(July 25, 2019 / JNS) On the fields of a private-school campus in northwestern New Jersey, two girls sit on white wooden chairs in the mid-morning sun sharing stories.
No one seems in a particular rush to get anywhere, which is just fine considering this is “UnCamp,” a summer program for teenage Jewish girls from different backgrounds—from the unaffiliated to Shabbat-observant—that encourages personal growth, reflection, discussion and friendship. Just as the backgrounds of the girls are diverse, so, too, is the path that led them to camp; some were referred through synagogues in their hometown, some had friends who had attended previously, a few are the daughters of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and at least one discovered the program online while searching for a Jewish educational summer experience.
What binds these girls together is the desire to know more about Judaism, themselves and how they fit into the larger universe.
“There’s something very reassuring about being with girls who know things you don’t know and you know things they don’t know, and you share everything,” says camper Nadia Gold, a 16-year-old from Redondo Beach, Calif. “Here, everyone gets to know everyone, and people are so close to each other.”
While most summers find Nadia taking classes at an academic camp, she says the experience at UnCamp is very different. “There is some part of me that has always wanted to know the deep parts of Judaism, so this appealed to me. There are no notes to take or homework,” she says. “Everything is optional, which makes things even more enjoyable. Going when you don’t have to makes you realize how much you enjoy something.”
According to UnCamp founder Hinda Leah Sharfstein, “in a regular camp, everything is about fun and entertainment,” moving from one activity to the next. “Here, it’s the reverse; the girls take time to examine the things that are important to them at their own pace.”
Under the auspices of Bais Chana Women International—a Chabad-affiliated program that provides educational opportunities and retreats for Jewish women—UnCamp began in 1992. Its goal then, as it is now, is to provide a comforting space where girls can learn about Judaism and bring meaning to their lives, and where contemporary topics like sexuality, and drug and alcohol abuse, can be grappled with in the context of Jewish thought and ideology.
According to Sharfstein, most teens, regardless of their background, deal with these issues in some way, which is why it’s so important to talk about them. “They need to understand what healthy relationships are, what a healthy marriage is. These are basic things that culturally, we don’t discuss, so we talk about them here.”
UnCamp does offer activities common at a traditional sleepaway camp: a late-night talent show, art classes, swimming and day trips off campus. But twice a day, the girls gather for Judaic studies led by educator, lecturer and bestselling writer Rabbi Manis Friedman, dean of the Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies.
No formal attendance is taken at activities. No one is being graded on anything. Girls can choose to ask questions or doodle quietly in a notebook, absorbing the words and the lessons during the three-week long program.
‘It’s a mix of people, and we all get along’
What there is, however, is an open dialogue. During a recent morning class, the 40 or so campers sat at tables in a semicircle and listened as Friedman taught them a passage in Tanya (a classic Chassidic text) dealing with the ideals of “romantic love” and “hidden love,” and how they relate to people’s relationship with God and each other.
Where the teen-life talk is particularly engaging is during the night session. The girls can put their questions, written anonymously, on a piece of paper and stick them into a bowl that sits on the rabbi’s desk. He picks questions every night to answer as honestly as he can.
Sometimes, the inquiries are trivial: “What, in your opinion, is the best Yiddish word?” or the common Harry Potter reference that staffers say comes up once each summer, “Do you know you look like Dumbledore?” Then there are other questions—ones that hint at emotion: “Is vulnerability a positive thing? If yes, why does it seem painful or scary?”
And, of course, the typical, “What do you think about smoking weed or getting drunk?”
“Not a single question gets glossed over, and nothing is treated with a shrug of the shoulders,” according to counselor Emanuella Reznik. “Each and every question is treated as a soul because it is a soul asking the questions.”
Reznik knows just how much getting those answers mean since she was in the girls’ shoes five years ago. As a 17-year-old struggling with who she was and what her role in the world would be, a Chabad emissary she was confiding in suggested she go to UnCamp.
Her parents, Russian Jews from Brooklyn, N.Y., who have been divorced for years, weren’t thrilled by their daughter’s burgeoning interest in religious Judaism. But camp offered her a scholarship to attend, and she didn’t have any other plans, so they relented, and Reznik spent three weeks exploring Judaism and her place in the world.
Though Reznik has since become Orthodox (both she and her father now live in Jerusalem), that isn’t the goal of the camp, which wants girls to know about their heritage and the beauty of Judaism, in addition to the gifts and talents each girl has to offer.
“I remember it being extremely hard, and I had so many lonely Shabbats where I would cry,” reveals Reznik. Now, she says, “I can sit down with a girl and say, ‘Hey, when I was in 11th grade, this is what I did, and this is how I handled that.’ ”
UnCamp, says a camper as she passes by, “is a safe space for all of us to be comfortable with ourselves and comfortable with our baggage. Here, we can unload that baggage and everyone else’s baggage because we are strong enough to lift everyone up.”
For Joana Berger, a 17-year-old from South Florida, the camp was a chance to learn more about Judaism and make new friends. “A lot of people here are from different backgrounds, and I love that. It’s a mix of people, and we all get along; it’s like we’re one big happy family.”
Noting with a wistful smile that camp is coming to a close—it runs for only three weeks—Nadia is already planning for her return to California. In addition to sharing some of what she learned with her parents and older sister, she says, “I’m going to try and hold on to everything I learned here as tightly as possible.”