & Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken JCC is highly anticipated. Teens entering tenth grade are in the K’far Noar unit, with their own house (bayit) where they make their own breakfast. These teens have special privileges and new responsibilities.
Interlaken Director Toni Davison Levenberg explains, “Every camper’s goal is to be a ‘K’farnik.’ These campers live in a secret village. As a younger camper you only get a couple of glimpses into it.”
Camp Interlaken takes advantage of the teens’ creativity, skills and enthusiasm. “K’far Noar campers plan an evening program for the youngest campers and invite them back to the village. They also coordinate and plan camp’s final banquet,” Davison Levenberg said.
The highlight of the summer is “K’far Takes Over” (KTO). “K’far campers come running into the dining hall and sit down with the cabin where they’ll act as a counselor for the day,” Davison Levenberg said. Before KTO, Davison Levenberg meets with the K’farniks to train them.
Davison Levenberg added, “I set them up for success. They know they don’t have to do it all by themselves. They have the support of camp.”
At the end of the day there’s a debriefing session where each teen shares their counselor experience. Davison Levenberg admits, “My favorite part of KTO is seeing how the success of the day makes a K’far camper feel. They have a new appreciation for how hard it is to be a counselor.”
Theater at Camp Ramah
The definition of a happy camper is a kid who spends the off season counting the days until the first day of camp. Ramah camper Jon Adam Ross was that kid. Ross hated the idea of skipping his final summer as a Ramah camper but his future career goal depended on it.
“My guidance counselor told me I had to go to a real summer theater program, not Jewish summer camp if I wanted to go to a (college) theater conservatory.” Ross recalls. This inspired Ross to return to Ramah with a specific goal. “I wanted to transform the theater program so that no kid would have to sacrifice spending a summer in a Jewish environment to get ahead in theater.”
As a student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the early 2000s, Ross joined Ramah’s summer drama staff and the transformation began. Over the past 17 years under Ross’ leadership, Ramah’s theater program expanded beyond their signature Broadway-style musicals performed entirely in Hebrew. From an early partnership with Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Person’s foundation, to creating The Northwoods Ramah Theatre Company, to an ongoing partnership with Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre; paraphrasing Shakespeare, at Ramah, the play’s the thing. But as Ross points out, it’s not the only thing: “If you go to a specialty camp that’s just a specialty camp, you are less well-rounded. I’m proud of the fact that we created a specialty program within a Jewish camp.”
Hebrew at OSRUI
Tenth graders at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) have their own special program, chalutzim.
Jerry Kaye has been the camp’s director for 47, yes that’s right, 47 summers.
“The entire program: sports, art, swimming, a three-day canoe trip, everything except for a one-hour daily discussion period, is presented in Hebrew,” Kaye explains. OSRUI hires Israelis and Americans who speak fluent Hebrew to staff this unit and teach Hebrew classes.
“You have to pass a written test and demonstrate a basic ability to speak Hebrew (to be accepted),” Kaye adds. Chalutzim has become a popular choice for teens. “This summer over 80 youngsters were in the program. It’s the only program of its kind in North America,” he says, adding, that “it’s not Hebrew school.”
OSRUI also offers unique primitive camp programs for all age groups. Campers can spend the day hiking, biking, canoeing or rock climbing, then sleep in tents. Fun is incorporated into every program OSRUI offers because, Kaye adds, “If camp isn’t fun, it isn’t anything.”
Hobbies at B’nai B’rith Beber Camp
Every day at B’nai B’rith Beber Camp kids have the chance to master their favorite activity or try something new. Beber’s “Hobby Program” lets campers customize their camp day and pick three of their five daily activities from an extensive list of over 90 options. Brad Robinson, Beber’s manager of customer experience and marketing explains, “The great thing about our hobby program is that it allows campers to really customize what their ideal camp day looks like.”
There’s a slate of athletics, a wide range of waterfront activities; budding chefs can choose a culinary arts hobby while aspiring artists can focus on arts and crafts. Robinson explains, “Each camper gets a sign-up sheet and ranks their top four hobbies. Campers then will have these three different hobbies for five days. Once the hobby week is over they sign up for the next week’s hobbies.” Every summer Beber’s Hobby Program is a bit different from the year before. Robinson says, “During the off-season our director of programming works closely with our area directors who supervise our hobby areas to create curriculum and continue to improve the program.”