Agudath Israel camps have enriched the summers- and lives- of countless children for decades. Their camps include: Camp Agudah, Bnos, Camp Bnoseinu, Chayil, Machane Ephraim, Agudah Midwest, Maarava, Nageela, Camp Aguda Toronto, and Camp Agudah day camps in the Catskills and Midwest.Approximately 5,000 campers 1,000 staff members enrolled in the nine Agudath Israel camps. As Rabbi Labish Becker, executive director of Agudath Israel of America states, “the excitement and inspiration of camp is an important component in creating the simchas hachaim so necessary for the development of a Yiddishe child into a mature and productive adult. It is an honor for Agudas Yisroel to be involved in this sacred avodah.”
With camps starting this week, we spoke to the directors of the Agudath Israel camping network who discuss the joys and challenges of creating a memorable summer.
Q: Why is camp so important? What life lessons can be gained from attending summer camp?
Rabbi Avi Frank, director, Agudah Midwest:Today more than ever, with the powerful influences of the outside world, camp is especially important. For children, there is very little alternative but to spend their summer in a protective Torah environment. Children spend time in camp with very experienced mechanchim who show them what good kosher fun is all about.
Rabbi Meir Frischman, director, Agudah New York: Camp is a place in which each and every kid arrives on equal footing – this includes children dealing with all sorts of challenges including children who have a difficult time learning and children who are not matzliach in school. Each child comes to camp with a clean slate; this is his or her place to shine. Every child feels comfortable here. Indeed, camp can bring out the best in each of them.
Rabbi Moishe Blaustein, director, Agudah Toronto: Camp gives each camper the opportunity to realize their hidden talents – be it acting, public speaking, art or social interactions. Campers can recognize their potentials for future careers and increase their ability to help klal Yisroel.Rebbi Hill [popular producer of children programming], Rabbi Yechiel Spero [noted author], Rabbi Baruch Levine [composer and singer] and Reb Amram Kuessous [menahel of Yeshiva Shaare Torah in Brooklyn, NY] have all been campers of ours, propelling themselves on the road to their future endeavors.
Mrs. Mirel Simcha, director, Agudah Midwest: Camp is an opportunity to stretch yourself in ways that you never knew you could. Every child has something to offer to the world. Camp is a place to find out what that something is.
Q: What makes an Agudath Israel camp special?
Rabbi Frank: At Agudath Israel camps we do not compromise on Torah values. Everything is run al pi Daas Torah. There is a manhig ruchani who is involved in each and every aspect of our day to day activities; everything is done with proper values. We are careful to screen each entertainer that comes to camp and very careful with the selection of the staff members – that is a very big thing. However, we don’t have less fun in camp because of that.
Rabbi Frischman: At Agudath Israel camps, we have a mesorah. The camps were instituted by the legendary Mike Tress and the gedolim of his time, and since then have had a lot of siyata dishmaya.
Rabbi Blaustein: Everything that takes place in camp is al pi daas Torah – from learning groups to color war.
Mrs. Simcha: At Camp Agudath Midwest, we like to put more emphasis on creativity than prepackaged fun. One of our most important rules as far as programming goes is that you always discard the first thing that comes to your head because everyone else will think of that too and then it is not original. The married staff gets along so well, we enjoy working with each other and that filters down to the campers. Our campers feel as though they are part of a huge family.
Q: What are some of the greatest lessons you have taught your campers?
Rabbi Frank: A Torah Yid can have good kosher fun without compromising his values (and without feeling deprived).
Rabbi Blaustein: Empowering the campers with greater self-confidence- within their bien adam l’chavaro and bien adam l’makom. The campers can recognize that “I am able to learn and retain this; I am able to change; and I am able to do something I never did before.”
Mrs. Simcha: Integrity. If I ever make a mistake that impacts the whole camp, I will acknowledge it and apologize. Also, that true simchah comes from giving.
Q: Can you share a memorable camp experience?
Rabbi Frank: The visits from gedolim. Being exposed to Gedolei Torah is probably the most rewarding experience a child can have. It leaves a great impression for life.
Rabbi Frischman: Once, we had Rav Rudermen, Rav Gifter and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsy in camp at the same time. The kids were able to witness the gedolim interacting with each other. That is truly an experience that no one will ever forget!
Rabbi Blaustein: Once a menahel called me and said, “What did you do to this kid?” I was scared that he would chastise me. Instead, however, he told me that camp had really impacted the boy; his midos and ahavas Yisroel had an incredible turn around.
Mrs. Simcha: In the days when we used to have color war, I reenacted the midnightride of Paul Revere at 3:00 am when the whole camp was asleep. (It was July fourth).That is how we broke out color war. There was a whole room of girls fresh out of seminary who heard a horse galloping around camp. They thought it was Moshiach and proceeded to pack their bags. I kid you not! This actually happened!
Q: What are the greatest challenges of directing a camp?
Rabbi Frank: The safety of the campers- both in ruchnius and gashmius.
Rabbi Frischman: Trying to meet the needs of each and every camper and keeping everyone happy at all times.
Rabbi Blaustein: Walking the tightrope of being mechanech the children: Bringing them close with a right hand and being firm with a left hand.
Mrs. Simcha: Definitely technology. Our campers are not allowed to use their cell phone during the week. We collect them on the first night of camp and return them every Friday for a short period of time. Staff members are allowed the use of cell phones, but never around campers; and Internet usage is VERBOTTEN! There is always someone who will try to get around our rules. This leads me to what is special about Agudah camps: We thrive on communication, warmth, friendliness and social awareness.
Q: What is your favorite part of the summer?
Rabbi Frank: Shabbos! The ruach of Shabbos is unparalleled. I simply cannot describe it; you have to experience it in order to feel it. Some Shabbos highlights are the zmiros and the special learning program during Shabbos afternoon which keeps the children occupied in an exciting way. The important thing is that they are enjoying the learning; they are not pressured – it is optional and incentives are given out.
Rabbi Frischman: My favorite part of the summer is the color war experience. The whole camp comes together with a certain ruach that just can’t be matched at any other time.
Rabbi Blaustein: The first day of camp! At that point all of the pre-camp preparations come to fruition.
Mrs. Simcha: Working with my married staff (I love them all!) and being in the dining room when the camp is singing our songs!
Do you have a message to share with parents?
Rabbi Frank: The idea of camp is that children can thrive in a non-pressured environment, surrounded by rebbiem and stellar staff members who are there for the sole purpose of giving the children a wonderful camp experience. It is well known that some children can accomplish more in four weeks of summer camp than they do in ten months of school. The bonds created in camp create everlasting memories.
Rabbi Frischman: Camping is a safe and beautiful experience and when possible each and every child should be given the opportunity to go to camp!
Rabbi Blaustein: Camp has moved from a luxury to a necessity because it has become a mosad hachinuch. Camp truly gives an aliya to each and every camper according to his or her madreiga.
Mrs. Simcha: Thank you for entrusting us with your jewels. They are the treasure called Camp Agudah Midwest.