This article appeared in the Nov. 3, 2006 Jewish Advocate.
Maine lake an idyllic setting for JCC Maccabi Camp Kingswood and Zohar Program
By Susie Davidson
There is something about summer camp that stays with a person. Maybe it’s the warm weather, perhaps the wide range of activities, or the welcoming circles of friendship associated with the experience. For some, it’s the first time away from home, and although this can make for some tearful phone calls, the situation will most often resolve itself (think Allen Sherman marooned in 1963 at Camp Grenada).
JCC Maccabi Camp Kingswood, the overnight camp of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston (JCCGB also operates the Grossman day camp in Westwood), strives to make this important time both formative and enjoyable. The Bridgton, Maine site, on Woods Pond in the state’s Lake Region, features 100 acres of tall pines as well as myriad athletic, artistic and cultural programming. Boys and girls who are entering grades 3 to 11 attend the camp in two, three-and-a-half and seven-week sessions.
The camp makes great use of the lake shore, with canoes, sailboats, funyaks and speedboats available for waterskiing and wake-boarding. The grounds include tennis and basketball courts, athletic fields and a GaGa pit (Ga means “hit” in Hebrew; the game is a form of dodge ball said to have originated in Israel), as well as a ropes course, a crafts and ceramics center, and a darkroom. In addition to cabins that house six to 12 campers each, there are recreation halls, a dining hall with a Kosher kitchen, and a Health Center.
In addition to fun, there is a substantive religious component. “We sing the blessings before and after meals, and celebrate Shabbat with services on Friday evening and Saturday morning,” said JCC Maccabi Camp Kingswood Director Kathy Jonas.
And for some special youths, there were untold opportunities this year. “Summer, 2006 was a pilot for the Zohar program, for boys on the autism spectrum and those with other developmental, neurological and learning disabilities,“ said Judy Pearl, JCCGB’s Director of Special Needs Services. She explained that Zohar, a collaboration of JCCGB Special Needs Services and JCC Maccabi Camp Kingswood, is open to boys and girls ages 11 to 15. This year, six boys from Greater Boston and one from Attleboro attended the pilot program, from July 16 to 23.
Goals included increased self-esteem and independence, participation in their Jewish heritage, creation of new friendships, learning of new skills, and also, a chance for them to provide learning opportunities about understanding differences for mainstream campers.
Pearl said that expectations far surpassed administrators’ hopes. “It couldn't have worked out better,” she said. “It was very inclusive and welcoming for all.“ On the Shabbat before the Zohar campers arrived, Pearl explained the program to the entire camp community. “The typical campers learned a great deal about embracing differences and stepping forward as advocates and leaders,“ she said. Next year, girls will be included as well, and a one or a two-week option will be available.
“This program fully integrates campers into all recreational, social and community-building activities of camp life,“ she said, “with the support and supervision of specially-trained staff.” Pearl cited Eli, a boisterous 11-year old, who on one occasion jumped out of the motor boat into the middle of the lake. "Have you ever had so much fun in your whole entire life?" he asked.
A few Zohar campers volunteered to lead prayers during services. One mother told Pearl that her son never knew the motzi until he went to camp. “Now he also corrects her when she says ‘good Shabbos’,” she said. “He says, ‘no, it's Shabbat Shalom’!”
According to camp director Kathy Jonas, 300 “typical” campers also attended this summer, hailing from as far away as Montreal. The counselors came from all over the U.S., Israel, and the world. There was one counselor for every two Zohar campers, who had their own bunk. “The Zohar campers participate in all of the same activities as the rest of the camp, said Pearl. “The only time the Zohar campers are with each other is in the bunk,” she said, “which is a place they can go to find respite from potentially difficult situations, such as sensory overload.”
Zohar participants ate in the dining room at tables with the typical campers, and played basketball, volleyball, swam, did the ropes course, climbed walls and shared other activities with the others.
"As a parent of two children with special needs, I am always so grateful whenever a program becomes inclusive,“ said Nancy Beshansky, mother of a Zohar camper. “Including children with special needs is a lot of work, worry, planning, and more worry for the parents and the administrators,” she said, adding that the staff ratio of 1:2 was ideal.
Parents of typical campers are no less enthused. “First of all, it‘s a beautiful camp,“ said Ellen Pulda, whose daughter was a first-timer this year. “My daughter met kids from all over New England while enjoying her favorite activities. She is looking forward to returning next year.”
While the name Zohar might connote images of Jewish mysticism, Pearl says the name has no connection to the Kabbalists. Zohar means brightness or splendor in Hebrew, and implies that things aren't always as they seem. “There is a splendor and brightness that the campers bring to the camp community,” she said. “Once other campers get to know them, they realize that they are more similar than different from everyone else.”
The camp’s first session usually has a higher enrollment than the second. Jonas stressed the varied elements of the experience. “We are a learning community, where campers develop their own skills and discover new interests while learning to get along in bunks, on playing fields, in group activities at camp, and in new surroundings outside of camp.” She said mainly, however, it is a fun community that provides a caring Jewish environment where campers can discover their potential while building friendships. And, of course, it is a Jewish community with Kosher food, Shabbat celebrations and opportunities to learn about Israel. But overwhelmingly, the camp reflects the statement on its brochure: “We are a welcoming community. We come from diverse backgrounds and we accept one another warmly.”
“We are grateful to the JCC for being brave and so dedicated to children like our son,” concurred Beshansky. “We pray that other Jewish programs follow its example."
JCCGB’s two centers, Leventhal-Sidman and Striar, operate a number of day camps. Jonas shares an office at Grossman, which is directed by Stuart Silverman. Every summer, says Jonas, a bus full of Grossman campers spend an overnight at Kingswood.
JCC operates other youth programs, including Teens JCC. “We are all part of the same association and strive to provide the families we serve with excellent programs,” says Jonas. “We hope that if one of the JCCGB programs does not meet your needs you will look at one of our other programs.”
JCC Camp Macabbi Kingswood serves the Greater Boston area, and partners with the Jewish communities of Portland, Maine and western Massachusetts. The camp, which is accredited by the American Camp Association and the Maine Youth Camping Association, is three hours from Boston and under an hour from Portland. Financial assistance is available, and Leventhal-Sidman JCC and Striar JCC members receive certain camp tuition discounts. For more information or to apply, call (617) 558-6508, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kingswood.org.