Thousands of families in the Philadelphia area send their kids off to Jewish overnight camp for the summer.
Judi Lehrhaupt sends her sheep.
For the second year in a row, the 66-year-old Newtown shepherd has entrusted a few choice members of her flock to the campers and counselors at Camp Galil.
For seven weeks, the Shetland ewes live at the Ottsville campsite, cared for by a college-age environmental specialist and a team of children.
Unlike the vast majority of the staff at Galil, Lehrhaupt is not a camp alum. In fact, she wasn't involved with the local Jewish community at all when Sharon Waimberg, Galil's executive director, happened to stop by her stand at a farmers market.
As they chatted about Galil, Lehrhaupt said she was reminded of the synagogue youth group activities and Jewish camps she'd attended while growing up in northern New Jersey.
That bashert conversation sparked a relationship that Lehrhaupt didn't realize she'd been missing. At Waimberg's suggestion, she lent six lambs to the camp last summer.
Because of Galil's affiliation with the progressive Labor Zionist Habonim Dror youth movement, staff members say the camp has always had activities focused on working the land and kibbutz-style communal living. Over the years, campers have planted organic gardens and raised various animals, including chickens, goats and rabbits.
The lambs, however, have been a particular hit, said Ilana Goldfus, the camp's registrar and assistant director. Each camper gets assigned a morning work group, from helping in the kitchen to painting buildings. The garden, which includes taking care of the sheep, is by far the most requested, Goldfus said.
Taylor Roberts-Sampson, a 14-year-old from Newtown, was one of the lucky ones who got to spend her first session "avodah" (work in Hebrew) weeding and walking the lambs to a grassy area to graze.
"I mean, they're sheep, they're really cool," said Roberts-Sampson, who will be entering 10th grade at Council Rock High School North this fall. And, the teen continued, they don't even have to bathe them — ever.
Lehrhaupt acknowledges that there aren't many Jewish farmers around, much less shepherds. So how did a Jersey girl trained as a speech pathologist end up returning to such an ancient trade? Somewhat by accident, it turns out.
After moving to a five-acre farm in Bucks County in the early 1990s, Lehrhaupt and a friend who had the same type of dog — a Shetland Sheepdog — decided to explore whether their Shelties had a herding instinct. They turned to an instructor in 1995, who lent them three sheep to practice with that somehow "managed to survive the year," Lehrhaupt said.
The following spring the two women decided to register their own flock of Shetland sheep, a breed native to the Shetland Isles north of Scotland that used to be fairly rare. They sold the fleeces from their animals under the business name "Ewe Can Do It."
As the flock grew, at one point exceeding 40 sheep, they began to sell the older animals for meat. Sometimes people purchased a few for pets or to start their own flocks.
The women also run classes for dog owners interested in training their animals to herd. Lehrhaupt also still maintains a private speech pathology practice and teaches communications courses at Bucks County Community College.
This summer, Lehrhaupt sent three sheep to Galil: an 8-year-old named Aurora who "wags her tail when you pet her," and two newborn lambs. Aurora, however, left camp early after seeming to instigate an escape from their fence enclosure, setting the staff into a minor panic, Goldfus said. Two days later, neighbors found the trio grazing with another nearby flock.
The kids even gave the sheep "camp names": Barbra Streisand, after the famous singer, and Tzivia Lubetkin, a Zionist leader in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of World War II.
"You wouldn't think we could mix lambs and Zionism," Goldfus joked.
The animals seem to like being at camp, too, Goldfus said. When the campers sing on Shabbat, "all of a sudden, you hear 'baaaas' along with them. They just infuse everything with joy."
Lehrhaupt, visiting Galil on a recent Wednesday, pulled an oak leaf away from Barbra, who was too preoccupied with grazing to even look up. Next year, she said, she'll save some fleece to show the campers how to spin wool.
Aside from Galil, Lehrhaupt has brought her animals to various schools for educational presentations. One lamb named George "touched people's lives of all religions," Lehrhaupt said, noting that he'd visited both a Protestant private school and a Jewish day school.
"I've never considered what religion they are," Lehrhaupt mused. "I think that they are ecumenical. They are the epitome of what people should be. They can be bigoted and nasty to certain sheep, which is human nature as well, but they're very forgiving and they're very honest. And especially the ewes I think have a good heart."
Regardless of the animals' spirituality, the act of shepherding reminds Lehrhaupt of her Jewish roots, even more so now that Galil keeps "me connected with who I am," she said.
"Being able to reach into the community with this feels right."