Toni Davison Levenberg looks at her job this way: “We tell parents that we hope at the end of the summer to send their kids back to them as a better version of his or herself, and we do that through the teaching of Jewish values.”
Levenberg has been director of the Steve & Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken JCC in Eagle River for the past 10 years. Like other directors of Jewish overnight camps in Wisconsin – such as Solly Kane at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Robin Anderson at Camp Young Judaea Midwest in Waupaca and Jacob Cytryn at Camp Ramah in Conover – Levenberg oversees a staff that she says teaches “the Jewish core values that we live by” in a safe and fun environment.
Steve & Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken JCC
“Just stepping on the Interlaken grounds, you know you’re in a Jewish camp,” said Levenberg, who each summer welcomes 400 to 500 boys and girls entering third grade through entering 10th grade.
Interlaken has been the resident camp of the Harry & Rose Samson Family JCC in Milwaukee since 1966. It offers two 4-week sessions, with a 2-week option at the beginning of each for younger campers.
Interlaken doesn’t align with a religious denomination. Fifty-eight percent of the campers last summer came from a Reform background, and 35 percent were Conservative.
“Judaism is pervasive in everything we do,” Levenberg said. “Days start with thanking God for waking us up, and we end our nights with Shma,” Levenberg said. In between there are a lot of fun things to do as anyone would expect at any camp, but also there are Hebrew songs sung, buildings with Hebrew names, the Hebrew word of the day, using Hebrew to tell time and in announcements, etc. Kids sing Hatikva, and there is an 11th-grade Israel trip offered.
Shin shins and shlichim spend summers at camp. “We bring Israel to camp, and bring campers a lot closer to Israel,” Levenberg said.
Camp activities teach Jewish values. “For instance, with waterskiing, we emphasize cheering for your friends, waiting your turn, compassion when someone falls,” Levenberg said. “Sometimes the kids just climb ropes or just play basketball. But there are so many things happening in the background that are Jewish in nature that we hope stick with them.”
Levenberg, in her twelfth year in a senior leadership role at Interlaken, brought to camp a perspective as a camper and a counselor from a JCC camp while living in Philadelphia. “We have a responsibility at camp for there to be a Jewish future,” Levenberg said. “We not only have a responsibility to the campers, but to the campers’ children and grandchildren as well. And we want to do it in a positive, fun, accessible way. We want to bring to them a love of Judaism and a love of Israel, and we want it to be a really safe place to be Jewish on whatever level of Judaism you’re at.”
There are tears at the end of each summer. “This is an incredible place and our campers want to be here all the time,” Levenberg said. “They don’t want to leave. At the same time, watching them cry, we know we provided them with this amazing experience they will never forget.”
Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute
Solly Kane has been tasked to replace Jerry Kaye as director. OSRUI just finished its 65th summer, after which Kaye retired from a 48-year stint as director. “Jerry has been wonderfully supportive,” Kane said.
Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute was founded by the Reform Movement, and serves more than 1,000 campers entering grades 2 through 12 each summer from throughout North America and beyond. Sessions range from five days to seven weeks.
Kane, 28, is OSRUI’s 10th director, but first to have been an OSRUI camper. As a kid living in Minnesota, he was at OSRUI from 2001 to 2004. He was an assistant director at OSRUI for one summer, and also has worked for the Union for Reform Judaism.
“Judaism is infused in everything we do, and not just with Jewish programming,” Kane said. “Judaism is part and parcel of who we are, but kids want to do all the other great things you would find at a secular camp.”
He added, “You walk around camp and there are things written in Hebrew, and people talking in Hebrew. There are Israeli counselors, and rabbis and cantors from around the Midwest who spend two weeks being part of the daily camp program. Campers are as likely to interact with a rabbi at the swimming pool or basketball court as they are at a formal service or when the rabbis are teaching Hebrew.”
Kids come from a variety of Jewish denominations, although the majority are Reform. “We want kids to explore their Judaism and to be supported by people who will help grow their Judaism.”
Kane said OSRUI post-Jerry Kaye will look to innovate, “but we want to make sure what we add is of interest to today’s kids.” Kane added, “To Jerry’s credit, he never let it go stale. He was never afraid to try a new unit.”
Kane seeks to have Judaism “come alive” at OSRUI. “We want the kids to go home passionate and excited about who they are as Jews,” he said.
Camp Young Judaea Midwest
“Our philosophy is that we want a kid to have a love of Judaism and a love for the state of Israel,” said Robin Anderson, who has been CYJ director since December 2015 after being associate director for 10 years.
“I want kids to come away with something new they want to learn about. Maybe they want to try to light Shabbat candles, maybe they wore a kippah for the first time, maybe they’ve been to a service for the first time and might want to do it again when they get home. And maybe they might want to travel to Israel for the first time.”
At the request of National Hadassah, Camp Young Judaea Midwest was established in 1969 and has grown to more than 200 campers each year. The majority of campers identify Conservative, and many identify traditional, but there are also campers with Reform and Reconstructionist backgrounds.
Judaism and Israel are everywhere at CYJ. “Kids quickly feel comfortable in this setting,” Anderson said. “We have kids who come from so many different backgrounds, and we want to make sure everyone has a positive experience.”
There are sessions of various lengths for kids entering second through entering 11th grade.
“We want kids to connect with Judaism through activities they feel most comfortable with,” Anderson said. “We want them to be hearing different Hebrew words or different themes and learn Jewish values. For instance, we might all go out zip lining and the kids will all be cheering for the kids who are nervous about doing it. All working together is a Jewish value, but it’s not like, “Look at this Jewish value, guys.’ We want it to be natural and to make them mensches.”
Anderson, who grew up in Nashville, Tenn., said most parents send their kids to CYJ to be around other Jewish kids. “I went to an all-girls camp growing up and I am happy my children have the opportunity to go to a Jewish camp,” Anderson said.
There is an educational component to everything kids do at camp, from learning about cities in Israel while climbing the rope, to learning words written in Hebrew in the sand at the beach, or keeping score in soccer using Hebrew numbers.
Anderson said campers this summer came from about 15 states and three countries. In one cabin there were kids from Paris, Mexico, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Chicago and Munster, Ind. “When in your life are you going to be with so many Jewish people from that many different communities and learn about them?” Anderson said.
“It’s pretty amazing to bring all those kids together and to learn about the greater Jewish community outside of Waupaca, Wisconsin.”
Camp Ramah Wisconsin
“Jewish camp is the greatest opportunity any of our children will have at recreating the power of an intensive, extensive 24/7 Jewish community,” said Jacob Cytryn, 35, who recently completed his fifth summer as camp director and his 26th consecutive year at camp, beginning as a camper. “There is simply no replacement for the impact of living and growing with other Jews for a period of time over the summer.”
Established in 1947 as the Midwestern camp of the Conservative Movement, approximately 80 percent of the camper population in any given summer is affiliated with a Conservative synagogue.
Ramah serves children basically from entering 3rd grade through entering 11th grade. There were 540 campers at Ramah this summer.
Cytryn said Ramah “provides an immersive and holistic Jewish setting. We bring the best of educational approaches and a robust Jewish content, which infuses everything that we do.”
In addition to activities found in most other camps, “Jewishly we provide daily prayer in age-appropriate ways, as well as Hebrew and Jewish studies activities, which bolster our campers’ connections to our shared Jewish language, Israeli history and culture,” Cytryn said.
Cytryn added that Ramah tries to connect 3,000 years of ideas to campers’ lives in 2017.
“I love being a camp director because I am planting and watering the seeds for the next generation of creative Judaism,” Cytryn said.