Rose Fellerman, 15, of Virginia Beach loves Shabbat at Cedar Lake Camp in the Poconos.
“They make services fun on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.” she said. “We participate and dance — it’s not boring old services.”
It’s not an experience her father, a chief petty officer in the United States Navy, ever thought she would have.
“To be honest, as military families, we do okay. But there’s no way we could afford to send our daughter to a Jewish summer camp,” Louis Fellerman said in a phone interview.
An intelligence officer, Fellerman was stationed in Bahrain when he learned, almost by accident, that New Jersey Y Camps had a special offer for children of those serving on active duty in the United States military. They could come to one of the camps at a cost of $100 per week for four weeks, with the cost of airfare thrown in, frequent flyer miles permitting.
“I didn’t believe it,” said Rose’s mother, Ann Fellerman. “At the beginning, I thought there was a catch. It’s the best thing we ever did for Rose,” who attended for the first time in summer 2008.
The Jewish camp experience is especially welcome for military families, she said. To begin with, living on military bases, they often don’t have the luxury of living in neighborhoods with a high concentration of Jewish families. The Jewish experience, Fellerman said, is “like the cherry on top.”
Military families also move around a lot.
“We learn to say goodbye,” said Ann. “My friends from childhood will always be my friends. You don’t get that in the military. You move and you move and you move, and you learn to say goodbye.”
But camp has offered something new for Rose: lasting friendships. “When you stay together like that in sleep-away camp, it’s an intense bond, and Rose and her [camp] friends are in constant contact through the year.”
According to Foundation for Jewish Camp spokesperson Alicia Zimbalist, NJ Y Camps may be the only Jewish camp organization offering a military family-specific scholarship. “We do get letters from military families having a great experience at Jewish camps all the time,” she said, but where needed, their funding help comes from general camp scholarship or community funds.
The idea for the NJ Y Camps program started about a decade ago with a letter from a girl in North Dakota who, according to NJ Y Camps executive director Robinson, had a father serving in the military, had nothing Jewish in her life, and had only $500 to spend on camp. He invited her to camp and then went on to make the offer to other families.
This year, the contingent of kids from 10 military families attending the NJ Y Camps is the largest to date. Robinson credits a boost from Jewish chaplains and outreach by Alan Kaplan of Millburn with the program’s success. A camp parent, he was taken by Robinson’s vision and passion for the program when he found out about it, and offered to help.
He placed a phone call to the Jewish chaplain at West Point — who happens to be the brother-in-law of Kaplan’s rabbi, Mendel Solomon of Ahavath Torah in Short Hills — who put him in touch with Navy chaplain Rabbi Jonathan Blum, who in turn provided a list of 43 Jewish chaplains around the world.
Kaplan sent the chaplains a letter describing the camps, and the offer became more widely known.
Kaplan’s work on behalf of the camp is on a strictly volunteer basis. While he has a grown son who serves in the Navy, he has declined to benefit from the program. His daughter, Shira, 10, will be attending NJ Y’s Camp Nah Jee Wah for the second time this summer.
One of this year’s first-time military family campers will be Rachel Preston of Florida. At 12, she’s delighted with the opportunity. Her father, Michael Preston, a retired Navy master chief, learned about the program from his oldest daughter, Olivia Cobiskey.
Cobiskey, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves, is currently in Baghdad, where she serves as public affairs officer. She called her father with the idea. According to Preston, when he told Rachel about the camp and had her check out the website, all she could say was, “Oh Daddy!”
Currently working on a PhD in Latin American history through the GI Bill, Preston said that without the special offer, he would be in no position to send his daughter to a Jewish summer camp and was thrilled to have the opportunity.
The connections with the Jewish chaplains have now led to a second program at the NJ Y Camps: West Point cadets graduating from “boot camp” will spend their leisure weekend, this year Aug. 20-22, at the camps.
Robinson said he’d like to see the program become a model for other camps around the country. He himself grew up near plenty of military bases, in Tacoma, Wash.
“The Jewish chaplain in the area would always ask people to bring in military personnel for the High Holy Days, Passover, and Thanksgiving. My family always had active duty military people over for holidays. I grew up with the idea that you help give Jewish military personnel a Jewish experience.”