Jewish and Loving It: Counting Down to Total Immersion Summer Camp

by Dvora Lakein - New York

March 19, 2009

( Snow still covers the campground on Perch Lake Road, but for Rabbi Yitzchok Steinmetz, summer is already underway. The director of Camp L’man Achai has been gearing up for the camp season since October and now finds himself in a flurry of applications. The camp offers a unique niche in a world where there are camps to fill every interest.

“We are a typical Jewish overnight camp, complete with sports and trips, but we are geared to boys from non-religious homes,” explains Steinmetz. “Many of our campers have had some Jewish exposure, be it Hebrew school or a Friday night dinner, but this is their first 24/7 Jewish experience. It is an intense and total immersion.” 

The 225 campers are divided into different levels to accommodate their diverse backgrounds and learning interests. All the classes are hands-on: boys get the chance to see, up close, how ritual slaughter is performed and how a Torah scroll is created. But it is not only the formal study—which occupies a relatively small part of the day—that is important, emphasizes Steinmetz. “It is the no pressure attitude and the fact that we don’t force kids to do anything. They simply learn from our example.”

L’man Achai (which mean “for my brother”) was founded almost 25 years ago by Rabbi Shmuel Kleinman as a summer experience for new immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. Today the camp is open to any young boy with an interest in Judaism, and, in fact, campers summer at the upper Catskills site from around the world. 

“What camp achieves in one summer,” believes Kleinman, “an entire year of yeshiva study cannot.” Though counselors do encourage their young charges to attend Jewish school come fall, many are unable to. “But even those boys who don’t go to yeshiva,” continues Kleinman, “grow tremendously and continue the positive changes they have made in their lives.”  

Camp spirit lives on throughout the year with regular Shabbatons, reunions, and connections with counselors. According to research by the Federation for Jewish Camps, of which L’man Achai is a member, a Jewish camping experience ensures a higher rate of Jewish pride, marriage, and commitment. It is a summer that truly lasts a lifetime.     

For Dale Higgins July can’t come soon enough. The 15-year old from Edmonton attends public school during the year, but says that camp is important to him because “it gives me knowledge of my background. It is always good to know where you come from.” When Higgins outgrew his local Jewish day camp, his rabbi sent him to overnight camp in New York. 

“In the beginning,” he says, “I was worried I wouldn’t make any friends.” Now, four years later, Higgins “can’t wait to see all my friends: the same three guys I befriended that first year.”

“It is so important for my boys to have Jewish friends to learn from and to share good times,” states Cheryl Spiner of Homestead, Florida. When her younger son, Noah, told her several years ago that he “didn’t know the difference between Purim and Passover,” Spiner and her husband decided to explore their own identities. They discovered Chabad and Rabbi Yossi Harlig, who introduced them to L’man Achai. Their older son Nathaniel went that first year. This summer, the 17-year old musician plans to be a junior counselor at the camp. And though his little brother Noah was initially reluctant to attend, he too will be returning for another year of “hunting salamanders and laying on the grass and staring at the sky.” 

“Through camp,” says their grateful mother, “we have become part of the Jewish community. We have made major life changes.”

Avromie Margolis was a L’man Achai counselor for two years and a head counselor for one. He says that the camp’s round the clock nature enables the boys to “see us as we really are.” Sports and trips are filled with learning opportunities—not necessarily of the book variety, but of the lifestyle. “The difference between these teenage boys when they get off the bus at the beginning of the summer and when they leave is tremendous. Simple things like their language and behavior changes dramatically. 

“I haven’t been in camp for two years,” continues Margolis, “but I still keep in touch with many of the campers. We are still really close. I know that I can call the boys in the morning and remind them to put their Tefillin on. And they will.”  

“I think a large part of why my kids want to go back is because of the staff,” Spiner says. “They are so helpful and nurturing.” The Spiners had a chance to see the camp for themselves when they visited two years ago on Parents’ Day.

“It is rural. You drive two hours into the mountains, through windy roads, over canals, on dirt roads with no shops or restaurants. Then you cross into the campgrounds and you are in a whole new world. It is a secluded place filled with learning, nature, log cabins, and fun. And the boys are so happy, and really that is the only thing that matters.”

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