You might call it an extreme family reunion an event far beyond a Sunday afternoon of picnics and Frisbee.
Every other summer, Aliza and Avi Picard among other relatives from France, Switzerland, Israel, the United States, Britain, and Belgium send their children to a two-week family camp ("familiienlagger") in the Alps.
Avi Picard explained that the camp was an outgrowth of a foundation started in 1901 by his ancestor, Samuel Bollag, a Swiss Jew. Bollag, then 80 years old and the father of 1′ children, intended the foundation ("Stiftung") as a vehicle for aiding family members and maintaining contact between them as they started moving to distant places.
"The second daughter, Berta, had already moved to Alsace at that time, which was then in Germany and is today in France," said Picard, who is descended patrilineally from Berta.
"The foundation is still active, and every six months we receive a report about births, weddings, and deaths, and also about donations given to the family fund for members in need," said Picard, an Israeli who is living in Teaneck temporarily while teaching Israeli studies last year at Rutgers and this year at New York University. His wife teaches at the Moriah School in Englewood.
After World War II, the extended clan decided to create a biennial familiienlagger funded by the foundation for cousins ages 7 to 17. The camp’s volunteer staff consists entirely of relatives who are educators, are experienced in hiking and mountain climbing, or can help in the kitchen.
"My father was in those camps, I was there, and my kids have attended the last four camps," said Picard. "Aliza and I served twice as staff members." This summer, the Picards’ four older children ages 16, 14, 1′, and 10 attended the family camp, leaving their 5-year-old sibling at home.
Though the camps take place most often in the Swiss Alps and sometimes in France, for the foundation’s 100th anniversary the camp was held in Israel, where many of Bollag’s descendants now live. But the campers still come from all over.
"This summer, the majority of the expenses were for flights," said Picard.
The family rented a campsite to accommodate 45 children and a group of adult leaders in a remote Alpine village for the last two weeks of July.
A lot of planning goes into the camp. "Usually we figure out six months in advance who is in charge of the kitchen," said Picard. "We have family utensils that we bring with us." Most kosher provisions can be bought locally; others are brought in.
When Picard was a boy, the main languages spoken by the campers were French and Swiss-German. He and his brother were, at the time, the only Israeli relatives in attendance.
"Now," Picard said, "the main language is Hebrew because about 60 percent of the kids are Israeli, and unlike my brother and I, Israeli kids today do not speak French. The language of communication has become English, which the French, Swiss, and Israeli children can speak at some level."
Communication is often non-verbal as well, centered on the full schedule of activities highlighted by hiking, organized games, and swimming. "Every year there is a challenging trip of two days for kids over 1′," said Picard. "They hike to a glacier at a high altitude, and sleep there in a cabin, as is common in Switzerland."
Because the level of religious observance varies greatly among the attendees and some of the newer descendants are not even Jewish the foundation maintains a careful balance. All the food is strictly kosher, and after every meal there is a group recital of the blessings after meals. On Shabbat, there is lots of singing.
"The atmosphere is traditional, but it’s not religious, and there is no morning service during the week," said Picard. The more fervently Orthodox members of the extended family choose not to attend, nor does the Argentinean branch come.
Nevertheless, the camp still brings together a large mix of nationalities and cultures, he added. And they all attempt to learn more about each other.
"My kids came back telling us that they had seen old 8-millimeter family movies, and had learned more about their relatives," said Picard. "They are trying to understand the family tree and how they are all connected. This is the Jewish history of a family that emigrated everywhere."