Julia Heiman, a fifth grader, and her brother, fourth grader Daniel Heiman of Montclair, will spend part of their summer immersed in Israeli culture — in Pennsylvania, at a Hebrew immersion specialty camp launching this summer at New Jersey Y Camps.
“Maintaining their Hebrew and identifying with Israel is a constant challenge,” said their father, Din Heiman, who was born in Tel Aviv and grew up partly in Herzliya and partly in Cincinnati and St. Louis.
Heiman has fond memories of his own experiences with Tzofim (Israel Scouts) as a scout and counselor, and hopes to pass that on to his children. They participate in a Tzofim troop in West Orange during the year, and attend a Hebrew immersion Sunday school, also in West Orange. Din sees the camp as “an unbelievable opportunity,” he said.
Machaneh b’Yachad (“camping together”), which will run Aug. 7-19, is a collaboration among NJY Camps, Tzofim, and the Israel-American Council. Targeting the American children of Israelis, it is open to anyone, provided they have a basic understanding of Hebrew.
The camp is mamash (very much so) a hit: All 200 spots were filled by mid-February, less than one month after registration opened on Jan. 21. The camp is still taking applicants on a wait list. Families have registered from New York and New Jersey as well as from Boston; Washington, DC; Philadelphia; Toronto; and California.
“IAC is providing its amazing connections to the Israeli community, the people at NJY Camps are experts at summer camp — it’s been around for [almost] 90 years — and Tzofim is expert at Israeli education. We’ve been doing that for more than 90 years,” said Mishel Udi of Tzofim, the director of Machaneh b’Yachad. (NJY Camps was founded in 1920.)
Campers will have their own counselors, provided by Tzofim, and sleep in their own bunks, at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah for fourth through sixth graders, and at Cedar Lake Camp for seventh through ninth graders. Their separate activities will merge Israeli culture and language. But they will also have the opportunity to interact with the other kids at Nah-Jee-Wah and Cedar Lake through electives and other activities, and in that way connect with the larger Jewish community.
Machaneh b’Yachad joins a number of Hebrew immersion camps — nearly all day camps — that launched beginning in 2013. Found at Camp Ramah Nyack, JCC camps, and other camps around the country, they are part of an initiative of the Areivim Philanthropy Group, with funding from the William Davidson Foundation and The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. The Foundation for Jewish Camp is working with the Areivim programs and hoping to expand the model.
Machaneh b’Yachad is so far independent. It most closely resembles the 92nd Street Y’s Camp Bereisheet, a day camp which also caters to American children of Israelis with Hebrew proficiency.
“For Israelis, sending the children to an overnight camp without a phone is a huge step,” said Udi. “It’s hard for the Israeli mom and dad not to communicate daily with their children.”
IAC ran two Hebrew immersion sleepaway camps last summer, one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast, on the grounds of Young Judaea’s Camp Tel Yehuda. Called Kachol v’Lavan (blue and white), the East Coast camp attracted 150 kids. But it was too big a project for IAC. “We didn’t realize what a big undertaking it was,” said Avital Fux, IAC’s care manager in Boston. “It was taking a lot, a lot, a lot of energy and experience that we don’t have.” She acknowledged, “We felt it was lucky that it was so successful last summer.”
Both Tzofim and NJY Camps have floated the idea of a Hebrew immersion camp for about five years.
“I saw this as a crucial unmet need in the Jewish community,” said NJY Camps executive director Len Robinson, who tried briefly to get a solo immersion program off the ground last summer. “It wasn’t until the three-way partnership with Tzofim and IAC this year that it became reality.”
Campers Julia and Daniel Heiman are both fluent in Hebrew after spending a year in Israel recently with Heiman, their mother Federica, and younger brother Liam.
For Din Heiman, the camp is a natural extension of what they are already doing. And, he added, “I hope they make friends with other kids with Israeli parents.”