Last week when 25 girls, ages eleven to fifteen, stepped into inflated rafts and navigated them on a frothing whitewater river, they were learning more than survival skills; they were discovering what it means to become a Jewish woman at the Bat Mitzvah Camp in Troy, NY.
Unconventional learning experiences aimed at teaching the oft neglected points of Jewish spirituality are core to the Bat Mitzvah Camp (BMC), the brainchild of its director, Nechama Dena Laber. This year, the BMC will run for three weeks and close with an additional weeklong overnight session. Laber founded the summer program five yeas ago as an outgrowth of the Bat Mitzvah Club she runs during the school year.
The aim of the Bat Mitzvah Club, explains Laber, is to teach Jewish preteen girls that there’s a whole lot more to becoming a bat mitzvah than picking out the right theme, color scheme and divine dress dream. Her club is part of Bat Mitzvah Clubs International offered by Tzivos Hashem, Chabad’s international children’s organization. Within the last ten years, the club movement has grown from its Brooklyn roots to 200-plus branches from Hong Kong to Toronto to Copenhagen.
Bat Mitzvah Clubs International’s founder, Esty Frimerman, regards Laber as one of her star club leaders. “Nechama Dena immerses her members in a 24 hr. BMC for four weeks, imbuing them with Jewish values by living Jewishly while having lots of summer fun,” said Frimerman.
Laber began the camp to enhance the impact of her three-hour long club meetings. “At the club, I get the kids when they are in the middle of a million other things in their lives. But at camp I develop a strong connection with them,” she said.
Whether the Labers’ campers are out strawberry picking, receiving cake decorating lessons, or taking pointers from a recognized paper-cut artist, each activity at Bat Mitzvah Camp ties into the summer’s theme “Digging the Treasure.”
“As Jews we have to remember what our greatest treasures are — our Jewish souls, our Torah, each other, ” said Laber, who drew inspiration for the camp theme from the talks and teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory. “Treasures are found in the depths. It takes work to uncover them, remove the dirt and polish them to reveal the beauty. To reveal the greatness of a Jewish soul takes a lot of work, too. The same is true when you look at another person: it’s easy to see the dirt, but if you look deeper you can find a treasure.”
Deep as the goals of the camp are, Laber has not planned a single formal learning session to drive home her point. On the second day of camp, the group spoke about the matriarch Sarah. Laber, her husband Rabbi Avraham Laber, and her staff packed up pup tents and cookout goodies and took the girls on an overnight under the stars. The campers experienced what it was like to live in a tent and the depth of character it took for Sarah to look at dust-encrusted travelers and find them worthy of being sheltered and fed
The lesson hit home. After everyone pitched their tents, one camper threw open a tent flap and called out, “We are like Sarah! Everyone’s invited into our tent.”
Laber attributes her live-it-to-learn-it teaching style to her father, Rabbi Azriel Yitzchok Wasserman, a beloved educator at Machon Chana, a school for adult Jewish women in Brooklyn, NY. “My father was into giving kids Yiddishkeit in such a real way,” said Laber. “It’s been twenty years since my father passed away, but everyone remembers his teaching style. It’s why I like to be visual. When I teach, I want it to be real”
At Laber’s camp, known as “BMC,” the reality that Jewish life permeates every action and is not to be compartmentalized as a subject or a ritual stirs up strongly felt emotions in her young charges. “My counselors tell me that the camp shouldn’t be called ‘BMC’ but ‘DMC’ for deep meaningful conversations or ‘TLC’ for tender loving care,” Laber said.
BMC camper Rebecca Hertzberg, who will be entering tenth grade in September, agrees. “Camp is like a family. We are all close. They teach you how it is to be a Jew. Even if you don’t do everything it doesn’t matter. Whatever you do is good. Each mitzvah is very important,” she says.
Creative trip planning alone is not the secret to the camps’ success. Campers and parents all singled out the counselors as the heart of the camp. Head counselor Zelda Gutnick has worked at BMC for the past three years because she “is learning so much from Nechama and the girls.” Gutnick has become so attached to the BMC that she drove up four times from Brooklyn to Troy to spend weekends with her former campers. “The camp is very focused on spirituality,” said Gutnick. “I like to inspire kids.”
As intense as week one was the best is yet to come at BMC. The girls will be polish their understanding that the Jewish soul is a gem as they dig up real garnets at a local mine and climb rock walls to experience the value of perseverance.
For the grand finale, the BMC is planning a production about great Jewish women in history. The event will be under the direction of Miriam Hurwitz, who has traveled the world producing “Jewish Women Throughout the Ages” fashion shows. Hurwitz will be bringing up some of her reproduction period costumes to help the girls slip into the roles of matriarchs, prophetesses and lesser known Jewish heroines like Renaissance figure Dona Gracia Mendes.
Initially, Susan Axelrod of Clifton Park, NY, had some reservations about signing up her daughter, Sarah, 10, a student at Hebrew Academy of the Capital District for the camp. “Because she goes to a Jewish day school, I thought the camp would be too much Judaism for her,” said Axelrod.
As a member of a Conservative synagogue, Axelrod also worried that Laber’s adherence to Orthodox standards of Jewish law would be a source of conflict. But after a week of camp, Axelrod felt differently, and this week, she signed up her older daughter, Rebecca, 15, for the Bat Mitzvah Teen Camp.
“Nechama is teaching the girls to become Jewish women, not Orthodox Jewish women or Conservative Jewish women,” she said. “At camp, Sarah is continuing to grow in her appreciation of Judaism in a way that is natural and fun. It is something she will always have with her.”