It doesn’t sound like the usual camp session — mensch charades, scavenger hunts for mitzvot, spot quizzes on showing kindness to others. But if you were to join a JCamp Zoom session for fourth- to sixth-graders that might have been exactly what you’d have found.
With “counselors” who doubled as teachers at their school, the summer camp program really took off at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, said Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, TEPV’s director of congregational education and head of the religious school, who came up with the idea for the summer session. And not only did the camp idea taken off, “but I am very, very happy to see how much joy the ‘counselors’” — Rachel Schechter and Erika Nussbaum — “are getting from this experience, too!”
Indeed, she added, while she expected the teachers to shine in their summer roles, she has been “pleasantly surprised” by how much they have exceeded expectations. Another surprise was that she “hadn’t fully grasped how this could be a way to try out things that would work well during the year. It gives teachers a different way of thinking about how they plan a lesson. Creating a successful class does not depend on the subject but rather on the skill and imagination of the teacher, finding a way to make it great. One of my teachers shot off like a rocket.”
The program, open to both members and non-members, began on July 16 and is set to run through August 7. It cost $80 per participant — enough to pay for the project, not to make a profit. The first piece of the summer experience was JCamp itself, one hour a week for four weeks, with pre-K to first-graders as well as second- and third-graders meeting on Friday mornings, while the older cohort, fourth- to sixth-graders, met on Thursday afternoons. The groups also got to enjoy online backyard activities.
A second part of the program is “special, one-shot pop-ups.” Students could sign up for one or more, and the pop-ups are free, with volunteer facilitators. These included sessions on cooking, art, and music. In addition, families were sent information on private tutoring in subjects such as Hebrew reading and conversation. “I’m just doing the matchmaking,” Rabbi Kniaz said, pointing out that all tutoring arrangements will be made privately between tutors and students.
The school year usually has 14 teachers working with 180 children. “I knew summer camps were not in session and I wanted to provide something for families,” Rabbi Kniaz said. “It was hard getting the word out and getting sponsors, but we had enough responses to move ahead. I thought if we could provide something for those who needed it, it was worth the time and effort.” She also wanted the summer program to “lean toward camp” rather than school, she added.
This year’s group of campers was small, with 11 children from seven families participating, but the feedback has been very positive, Rabbi Kniaz continued. She said she would call it “absolutely successful, judging not by how many attend but the quality of service you are providing and how happy the families are.”
Rabbi Kniaz said she is not planning a program for the holidays this year because the synagogue’s rabbi, Loren Monosov, “decided to go with a prerecorded thing for children. But I’m doing summer stuff and getting ready for the year, including professional development with teachers. We really turned on a dime,” she said, describing the school’s experience in moving quickly from in-person to online teaching. “Now we want to step it up. Part of the side benefit of this is that we have really gained insight” into how best to use Zoom.
Rabbi Kniaz has been sharing the ideas developed at the TEPV summer camp with other synagogues through the Principal’s Council, convened by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. “One other school discovered they did better with attendance [with Zoom], and that there are not so many management issues,” she said. Her own school is now talking about offering one day a week online.
Last week, she said, “the two older bunks learned about ‘dan l’khaf z’khut’ — giving someone the benefit of the doubt. They were divided into break-out groups to come up with their own scenarios, which they acted out for the full group with the same approach — stop the action, speculate, and conclude.” For some of the sessions, parents are sent lists of materials the children will need, including Legos, glitter glue, and tin foil.
Scavenger hunts also have been popular. Campers are asked, for example, to find something that would make guests feel welcome, or something to honor their parents. “Some campers have hand-held devices and you can see them running around,” said Rabbi Kniaz, who often joins in the sessions. “One brought her device to the piano,” which she can play to entertain guests. Another showed a pushke, while another showed a notebook, “to keep a list of places she wants to give to. They come up with amazing things.”
The feedback has been quite positive. Religious school fifth-grader AJ Schwartz described the program as “AWESOME! It was the best,” while Elissa Brinn/Medvidofsky noted that “the girls (Pembrooke and Juniper, grades 6 and 4) enjoyed themselves! Morah Rachel did a good job of reaching beyond the computer screen.” Parent Eric Wescott wrote, “JCamp was surprisingly engaging. My daughters (in K, third grade, and sixth grade) really enjoyed the scavenger hunts and games, while my younger son got to experience senses through the activities. It was a great way to be together.”