The Jewish Advocate: Jewish arts thrive at summer camps

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

NORTHWOOD, N.H. – Nearly 150 campers from seven area camps gathered at Camp Yavneh last week for the annual Jewish Arts Festival. The event, which rotates among participating camps each year, brought together performers from Yavneh, JCC Camp Kingswood in Bridgton, Maine, Camp Young Judaea in Amherst, N.H., Camp Tevya in Brook-line, N.H., Camp Pembroke in Pembroke, Mass., Camp Tel Noar in Hampstead, N.H., and Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass.

The festival was founded in 1980, the brainchild of George Marcus, then the executive director of the Cohen Camps, and Charles Rotman and Paul Abrahamson of Camp Young Judaea. “We were talking in the off-season about how to motivate the Jewish part of our program,” remembered Marcus, “and this is what we came up with.” 

“Each camp that hosts it picks a Judaic theme,” Martin explained. “The camps in turn try to work out some kind of a series of song and dance around that theme. I’ve seen it grow and grow. I’ve been extremely proud of it.”

This year, the festival was coordinated by Fran Amkraut, the director of cultural arts programming at Camp Yavneh. “Not everything’s traditional,” she said, “but it’s a Jewish arts festival.”

Each camp sends approximately 20 campers to perform a program of their choosing. “Everything from very contemporary hip hop to modern to folk to traditional to thematic,” she said.

“Each camp invents their own way of showing themselves,” said Amkraut. Most singing is in Hebrew, although there are English songs as well. Amkruat noted that since she first got involved in the Festival as a camper 12 years ago, the Jewish content has steadily increased from all the camps.

Delegations from the various camps arrive throughout the day, and rehearsals are interspersed with impromptu games on the sports field. Meanwhile, the camp directors gather for an informal meeting and hors d’oeuvres. After a festive barbecue for all the campers together, the groups share their performances. While some groups rehearse for up to five weeks from the moment camp starts, others put together their shows faster in order to accommodate different schedules.

This year, the festival also hosted a delegation representing a who’s who of Jewish philanthropy. Jerry Silverman, president of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, organized the visit, which included Dana Raucher, executive director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, Gabrielle Sirner, program associate of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Sue Kline of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and Michael Chartock, chair of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ Jewish Camping Initiative.

“I wanted them to see what is quintessentially the most inspiring evening in camping in North America,” Silverman said. “They were mesmerized. They were smiling the whole way back to Boston. They were talking non-stop of the energy, the power of what this Jewish camp experience really means.”

Amkraut agreed, describing the day as electric and filled with camaraderie. “The camps also participate in inter-camp sporting events [throughout the summer],” Amkraut said, “but somewhere along the road, someone said, hey, let’s do something a little different. It’s not a competition, it’s purely a celebration.”

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