An array of Greater Washington-area camps are offering fun and meaningful camp experiences.
All year, children count down the days until summer vacation begins, and with summer vacation comes the joys of summer camp: action-packed days full of swimming and sports, art projects and funny skits, seeing old friends and making new ones. Some local camps are taking these typical camp experiences and adding a meaningful twist.
At the FIDF LEGACY summer camp program, run by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), a special group of Israeli youth get to have the American sleepaway camp experience along with their American peers. The Israeli children who are selected to attend each lost a parent or sibling in the IDF, and the camp experience is meant to give the kids an opportunity to bond with other campers and hopefully help alleviate the pain of their loss.
This year, 16 Israeli children spent two weeks in July integrated with American campers at Capital Camps and Retreat Center, located in the mountains of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. This was the third summer that FIDF’s Midatlantic region ran the program; FIDF has been running other FIDF LEGACY experiences for 12 summers. Ari Dallas, executive director of the Midatlantic region for FIDF, said that integrating the Israeli children with American campers, having them live together in the same cabins, is unique to his region’s programming.
Current IDF soldiers serve as counselors for the Israeli campers. The counselors have also lost a family member in the army, and are selected to attend by their commanders.
“The counselors are an anchor for the campers, whether they are missing a loved one or generally feeling homesick,” he said. “The program is an outlet. They don’t know each other at first; they come from Israel and are meeting other children who are all around bar/bat mitzvah age. They learn that there are other kids who are dealing with the same things as them; that shows them that they are not alone.”
Highlights of the FIDF LEGACY program include a trip to Hershey Park and a tour of Washington, D.C. The kids are “thrilled to see the White House,” said Dallas. “They’ve never seen anything like it.”
Following two weeks at Capital Camps and Retreat Center, the Israeli children spend a Shabbat with a host family in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. This summer, six host families, most of which are board members or volunteers with FIDF, participated by opening up their homes to Israeli campers.
“These brave children have been through so much,” said Kim Hiller, who hosted one of the children in her home in Maryland. “We wanted to show them how much we and the FIDF appreciate the sacrifices their families have made.”
“It’s a humbling experience to be with the kids. They’re smiling and loving being at camp, but then when you really look into their eyes you remember they’re here because they’ve been through a loss,” Dallas said. “It’s a very deep emotion to see in children.”
“The most important part of the summer is for these kids to know that there is love beyond the walls of their home,” he said. “They are our kids, too, and we are here for them.”
At the the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Northern Virginia’s Camp Kadima, Israel is also on people’s minds. “We have a theme each summer, this year it is Israel, and each week we talk about values that highlight the theme such as tikkun olam (repairing the world),” said Jessica Tischler, special needs director at Camp Kadima. The inclusion camp is a recreational social skills camp for children with high functioning autism, ADD/ADHD, and related disorders.
Camp Kadima offers social skills therapy in conjunction with general camp activities for rising kindergartners through 8th graders. Tischler has been coordinating the program for the past six years.
“To the best of our ability, we open up camp to all children no matter their physical, social, or emotional needs,” she said. “We work with each child on an individualized basis, providing accommodations such as behavior plans and personalized schedules as needed. We also work with families, teachers, and therapists on an as-needed basis to provide the best care in helping to make the summer successful for each child.
Among Tischler’s responsibilities is hiring the right staff to care for the campers. “All of the admins in the special needs department have a master’s degree in the field and are able to consult with others if needed. Our goal is to keep every child in camp happy and successful,” she said.
Stacey Davidson, a recent graduate from James Madison University who plans to pursue her Master’s degree in school psychology, is one of these staff members. “This is my second summer working for the JCC camp. I wanted to return because I just love seeing the campers make friends,” she said. “For the most part, these are kids who want nothing to do with each other, so when I see friendships forming, I know we are really improving their lives. My experiences at camp Kadima are what inspired me to go to grad school,” she says.
Rockville, Maryland’s Bender JCC offers a similarly inclusive camp experience, with about 100 campers ages 4-12 receiving support through the Bender JCC’s inclusion program. “At Camp JCC, the campers are kids, not kids with disabilities,” said Heather Strauss, the Bender JCC inclusion camp’s director. She has worked at Camp JCC for 25 years. “The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the campers have opportunities and experiences like any other camper,” she said.
Disabilities include medical, physical, neurological, and behavioral needs. “Most counselors support campers on a 1:1 ratio,” said Strauss. “We teach campers about caring, kindness, acceptance, and realizing that we are more alike than we are different.”
While both JCC camps place Jewish values at the core of all daily activities, Camp Gevaldig, located at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in Silver Spring, Maryland, also incorporates Torah study and davening (prayer) into their daily schedule, typically for one hour each morning. Rabbi Yair Friedman, a founding member of the Greater Washington Community Kollel and formerly a teacher at the Torah School of Greater Washington, began running Camp Gevaldig in 2012. The camp currently boasts close to 200 campers between the ages of six to 13 years old.
Rabbi Friedman said that all of the campers at Camp Gevaldig come from Orthodox Jewish families. "We have gratitude to G-d for giving us the opportunity to provide a Torah-based environment for Jewish children in the summer so that they learn to love to be Jews," he said.
In Washington, D.C., Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue also offers a camp experience enriched with Torah learning: Camp Kibbutz. The camp offers a familial feel, said Camp Director Michelle Kerbel, and does not separate siblings or cousins into different groups. The campers range in age from rising kindergarteners through middle school.
“My philosophy is to get every child up for success at camp regardless of his or her background,” said Kerbel, who during the school year works as a special education teacher in Frederick County, Maryland.
“Each morning we kick camp off with ruach-filled davening. Campers race to the top of the stairs to get siddurim (prayer books). Campers eagerly ask questions and listen to stories with Maharat Ruth [Friedman] and Rabbi Shmuel [Herzfeld]. Torah does not end after our morning learning but is infused through our camp theme,” she said.
With so many options for campers across the Greater Washington area, kids will surely come away from their camp experiences enriched and energized for the year ahead.
By Haley Cohen
Community News Intern