Mendel Hecht, Beis Moshiach
“Camp is an anvil upon which Chassidim are fashioned,” the Rebbe said about Camp Gan Yisroel. In several letters and sichos (see Hisvaaduyos 5743 p. 1894) the Rebbe emphasized how children being in a 24-hour environment of Yiddishkeit, can sometimes gain a lot more than in a regular school and home environment.
But it’s up to the staff to provide that environment so essential for the growth of young Chassidim.
I turned to some Bochurim who filled various positions in summer camps around the country in the past summers for some of their experiences and tips.
While the camp staff is divided to the staff members who deal directly with the campers — the counselors and learning teachers to an extent — and those that have other, more “technical” jobs; lifeguards, kitchen staff and so on, it doesn’t mean that these staff members aren’t part of the “educational” aspect. To the contrary, they can and must be a dugma chaya of a Chassid, and can even have a direct influence on campers.
I spoke to some of these staff members.
What were some advantages you had because of your position?
Mendy Hershkop says, “I was a lifeguard, so I wasn’t in a position where I was ‘breathing down the backs’ of the campers, like a counselor or learning teacher, which can be a huge advantage. Naturally, the connection ends up being a more friendly one, and both the staff and the campers can have a more open connection sometimes.”
Yisroel Cohen who was a learning teacher at Gan Yisroel Parksville, says “that as a learning teacher you are only dealing with your campers for some time, so you can focus more on their needs without getting aggravated. There is less pressure involved. There is a ma’alah as well as a chisaron when you only spend limited time with them,” he sums up.
A counselor can have a more considerable influence on the campers because he spends more time with them. Another plus that a counselor has is that he spends time with his campers in a lighter mood and not a setting whose purpose is for learning. It is sometimes in these “non-learning” settings, like in the bunkhouse or on a runaway, where most is actually learned. It is from these mundane, real-life experiences where Yiras Shamayim, trust in Hashem, and respect for one another are learned through real-life experiences.
Working with frum campers vs. not-yet-frum campers
Back in the day, when Jewish summer camps began, they attracted both children from frum homes and from not-yet-frum homes. There weren’t as many camps as there are today. You had Gan Yisroel for boys and Camp Emunah for girls.
Today, with the blessed growth of the community and so many Chabad Houses opening up, many more camps exist, and generally, children from not frum homes attend specialized camps that cater to their unique needs and help them “catch up.”
Both types of camps are a unique and challenging shlichus, and I asked Bochurim who spent summers in both kinds for their input.
What do you think was most unique about working in your kind of a camp?
Mendy Hershkop, who went to L’man Achai, notices that “working with not-yet-frum kids helps you remember why you are in camp in the first place. You came to give a proper Jewish and Chassidishe experience to all the campers so they can utilize the lessons and experiences they will learn during the summer throughout the rest of the year and beyond.
“When you are aware of your objective, it affects your behavior, and you remember that there are always campers watching how you are acting. You, therefore, make sure to act accordingly at all times. Whereas a camp in which there are only ‘regular’ Lubavitcher campers, the goal may not always be on the staff member’s mind.”
Mendy suggests that “It can perhaps even be helpful for a staff member in a Lubavitch camp to view his campers as if they were new to Yiddishkeit. Like this, he will better remember why he came to camp when he should have really been in Yeshiva learning…”
Something else he wishes can be copied from the Chabad House style camps is the unity among the staff.
“At L’man Achai,” he recalls, “there wasn’t a sense of competition between staff. At color war, for example, each team would help the other in a way you wouldn’t necessarily see in a Lubavitcher camp. Again, this is because the shlichus aspect of camp is always at the top of the mind.”
Another thing he points out is that “not-yet-frum campers have a stronger desire to grow in Yiddishkeit than your average Lubavitcher camper may have since this is all relatively new to them. They also have a more objective perspective for the same reason. They aren’t used to washing Negel Vasser and saying Modeh Ani. They don’t have as much of an opinion for the good or bad. When they start doing it, it comes with their own understanding, not from habit.”
Do you keep in touch with any of your campers?
“Yes! I am in touch with about 10-15 of my campers,” says Mendy. Even though he was not a counselor or learning teacher, he was able to make a strong kesher with many campers. This is something I find to be truly amazing. Mendy speaks to his campers about once a week through texting or calling. He uses his kesher as an opportunity to teach them more Torah even after the summer is over, through a Dvar Torah before Shabbos or when about once a month or so he will schmooze and farbreng with one camper for an hour or more.
This essential and amazing tool is more commonly used by staff at Chabad House style camps, than by staff members of camps for kids who come from Lubavitcher homes and should really be implemented more.
Usually, kids will come out of camp with a better, more positive approach to their Yiddishkeit, and a periodical call from a staff member will help cement that in and bring back positive memories of Yiddishkeit and Chassidishkeit. This could be a lifesaver, especially for the more challenging children who may be having a hard time at school or at home.
I continue to seek some more practical advice and tips for ensuring a productive and pleasant summer.
How do you balance discipline and control without hurting your friendly connection with your campers?
Tzemach Wolf, a counselor, has a golden rule. “Never raise your voice. That will show them that when you are disciplining it is only for their own good and to help them. It’s not a punishment, and it’s definitely not for your own pleasure and enjoyment.”
What do you find that aroused your campers most in Yiddishkeit and Chassidishkeit —ideas from Chassidus, stories of Tzaddikim, camp songs…?
Mendy Hershkop says that in the camp he was, where the campers were children from not-yet-rum homes, the focus is on getting them interested in Yiddishkeit, not on telling them how to behave. Help them change their Hashkafa, which will ultimately lead to their actions as well. Then the mitzvos they do will also be in a more p’nimusdike way. He found that in his conversations with campers, ideas from Tanya and sichos from The Rebbe are perfect for getting someone excited about Yiddishkeit.
Aside from giving over values and ideas to your campers, in what other ways can you make a positive impression on the campers?
Mendy points out that hands down, the most effective tool is being a dugma chaya of what you preach and teach. “Each staff member, regardless of their position, is being watched by the campers and therefore must be a proper tziyur for the campers. It would be especially difficult for the campers to understand and follow the values being instilled in them if they saw there was a double standard. If the campers do not see the staff davening and learning themselves, it would be difficult for them to daven and learn!”
It’s a huge responsibility for each staff member to be a good example. When the objective of being in camp is at the top of the staff member’s mind, it will help him to remember to be a good example.
Besides for the obvious reason of being an example — not to show hypocrisy c” v — a staff member must make sure to act appropriately, because, in order for a person to give over to another, they must constantly be working on themselves and make those values and ideas they know and learn become one with them. Only then can they properly give over.
Yisroel Cohen says he finds it essential to first and foremost be a mentch. “Make sure you are always saying hi to campers you see around you… and act mentchtlich even when you’re not teaching. Your job description as a learning teacher does not require you to do this, but your job in camp goes well beyond its description.”
He also says that the campers are always watching the staff and how they behave, even if it seems they are uninterested and do not care, in reality, the way you act as a staff member affects the campers. In everything you do, you are being an example whether you like it or not.
In case you thought you’re going to camp to have fun, it seems like there should be a lot on your plate and on your mind.
What did you find most challenging with working with your campers?
Yisroel tells me that it gets hard, “especially when I am not feeling into it. When you wake up in the morning and say to yourself ‘Eh… maybe I don’t want to be a learning teacher that much today…’
“But the campers immediately see right through you, and they’ll take you for quite the ride. You don’t have a choice, you must teach each day, and if you don’t feel up to it, that won’t change your responsibility.”
What should you do with these moods? — Just ignore them and “jump into it” with all you’ve got. They usually fizzle away quite quickly.
Before we go, if there was one thing you could change or add in camp, what would it be?
Mendy Hershkop thinks that the staff Seder Sichos should be before lights out, so the campers will see the staff learning, and it will affect them. Every time the campers see the staff, their actions are being monitored.
Another proposition he has is that there are campers who wake up early on Shabbos mornings and there isn’t CocoClub like there is on weekday mornings. If there were a program for extra learning during that time, it would be beneficial. “A staff member I know made an impromptu Seder Sichos in a camp on Shabbos morning and got a considerable number of campers to show up!”
As we head off to camp, Beis Moshiach wants to wish all the dedicated staff members a happy, healthy, and most importantly — successful and productive summer.
May we be able to have the annual Chof Menachem Av rally for the camps in the third Beis HaMikdash, with the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach’s presence in a revealed way!
The magazine can be obtained in stores around Crown Heights. To purchase a subscription, please go to: bmoshiach.org