In the Talmud, the following story is told: One day Moses descended from heaven and sat down in the eighth row behind Rabbi Akiva’s disciples and listened to the discussions on the Torah. Moses knew the letters and the words but did not understand any of the arguments and or follow what they were saying. Eventually, the disciples asked Rabbi Akiva, “Master, where did you learn this?” and Rabbi Akiva replied, “It is that which was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.”
In a sense, that’s how I felt as a member of the faculty at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, which just wrapped a very successful inaugural summer. No, I’m not comparing myself to Moses. I’m saying that like Moses, I knew all of the letters and words but still couldn’t always follow what the kids at Sci-Tech were saying.
Despite having graduated with an electrical diploma from Brooklyn Technical High School, and despite being certified to teach 5th – 9th grade math, Sci-Tech campers’ breadth and knowledge of robotics, video game design, environmental science, and digital media production was astounding. Some things I learned during my time with them included the definition of MMO, M7, SSD, a dangle, and VCI; many of our conversations focused on calculus, derivatives, and linear functions. You know, just ordinary camp conversation!
Amidst the dense but commonplace dialogue, campers were also constantly reminded of the camp’s unique equation: Science + Judaism= fun. The campers, who hailed from 22 states and Canada, were constantly reminded of the four goals of camp:sakranut (curiosity), kesher (connection), taglit (discovery), and kavod (respect), in everything they did. Those goals permeated the entire camp experience, from the morning’s Boker Big Bang (where something was usually set on fire or soaring in the air),to each meal, where campers joyfully sang prayers; at the ever-popular gaga pit, and during menucha (rest time) and breirah (free time).
At Sci-Tech, loners are never lonely, which may be one of the most fascinating and powerful things I witnessed—even beyond the highly detailed explanation I received from Israeli Tech staff on how the Iron Dome defense system works. Sci-Tech campers were always working in partnership or in small groups with other like-minded campers, or with counselors, who acted more like mentors and spoke the same language as the campers. Campers learned to respect others’ opinions and ideas while learning how to compromise. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a camper comment, “I thought I knew so much when I came here, but many of the other campers know so much more.”
For children with an affinity for science and technology, nothing is more ideal than being a quick bus ride away from the MIT corridor. Forget trips to the Boston arcade or the bowling alley. Sci- Tech campers had the opportunity to take field trips to Hermonix, a video game design company in Cambridge; iRobot, a robot factory founded by MIT roboticists; Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant; the WIND Technology testing center; and the MIT Museum.
And what of the culinary spread? Because camp is located on the grounds of The Governor’s Academy, the oldest independent boarding school in the United States, Sci-Tech has access to a state-of-the-art dining hall. One visitor likened it to eating three meals a day in a gourmet restaurant.
Luisa, the camp nurse, had nothing but praise for the facilities and the experience. She told me, “It’s the type of place where, if you didn’t need the money, you would work for free. It’s the kind of place kids with passion will always be welcomed with open arms.” And it’s the type of place where nearly every camper said they were going to urge their parents to let them return next summer.
I’ve been involved with the Foundation for Jewish Camp for a long time. I’m a Nadiv educator (working in a shared job between URJ Camp Coleman and The Davis Academy, a day school in Atlanta), I’ve worked on the Cornerstone Fellowship program for years, and I even worked in the NY office. As a result, I know many, many people involved in the programs. What’s awesome is when they come to visit me!
Recently, an Atlanta camp fair brought a number of my colleagues into town. First, my URJ 6 Points SciTech colleague (and former Coleman programmer) Robbie Berg, let me know he’d be in town. Since Robbie had visited Davis before, we discussed bringing him in to do something exciting for the middle school kids in Tefillah. More camps signed up for the camp fair, and the emails kept coming! Other camp people from around the country – my incubator friends – wanted to come teach at Davis! SciTech is just one of the latest crop of incubator camps – and Mara Berde from JCC Maccabi Sports Camp and Dan Baer from Camp, Inc. wanted to come and learn with the students at Davis. We worked out interest-based Tefillah, where each kid got a taste of the incubator camp offerings. Twenty minutes were dedicated to your topic of choice – SciTech, Business or Sports – and then 10 minutes to the other two options.
For 40 minutes, students scribbled ideas about their potential businesses and their “special sauce” secrets to success. Students squealed with delight at the SciTech Boker Big Bang pops and explosions, and students shouted with ruach for whomever bested them in rock-paper-scissors (which is apparently called Rochambeau on the West Coast). There were business conversations, scientific hypothesizing, and sportsmanship chatter. Each Incubator related their work to Jewish topics, such as philanthropy, ruach, caring for your body, and the daily morning blessing of thanks for being made a free person.
It just so happens that Mara and Robbie are two of the most influential educators I’ve ever had the pleasure to learn from and work with in my life, and Dan and I have also had positive interactions for years. What a blessing to be able to share these friends with my amazing students! What a cool school to trust me to bring in cool campy people, ready to make a difference and have some fun. I’m so glad that the Foundation for Jewish Camp keeps finding ways for me to share my friends, and their genius, with others!
The following post is the next in our summer series hearing from the camps that were launched as a result of FJC’s Specialty Camps Incubator.
How does one describe the feeling of opening a new specialty camp? Awe inspiring, and an amazing challenge. I came into the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy with ideas, a framework, and a mission: to instill Jewish identity through science and technology. Over the last year, while fleshing out those ideas and expanding that framework, I still had only an inkling of what an incredible place this camp would become.
Sci-Tech is a specialty camp; similarly to our sister camp, URJ 6 Points Sports Academy, we offer dedicated periods of time to specific activities where our campers can learn about a subject in which they are passionate. In our case, those activities are robotics, digital media production, environmental science, and video game design. These workshops are supported by a variety of chugim (electives) taught by our stellar staff with backgrounds in programming, chemistry, and virology (just to name a few), who teach their subjects at a level very approachable by 5th-9th graders, but much more intellectually complex than I ever expected. Surrounding the workshops and chugim are camp’s core Jewish values—curiosity, discovery, respect, and connection—and a Jewish camp framework—morning blessings, song session, and Shabbat.
We’re creating an environment for a group of campers who might have never experienced a Jewish camp if it weren’t for the science and technology. Our goal has been to meld in-depth science and technology learning provided by our workshops with a campy and fun feel that only song sessions and cabin bonding can offer. In daily song sessions, campers look forward to singing “Why Does the Sun Shine,” an informational, yet energetic song by They Might Be Giants, followed by “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.” At breakfast, a staff member examines a great Jewish scientist or innovator before we join together in Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) full of ruach (spirit).
‘Only at Sci-Tech’ is a phrase that many of our Faculty have used to describe the environment here at camp. In my opinion, only at Sci-Tech can our campers find friends and build relationships with other campers who feel and act just like them. Campers are incredibly driven and enveloped in their projects and experiments at camp, but share these passions, and work, with other campers. All of our workshops have campers working in groups to accomplish things like building a Rube Goldberg Machine or developing a new video game. When there are activities that are independently driven, campers are working together towards a common goal or on a single project; for example, campers in our Virtual World chug work together on their own computers while physically in the same room to re-creating buildings and structures in camp using Minecraft. The amount of productive discussion and friendly cooperation that campers exhibit here at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy is simply astonishing.
Thankfully, after an intense week of creativity and innovation, camp has the privilege of celebrating Shabbat. We take time to reflect on our amazing accomplishments from the past week—filming a movie, building a robot, making a fossil, etc.—and infuse our core beliefs into the learning and fun we have had. We are only just under two sessions into the existence of camp, and I know that the experience we are providing here is opening up children’s eyes to the Jewish and scientific & technological worlds.
The following post is the second in our summer series hearing from the camps that were launched as a result of FJC’s Specialty Camps Incubator.
In an often-told story, Rabbi Hillel was asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot. His response was, “What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow person.” This is the foundation of the most basic rule of Jewish ethics: We should do no harm to other people.
Most of us don’t think of skipping the gym or choosing fries over salad as ethical decisions. These are personal decisions, the rationale goes, because they don’t harm others. But before deciding on your next snack, you might consider a very new perspective on Jewish ethics: Making unhealthy decisions is unethical because of the impact those decisions have on our peers.
Let’s use a brief thought experiment to understand why: If I were to tell you that most of my friends are health-conscious gym members, what would be your most reasonable conclusion about me? If you answered that I am also a health-conscious gym member, then you have successfully learned something about me from a statement about my friends.
Some recent research actually provides scientific backing for this conclusion. Social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found a correlation between our personal health choices and the choices made by members of our social circle. Their study, which relied on data from one of the longest health studies of the past 100 years, The Framingham Heart Study, led to the theory that seemingly-personal decisions about health influence the behavior of others. When one person in a community is active and eats healthy foods, everyone around them is more likely to do the same.
The Talmud teaches that “all of the people of Israel are responsible for one another.” Based on this ideal, we all might do a little more to make good choices and inspire healthy living in our community. This is why my wife and I decided to launch Camp Zeke, the first Jewish camp where kids celebrate healthy, active living.
Our inaugural summer is off to an amazing start. Campers are choosing from action-packed electives like running, yoga, strength training, dance, gymnastics, Krav Maga, and sports. They’re also putting on aprons and cooking healthy, gourmet dishes with a professional chef. In the process of making lifelong memories and forming amazing bonds with new friends, our campers are making very real connections between Judaism, nutrition, and fitness. When they go back home as ambassadors of vibrant good health, they will bring all of us one step closer to a healthier Jewish community.
The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) launched the second cohort of camps this summer through the Specialty Camps Incubator. We asked all of the specialty camps to tell us about what it looks like to be Jewish at a specialty camp. The following post is the first in our summer series.
Our director, Rabbi Eliav Bock, often says that our most impactful area of camp is not the rock climbing, backpacking trips, kayaking, or anything else—but rather the food choices that we make as a specialty camp. This is one aspect of what sets us apart as an outdoor adventure camp. We really strive to lift the veil on the food preparation process and involve our campers in it.
As a longtime Ramahnik, and recent transplant to Ramah Outdoor Adventure, I have had over 2000 camp meals in my life. While I have many fond memories of camp meals and routines, none have been quite like the dining experience that happens here at Ramah Outdoor Adventure. The first and most easily noted difference is the routine, which begins with a siur haochel (food tour) delivered by one of our tzevet mitbach (kitchen staff) upon entering the chadar ochel (dining hall).
This food tour includes an announcement of the menu and a discussion of what nutritional features or special ingredients the day’s meal might have. Past tours have focused on the anti-inflammatory properties of coriander or how quinoa is a complete protein, just to name a couple. Whatever the fact of the day, it helps everyone present to understand and appreciate the meal.
Our meals are longer than I am used to having in a camp setting, which allows for deeper conversations with tablemates as well as a more leisurely eating pace. Due to the more relaxed nature of the meals, we are able to fully understand the processes the food went through to reach our table, as opposed to simply wolfing down our food.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the meals at Ramah Outdoor Adventure is the lack of red meat or poultry. Tasty and more sustainable alternatives such as quinoa, tofu, seitan, and salmon have frequently graced our tables, however. As a part of Yom Wild Wild West, we brought in a shochet to discuss the ritual slaughtering process with chalutzim (campers/pioneers) who chose to attend. He discussed his process of going from vegan, to vegetarian, to kosher meat eater with everyone, and how his food process informed his Judaism.
These conscious decisions enable everyone to think about the environmental, moral, and social effects of the consumption of such foods. Much of our meat now comes from a kosher farm run by a camper’s family. Also, all of our fish and dairy, and much of our produce, is sourced locally.
Our Jewish values teach us bal tashchit; (do not destroy, coming from the Biblical commandment not to cut down fruit trees in times of war) at Camp Ramah, we take this commandment seriously. We follow the maxim “take what you want, and eat what you take.” Food left on plates is weighed as a part of a competition between age groups to have the least amount of food waste, and we compost as much as we can. Because we are “guardians of the earth,” we do as much as we can to minimize our impact via the choices we make about food consumption.
I have been continually impressed in my time here so far with the quality, intention, and effort that go into providing three daily meals. As I continue to learn my new home here at Ramah in the Rockies, I discover more and more about the camp and food culture here.
Every aspect of our nutrition here at Ramah in the Rockies is geared towards increasing awareness of the process undergone to get food on the table. Our campers leave camp imbued with a strong sense of responsibility with regards to their food and an extensive understanding of the importance of environmentally friendly nutrition. I look forward to seeing how the food education at this camp will transform the lives of all of our chalutzim and their families.