Jewish summer camp is as ubiquitous in the U.S. as s’mores and hamburgers, but in Israel, it’s a fairly new endeavor, made possible by the long summers and an absence of activities for kids on break from school. Now, kids in the U.S. can go to Israel to enjoy their nights around the campfire along with Israelis from all over the country, and campers from other countries as well.
Along with day camps organized by the Ministry of Education, several new Israeli overnight camps are getting into the business of outdoor sports, singing around the campfire and strengthening Jewish identity while giving campers a great summer away from home for two to three weeks at a time.
One such camp is the aptly named eCamp, which focuses on technology, digital art and, of course, a lot of social activities to create an exciting summer for campers from more than 25 different countries.
“Every summer, we have kids coming from all over the world,” eCamp founder Dotan Tamir says.
Tamir founded eCamp after working for a similar camp in the U.S., where he was inspired to bring the model to Israel — with an international and Jewish twist. This is the fourth summer since the camp’s founding, and the number of returning campers is substantial already.
“About one third of campers from last summer have already registered for the coming summer, which is a great sign,” Tamir says.
With three two-week sessions and an option to attend all three sessions with a day trip to Israel’s north in between the sessions, campers ages 8-18 can enjoy the land of Israel while learning about the great technological advancements that Israeli companies have made throughout the world. And although many campers are returning for the second, third and for some, even fourth time, the activities at camp are never the same.
From digital arts, digital comics, music, 3D modeling graphic design, computer programming, video filming and special effects, flash animation, video game creation, to workshops in building a computer or robot from scratch, the camp is adding more and more options each year as technology progresses.
DJ mixing, 3D game design and creation of smart phone applications are among new options for campers.
“As technology changes, we add workshops that kids want — it’s the biggest reason for what we do,” Tamir says.
No particular knowledge about any one area of technology is required to attend eCamp, but for more experienced campers, a special “tech masters” session is designed to build teamwork and work on campers’ individual strengths.
“[This way] they join together in a team to create something much bigger than they could do only by themselves,” Tamir says.
For older campers, a special track called leadership and entrepreneurship is available.
“One of our goals is to show the campers the Israeli high-tech industry, the technology here and the companies and changes to the world that came from Israel,” Tamir says of the trips campers take to places like the Google offices in Israel, the Israel Air Force bases and the Technion.
“This way, there is a specific program for teenagers who may feel that they are ‘too old’ for camp,” he adds.
Operated by Oranim, the same group that once headed many Birthright trips to Israel, the camp has a definite Jewish quality and aims to give campers — especially those from the Diaspora — an introduction to Israel unlike any other.
“We are a Jewish camp, of course,” he says. “Being in Israel, it’s wonderful to celebrate Shabbat and get everyone together as a family. We don’t use computers on Shabbat, and instead hold sports activities, Maccabi-style games and other more relaxed activities for campers.”
Giving campers (whether Israeli Jews or Diaspora Jews) a glimpse of Israeli life is an important aspect of summer camp in Israel, and one in which many families of campers participate as well, according to Tamir.
“We offer a week-long trip in Israel the week before camp so that [first-time visitors] to Israel [and their families] can feel the country, get adjusted and see Tel Aviv, Haifa, Masada, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem, and after those experiences, they come to camp for one, two or three sessions,” Tamir says.
Tamir says families build their own schedules, often combining a camper’s experience in Israel with a family vacation there or nearby.
“It’s summer, so they are here to have fun, but they are also here to get an added value because they leave here with knowledge, with experience, with pride in what they achieved and with tools to go home and do interesting stuff during the year,” Tamir says of eCamp’s graduates.
Many families appreciate the “specialty camp” and Israel experience combination, but for families who prefer a more traditional Jewish summer camp away from the States, there is always Camp Amichai, which combines traditional camp activities like hiking with an immersive Hebrew environment and emphasis on observant Judaism.
Run by Orthodox international Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva, the camp is run completely in Hebrew and stays consistent with the religious values of the movement by serving kosher food and observing a traditional Shabbat. A rabbi and synagogue are also available to campers, who are entering grades 4-9.
One three-week session allows campers to maintain their religious practices — like prayers led three times daily —while enjoying the beaches of the Mediterranean coast, arts and crafts, hiking and swimming in the camp’s pool.
Though it’s open to Diaspora campers, not many American Jews attended the camp’s first year (this summer will be its second). Most campers were native Israelis or olim, but for those American Jews looking for an authentic Israeli experience, or to strengthen their Hebrew language skills, this is the place.
“A lot of people here have made aliyah because of the education they had at summer camps [elsewhere], so [our camp] gives the children something that their parents had overseas, and instead of sending their children for the summer to the countries where they came from, families can keep them here in Israel,” camp director Ilan Osrin says.
Osrin, originally from South Africa, recognizes the importance of summer camp for Israelis and is working on increasing the camp’s numbers this year.
“Last year, we had about 250 kids come to camp, and we are growing,” he says. “This year, we can expect at least 300 campers.”
By engaging campers in religious discussions and lessons at camp, Osrin says counselors (all graduates of Bnei Akiva programs) complement what children are taught at home and in school, while keeping them busy during the summer.
“[Camp Amichai] is planned and organized by a team of madrichim who have worked with chanichim from Israel and abroad, and they set an excellent example for the children while at camp,” Osrin says. “Children learn about Israel’s history, geography and current affairs while having fun with their friends.”
A special leadership and Torah-study course is designed for returning campers (new this year), and will allow them to work in an advisory role with camp leaders to run activities and provide support to counselors.
“What kids get out of camp is religious enrichment while strengthening their connection to Israel and the state of Israel,” Osrin says.
Campers attend one big outing per week, mostly in Israel’s north, to show them the land of Israel and the various cultures that make up Israeli society.
And although Camp Amichai is distinctly different from eCamp’s structure, their goals remains the same — giving kids an unforgettable Jewish camp experience in the land of Israel.
For more information about eCamp, visit www.ecamp4u.com or call its U.S. office at (866) 276-2993.
For more information about Bnei Akiva or Camp Amichai, visit www.campbneiakiva.net or call them in Israel at +972-02-620-9016.