A small girl once asked her camp's nature specialist what the difference was between a frog and a toad. "If you kiss a frog it'll become a prince," the counselor responded. "But if you kiss a toad, you'll get warts." The girl giggled and walked away. The camp supervisor was less amused: "how do you think we'll get her parents to send her again if you can't explain to her basic nature?" "I don't need to convince the parents," the specialist said. "She'll be the one to demand it."
The wise man knew that you can force a child once, but if you engage and invest in them emotionally, you have them for life!
Summer camps in the US are big business and the value of Jewish camps is indisputable: graduates are more likely to later be involved in the local Jewish community and to spend at least one of their college years studying in Israel.
And, Camp Kimama is a growing part of all that, but with a small difference: it's in Israel!
Kimama CEO, Avishay Nachon joined Kimama in 2004: "We saw how amazing these camps were and asked ourselves how we could make it better. It was obvious: instead of going there, bring it all here! Let them enjoy and learn about what makes their Jewish heritage so exciting and vibrant. Help them realize that they too are an integral part of all this."
Camp Kimama started in 2004 with 160 kids. At present, well over a thousand children and youths, age 6 to 17 come every year to one of Kimama's three locations – the Mevo'ot Yam beach village near Caesarea, Kibbutz Einot Yarden on the banks of the Jordan River, and the Kfar Galim agricultural school at the foot of the Carmel Mountains by the Mediterranean, where activities include a cowshed, a banana plantation, a dog training facility, and a petting zoo. Kfar Galim also boasts a luscious swimming pool and surfing activities.
Kimama even offers ski camps abroad in winter, a desert camp in February, a Galilee camp in Pessach and bar/bat mitzvas all year 'round. This year Kimama Maccabiah will be catering to children whose family members are attending the Maccabiah games, offering them the full Kimama experience plus transportation to the games and major events.
All Kimama campsites are government certified and routinely inspected for safety and security; and professional security guards regularly patrol Kimama's gated facilities.
Jill Shatzkin has been coming from New York for the past three years with her two children, ages 13 and 11. She volunteers for a host of local causes while the kids attend summer camp. "A place that has been running for a long time will have its own traditions," she says. "Also, it looks phenomenal! From the moment I contacted Kimama for information, I was thrilled, particularly the outdoor stuff as my kids tend to be more indoor. When I first called, they even suggested cheap places to stay, which I thought was amazing, since I would much rather spend my money on bringing things over for needy kids; and those are the same values my children are receiving at Kimama, which is at least as important as the fun they're having."
Bridging cultures – nurturing growth
Kimama Marketing Director, Ronny Oster is a former Jewish Agency camp leader. She joined Kimama in 2008. "In Israel we've always had day camps – keitanot – for small children and 3 or 4-day scouting camps for youth movements but never a real summer camp. We were the first. And it's quite different. Scout camps are a culmination of an entire year's activities," says the 10-year scout veteran. "At Kimama we need to do it all in a single term. And we do! Give us your kid for a fortnight and we'll give you back an enterprising and self-possessed individual."
Jewish children from over forty different countries are exposed to multiple cultures and languages, and they develop long-lasting friendships – international social networks that broaden their horizons and create a sense of belonging.
"When you see there are others just like you, it becomes a strength – a source of empowerment," Ronny explains, "and that's so important at a moment in life when you're beginning to define yourself, when you're about to begin dating, for example."
"I did not grow up religiously or connected to Israel at all," Jill reminisces."We celebrated the bigger holidays but we were not observant. By the time my kids were growing up, all that had changed and I wanted them to understand it is important to give back, even in the smallest way. After going to camp in Israel, my son, who was to be Bar Mitzvahed last August in the US, told me he wanted to do his on Masada, which made more sense than having an over the top affair like we have here in the US."
Rationed to perfection
Kimama staff members come from around the world and speak at least two languages a piece; they are acquainted with different cultures and creating a dynamic discourse. But above all, they are professional, caring, compassionate and active. And the staff-camper ratio is 1 to 5!
"If there's one thing that characterizes our counselors it's that they're crazy," Ronny explains. "They've learned that anything goes, and the most important value that they can pass on is simple human openness."
Counselors boast extensive backgrounds in informal education; many have worked in summer camps in the U.S. and Canada; many are former Israeli shlichim and recruits from the Jewish Agency; and anyone else is at the very least a college student and an IDF graduate.
"We can afford to be picky," Avishay explains, "and the first thing we look for is charisma – the ability to appeal to the child. If you can retain the wonderment of childhood in spite of the calamities of adulthood, you belong in Kimama. If you can appreciate what a child considers to be fun, silly, engaging, imaginative – you're here! You're part of the Kimama Spirit."
Maintaining that Kimama Spirit from the very first moment is paramount. Since time is limited, no more than a day is spent in the "getting to know you" process, no more than a day to break the ice. After that, it's like Berlitz – total immersion!
"We've had 10 years to perfect the system, so we can afford to be a little bit unexpected," Avishay says." That way, a child will be scared to miss something."
Strengthening the individual – fostering expression
Kimama's specialty tracks are individually adapted so that each child can experience the empowerment of honing his or her special talent or ability. Swimming, surfing and other water sports, extreme sports & wilderness, music, dance, theater and media – Kimama even offers a sports track in conjunction with the world renowned Wingate Institute, and dog training with former IDF and police canine-unit trainers. The visual arts combines creativity with environmental consciousness, while the fashion track deals with body image and being yourself!
Still, what makes a child want to come back every year is not necessarily the roster of base activities but the themes, which change for each child from year to year – brilliantly adapted to their growth cycle and making each year relevant to the challenge of growing up.
Avishay explains: "Between 6 and 9, we focus on the value of friendship. The following year, multi-culturalism versus personal identity – how to accept differences and become a team. At 11 we'll concentrate on Judaism, Israel and the differences between Jewish cultures throughout the world. Then at 12 – nature and the environment. Thirteen is the age of growing up, transformation and responsibility, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs; we'll talk about transitions and the "freedom" to be myself. Then at 14 this will extend into social responsibility, leadership, activism and social values in Judaism. After that, we begin to cultivate tomorrow's leaders, with a leadership in training course for 15 year-olds and counselors in training for returning 16 year-olds. We'll talk about leadership in the community, Israel, and the world. Finally, we'll focus on educational methodology and training approaches, and the kids will have overnight camps in the wilderness – building a shelter, preparing food, planning routes and basic survival techniques."
In two weeks Kimama strengthens roots, instills adventure and wonder, and empowers its young wards so that they can have a firm idea of who they are and what their relationship is to the world at large.
In short – a concise but comprehensive course in life, both inside and out.
A question of faith
In an international and multi-cultural environment, how to approach religion is never a simple matter. It needs to be a bonding element that is accessible to all, as well as fun and inspiring.
"Facebook is ample proof that mankind is still drawn towards the communal campfire," Avishay says. "Even in a disjointed and atomized society, people flock to technological substitutes for a sense of cohesion. For me personally, Judaism is a return to the communal campfire – brotherhood that works even when the internet feed is down."
Ronny's approach is more basic: "Even though we have many non-Jewish campers, the fact that we're in Israel, most of us are Israeli, the food is Israeli, names, songs and places are in Hebrew, and that most of us are Jewish; all this means that Judaism is instinctively infused into everything we do. Our kitchen is kosher, of course, and we have Kabalat Shabbat, Havdala and so forth; but we'll also discuss the meanings. We'll always infuse religion with a fun, summer-camp atmosphere."
The result is that children like Jill's not only want to come back every summer; they assume they will. "I am in exactly in the opposite position I was growing up: I have many Israeli friends and I'm connected to Israel. There is definitely more to being an Israeli than the usual stereotypes, which are sometimes true! Then again, isn't being pushy, for example, simply an expression of high expectations, of wanting what you deserve?"
For parents considering Camp Kimama for the upcoming summer season, agents are located in many Jewish communities. There are preparatory house meetings for parents; and for those struggling with the financial side, Kimama's campership program is a community matching fund plan.
Ask Jill if she's pleased that her children are being infused with Kimama's version of the Israeli ethos, and her answer is unambiguous:
"Israelis look out for each other. They live life for today, with no regrets because tomorrow is always uncertain. I find that inspiring, and I try to adapt my life and that of my kids, to that ethos – to those things I admire."