“Designed Just for Me”: The 6 Points URJ Sci-Tech Academy Experience

I spent last week at URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy, where every morning after Modeh Ani, we blow something up. It’s called Boker Big Bang. Check out Friday morning’s explosion here (after the first explosion, skip to 2:30 to find out why the experiment didn’t work the first time)!

As a rabbi, educator, and former camp counselor, I’ve been on a lot of field trips over the last 15+ years. I’ve taken groups to beaches and amusement parks (fun but terrifying in terms of keeping track of kids); gone hiking, camping, and rock climbing (not my favorite); visited museums, synagogues, and historical sites (not the kids’ favorite).

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Earth and Sky Workshop simulating volcanic rock formation.

I have never, EVER seen a group as well-behaved as the one I accompanied to Google’s Cambridge offices on this week’s Trip Day with URJ Six Points Sci Tech Academy. The dozen campers filed off the bus and across the street without seeming to notice that there were stores and restaurants lining their path, selling all types of items either forbidden or unavailable at camp. They listened carefully to instructions, showed kavod (respect) to our guide by dutifully following her everywhere, and asked thoughtful questions of a panel of Google employees.

It wasn’t until we were back on the bus that I realized what had happened. It’s not that Sci-Tech campers don’t sometimes struggle to pay attention to instructions. It’s not that they don’t want to binge on candy  (they did that later when we stopped at Boston’s Museum of Science). It’s not even that the Google offices are incredible to behold (they are!).

It’s that, for this particular group of kids, there was nothing more exciting to do on a sunny Tuesday morning in July than to learn about how a major technology company operates.

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Making s’mores with the Forensic Science Workshop, after a lesson on arson!

This realization filled me with joy. I felt so happy for these kids, that they had found a place tailored to their exact interests, with dozens of like-minded kids for them to connect to. Even within the camp, campers are able to split off into subgroups based on what excites and inspires them: Biology, Earth Science, Robotics, Video Game Design, Web and Graphic Design, Forensic Science, Digital Film, Programming and Coding. While we were touring Google, other workshop groups were scattered across the Boston area, learning about earthquakes, playing with DNA in a crime lab, and meeting video-game designers, among other things.

Though I was never a science kid, I’ve been a fan of Sci-Tech for awhile. I’ve promoted it to Jewish families as an alternative to traditional overnight camp. But Sci-Tech actually provides something that even my own, much appreciated, Jewish camp experience did not. Sci-Tech gives campers an opportunity to nurture their talents and interests in a Jewish context, and connects them with kids who are, in many ways, just like them.

In my camping experience, the only thing that all of us had in common was Judaism. We managed to figure out for ourselves who enjoyed sports and who preferred the arts, but we didn’t really put much energy into either while we were at camp. We just liked being together. The Jewish part of camp ended up becoming one of my major interests, but other passions of mine–writing, music, theater–were usually confined to a few periods a week, or relegated to my life outside of camp.

This is exactly what the Foundation for Jewish Camping was addressing when they began providing incubator grants to camps like Sci-Tech. Noticing that many Jewish families were not opting into Jewish overnight camp, they looked for ways to make the Jewish camp experience more appealing and accessible. Sci-Tech provides the option of two-week sessions (not available at traditional camps past a certain age) in which a camper can be completely immersed in a subject they are passionate about.

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In addition to leading Jewish activities, this time I also taught arts and crafts. Here’s the result of a “design challenge” to make a lanyard Torah.

(A side note: I didn’t know specialty camps were a thing until I was an adult. My brothers and I had unwittingly attended a sports-based day camp where my mom worked as a nurse, until we were old enough to go to URJ Camp Harlam. Years later, I worked at a JCC  camp that specialized in the visual and performing arts. I came home and said to my mother, accusingly, “Did you know there were camps where they do theater and music and pottery ALL DAY!?!?!”).*

I’m not the only one who realizes how amazing this is for kids who may not have been interested in Jewish camp for the sake of Jewish camp. The campers notice too. Walking with a first-time camper to make s’mores–after a forensic science lesson on arson, of course– I asked her how she liked camp.

“I love it!” She bubbled. “It’s as if they designed this place just for me.”

*By the way, URJ Six Points’ next project is an arts-focused camp. I can’t wait!

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1 Comment

  1. ibritter

     /  July 31, 2016

    ewish Camping leads the way! I absolutely love this article by RabbiLeah Berkowitz and the message it sends about a traditional cultural aspect of Jews – going away to camp!

    As parents, our responsibility is to raise our children to be loving, responsible, self sufficient, respectful, and productive members of society. It is one of the most challenging, and joyful things an adult can do, but fortunately, thank God, forJudaism and the model it offers.

    Why does Jewish culture support the camping movement? Maybe it is to give your child a place we’re they’re not the only Jew in the room. Maybe it is to build confidence and a sense of independence. Maybe it is to help them appreciate a love of Judaism and the lessons our prophets and sages have to offer, along with pride in one’s identity. Maybe it’s so they will make new friends and have fun. Surely great memories are made of the summer. And if overnight camp gives parents 1 or 2 or 4 weeks to recharge and focus on their relationship with one another, better still.

    There are Jewish camps around the country, run and staffed by some of the most amazing people from around the world. But the Jewish camping movement has outdone itself with a set of new specialty camps geared to specific interests. These “6 Points” camps each focuses on a particular passion that humans gravitate to – the sciences, the arts, etc. A family can choose a camp which will nurture and feed the direction their child seems inclined to.

    Vassar Temple’s Rabbi, Rabbi Leah Berkowitz is a Jewish camping enthusiast! Vassar Temple literally pays her to go away to camp two weeks out of the summer to work at a camp, where there are only apt to be a handful of Temple members. We do this to help support the Jewish camping movement – because one of the fundamental tenets of Judaism is our religious obligation to perform Tikun Olam, to help heal and make the world a better place. Jewish camping helps parents develop children who will do just that. I can’t think of a better thing for our Rabbi to do, and for our temple to support. (And she has the time of her life doing it. I think she looks forward to camp at least as much as the kids do!)

    Reply

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