Happy campers

Bnei Akiva’s summer camp finally makes aliya.

campers311 (photo credit: courtesy)
(photo credit: courtesy)
The Religious Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva has run educational summer camps for children and teenagers for over 80 years.
With over 45,000 members in 34 countries, the movement says its summer camps are a great opportunity to instill Jewish values in young people around the world.
This year, Bnei Akiva’s summer camp finally made aliya. Located in the beautiful Mor B’Achziv resort in northern Israel, Camp Amichai offered children a threeweek American-style summer camp with a distinctly Israeli flavor.
The residential summer camp is a staple of American childhood – according to the American Camp Association, 10 million US children attend camp every summer.
Here in Israel, however, the summer camp concept hasn’t really caught on. Most Israeli camps offer day activities only, and are usually much shorter than their American equivalents.
Camp Amichai director Ilan Osrin says that popular demand prompted Bnei Akiva to bring its American-style camp here to Israel. English-speaking Bnei Akiva alumni in Israel were very keen for their kids to enjoy a summer camp experience of the sort they had growing up, he explains.
An oleh from South Africa, Osrin has vast experience of Bnei Akiva’s summer camp – he has attended the movement’s South African camp 14 times, twice as director.
“The summer holidays in Israel can be very long and empty,” says Osrin. “A lot of parents were looking for a solution, so we brought the Bnei Akiva model from abroad.”
Bnei Akiva alumnus and American olah Rocky Brody has fond memories of her own childhood summer camp experiences in the US.
“I grew up in Bnei Akiva,” she says. “The summer camps influenced my life, they made me who I am today.”
Brody, who lives in Gush Etzion, says she tried out a couple of camps in Israel but did not find anything that matched the Bnei Akiva experience or values that she wanted to pass on to her children.
“I didn’t want to send them to a Bnei Akiva camp abroad,” she adds. “That doesn’t fit with my ideals about aliya.”
WHEN BRODY saw an advertisement for Camp Amichai in The Jerusalem Post, she was overjoyed. “I couldn’t believe it!” she says. Brody decided to send her four sons, aged between 10 and 15, to the camp.
Tova Kestenbaum is another American olah and Bnei Akiva alumnus. Like Brody, she spent her childhood summers in the US in camp, and wanted her kids to have a similar experience.
“I was looking for a three-week sleepover camp,” she explains. “I wanted someplace that would enhance the children’s education in a fun way, and instill the values and love for Torah that we emphasize all year round.”
Kestenbaum sent three of her children to Camp Amichai. The two eldest were counselors and helped organize camp activities for the younger kids. The youngest, 12-year-old Avital, was a regular camper.
Although a lot of the campers come from Englishspeaking homes, Camp Amichai is run in Hebrew, a factor that both Kestenbaum and Brody say is important to them.
Kestenbaum adds that the quality of Camp Amichai’s staff was another key factor for her. “Bnei Akiva chose the staff very carefully, all of them had to have past experience,” she says. “The Beit Midrash and the rabbis also set a good tone and created a proper Torah atmosphere for the children.”
Brody agrees. “The young staff must have been the stars of Bnei Akiva in their home countries,” she adds.
Camp Amichai offers campers the same sorts of activities as Bnei Akiva’s camps overseas. Religion and religious education forms an integral part of the camp’s atmosphere and ethos and is woven into everything the children do. Tefillah (prayer) workshops and group discussions on Jewish subjects form a natural part of everyday camp life. As a Zionist movement, Bnei Akiva also stresses a love of Eretz Israel.
PROBABLY THE highlight of Camp Amichai is Color War, a three-day competition for which campers are split into two mixed teams. Each 90-strong team has its own color and represents either Northern or Southern Israel.
The children compete by completing different tasks, like making a promotional video clip, writing a song, designing a logo, choreographing an original dance or inventing a chant. As well as having fun, the children learn about Israel’s history, geography and current affairs.
“There was a point to what the children learned, a theme,” explains Brody. “It wasn’t just fun. There was a real message there.”
Camp Amichai also teaches leadership and teamwork: During the three days of Color War, the younger staff and children take over the running of the camp.
The young staff and counselors – all Bnei Akiva alumni – are also given a lot of responsibility. Tova Kestenbaum describes how her oldest son, 18-year-old Eitan, and his fellow counselors took on the duty of guiding the younger children at Camp Amichai.
“The counselors prepared the activities themselves,” Kestenbaum relates. “It was a great experience, because they had to work hard and invest themselves in their work.”
Healthy outdoor physical activity is another important part of Camp Amichai. Campers enjoyed daylong trips and hikes to local beauty spots in the Golan and chose from sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball and baseball. The children could take part in activities as varied as horse riding, arts, Jewish music, martial arts and tzitzit-making. At night, campers joined staff around a glowing campfire for singing, spiritual reflections and merrymaking.
THE THREE Shabbats that the campers spent together were truly inspirational, says Osrin. “The Shabbatot were just incredible,” he recalls. “There was a real family atmosphere, with beautiful, moving tefillot (prayers).
Camp Amichai is right on the coast next to Rosh Hanikra, so we enjoyed Kabbalat Shabbat outside with wonderful views of the sea.” “The atmosphere on Shabbat was really beautiful,” agrees Kestenbaum.
Camp Amichai’s mixture of healthy outdoor fun and work, Jewish and Torah values, and a sense of community are reflected in the history of World Bnei Akiva.
Established in Eretz Israel in the late 1920s, its motto is Torah v’Avodah, (Torah and Labor), and as a religious Zionist movement Bnei Akiva stresses a combination of religious commitment and work in Israel.
How did Camp Amichai’s first year meet expectations? Osrin is proud of what was achieved.
“It was a resounding success,” he says. “We all worked so hard in preparation for the camp, and I think we created an excellent atmosphere.”
Parents Kestenbaum and Brody both say that the camp was a positive experience.
“From my perspective, my daughter learned a lot and had great role models,” says Kestenbaum. “I appreciate those who initiated the camp, and I hope it continues.”
Rocky Brody agrees, noting that Camp Amichai even had a waiting list for kids, so great was the demand.
“That’s how much the camp was needed,” she says.
“It’s great that these Israeli Bnei Akiva kids got the opportunity to meet other children from all around Israel, to share this experience with them in an atmosphere that has nothing to do with the school year.”
Camp Amichai will continue. Bnei Akiva is looking for a permanent home for its summer camp that can accommodate the numbers of children who wish to attend.
“My kids can’t stop talking about Camp Amichai,” says Brody. “They are really very happy campers.”