When Sydney Sperling thinks about Shabbat, she thinks of camp. She grew up going to the Reform movement’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, Calif., spent a semester in Israel during high school and then did a joint bachelor’s program at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. But in the years since, her Jewish involvement has declined.
“Since being out of college I haven’t been as involved as I would like,” said the 24-year-old, who works in product development at Major League Baseball. “Going to services could be comforting and fulfilling, but there’s not really anything that I’ve found to be comparable to that feeling of being at camp.”
Sperling is not alone.
“A lot of young Jews don’t really find their spaces in the communities they live in, where they feel comfortable and where they feel like there’s a Jewish ritual, a dynamic space that they kind of get and love,” said Jamie Maxner, director of Camp Nai Nai Nai, one of two Jewish summer camp programs for 20- and 30-somethings that are opening this summer. “And, for a lot of them … Jewish summer camp really represents that for them … that’s where they feel most comfortable Jewishly. They haven’t found that parallel in the existing institutions and community organizations,” she added, “so we wanted to give that back to the folks that are going to be there [at camp].”
Camp Nai Nai Nai is the brainchild of Moishe House, which supports peer-led Jewish events for young adults. (The name alludes to the syllable often used in place of words in a Jewish song.)
“Moishe House is always looking to create programmatic models that reach young Jews where they are, as opposed to the Jewish institutions where they are not,” Maxner said. “They … saw this opportunity and saw this market and said: ‘We need to be there.’”
Carine Warsawski also saw the opportunity. A longtime promoter of Taglit-Birthright and other Israel trips, Warsawski saw Jewish camps for adults as a way to engage Birthright participants after they return home. Together with Avi Green, Warsawski launched Trybal Gatherings, a series of eight four-day camps that take place at sites across the country. (Trybal is spelled with the y, to emphasize that participants will be trying something new, Warsawski said.)
“There are amazing organizations out there engaging young adults,” she said. “But everybody is focused on these one-day experiences: a Shabbat dinner or a bar night or a dance — a matzah ball — or a speaker series, but nobody is focusing on the immersive.”
‘A lot of young Jews don’t really … feel like there’s a Jewish ritual, a dynamic space that they kind of get and love. And, for a lot of them … Jewish summer camp really represents that for them … that’s where they feel most comfortable Jewishly.’ — Jamie Maxner, director, Camp Nai Nai Nai
But the immersive is exactly what makes Birthright and other Israel trips so effective. “The core elements of, say, an Israel trip experience are the sense of community, Jewish connection and adventure,” she said, “so I wanted to take those core ingredients and create something domestically for people to follow up with.”
Over the past decade, the adult camp market has exploded, with more than 800 camps across the country, according to the website Grownupcamps.com. The American Camp Association estimated in 2013 that more than a million adults went to camp the previous summer, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Some Jewish camps have had weekends for adult alumni, and one of the larger secular adult camp programs, Club Getaway, offers a weekend for Jewish professionals — one of several niche offerings. But there haven’t been camps dedicated to the Jewish adult demographic until this summer.
Both camp programs (which have joined forces, cooperating on such areas as marketing) offer a mix of sleepaway standards like capture the flag and canoeing, as well as Jewish-themed activities such as Israeli dance, gaga and workshops such as “Ask a Rabbi.”
Both also incorporate Shabbat dinner. The camps diverge when it comes to Shabbat services. At Trybal Gatherings, participants will have a Kabbalat Shabbat service. “I don’t imagine it’s going to be a traditional Shabbat service … but something creative, something more inviting,” Warsawski said. “We’re trying to set the bar low and bring people in who feel comfortable, regardless of how much organized Jewish experience they have.”
Camp Nai Nai Nai will have two services: a traditional one with the standard halacha and a mechitza, and an “intentional, dynamic, community-based service option,” with music, that “for a lot of people will evoke what they remember from their summer camp days,” said Maxner.
Both camp programs are all-inclusive, with the registration fee taking care of meals (including alcohol) and lodging in bunks or tents. Those who prefer more privacy can, at most of the campsites, pay extra for private rooms at a retreat center.
Camp Nai Nai Nai, which takes place over Memorial Day Weekend in southern Pennsylvania, is subsidized by the Maimonides Fund and costs $325.
Trybal Gatherings costs $575, which is on par with secular adult summer camps. Subsidies are available through local Jewish organizations, such as JCC Manhattan, which offers to chip in $100 for any Birthright alumni who take part. They are also providing a free bus to the Berkshires weekend.
Sammy Kanter, who directs JCC Manhattan’s 20s and 30s programs, said the JCC doesn’t normally subsidize participation at non-JCC programs, but, he said, JCC staff felt “passionate” about participating in Trybal Gatherings’ endeavor.
“I hear all the time from people that come to our programs that they are connected to their Judaism because of summer camp. So I think the idea that Trybal Gatherings is recreating that camp community with adults is exactly what we’re trying to create at the JCC,” he said, “so we really wanted to be a part of it.”
Paying for the bus has the added advantage of getting new people in the door, he added. “For everyone going away to camp, what better reference point than to meet at the JCC?” That way, he said, “they know where we are, they step in the building, and then they’re dropped off at the JCC after the trip. [The bus is] almost a way to say: ‘This could be your Jewish home outside of this camp experience.’”
Indeed, Warsawski said she started Trybal Gatherings with “two goals in mind: to engage Jewish young adults in the Jewish community via immersive experiences and to serve as a grassroots entry point to local organizations.” Many federations are offering a $75 discount code; people who use it will be added to their local federation’s mailing list. Some Jewish organizations are sending staff members to the weekends to talk up their post-camp offerings. Some young adult Jewish organizations are sending existing members, both for them to bond with each other and as a way to recruit new members.
Sperling’s boyfriend, Brett Blueweiss, is one such example. The 26-year-old, who works in MLB’s social media department, found out he was going after Sperling told him she had already signed the two of them up. But he’s eager to do it. He went to secular sports camps, and had fun, but they were nothing like what his girlfriend experienced, he said.
They also have a closer bond with Shabbat. “I grew up thinking of services as, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this,’ while they grew up thinking, ‘Oh, Shabbat is the best night ever.’ You didn’t think of it as sitting and praying, but more like having fun with your friends,” he said. “Part of what excites me about this [camp experience] is seeing what they grew up doing.”
In addition, he said, “I think it will be fun to be able to spend time with people that you do know, and then make some friends, hopefully, maybe lifelong friends, just from a weekend.”