"All right, Israel!" says a skating instructor, while his peers holler at and applaud Lachower's performance during an impromptu high-jump competition at Camp Woodward near State College, Pa.After racing down a ramp on his inline skates, Benjamin Lachower picks up speed, hits a smaller ramp, then sails high in the air, easily clearing a bar held some 9 feet high.
"All right, Israel!" says a skating instructor, while his peers holler at and applaud Lachower's performance during an impromptu high-jump competition at Camp Woodward near State College, Pa.
Lachower, an 18-year-old with long dark hair, came to the overnight camp all the way from his home in Tel Aviv.
"I've been dreaming about coming here since I was in the fifth grade," said the teen of the 90-acre facility that features an almost endless supply of ramps, half-pipes and grinds. It even has an area that mimics a city plaza — except here, everything's skatable — unlike real-life plazas like Philadelphia's own Love Park, where skating is prohibited.
"It's the best feeling ever when you're in the air, and flying and just spinning," said Lachower.
The action-sports portion of the camp caters to kids over 7 years old, and interested in developing their skills at using inline skates, skateboards, BMX bikes or free-riding. With accomplished action athletes working as instructors and professionals rolling in just to hang out, Woodward becomes a place not only to have fun, but to fine-tune a child's skills. (The camp also has an extensive gymnastics program.)
Camp co-owner Gary Ream estimates that some 5 percent to 10 percent of his campers are Jewish, and that he gets a "handful" of kids from Israel every year.
Jessica Erthal, an inline skater from Lansdale, Pa., chose Woodward over a traditional camp because she simply wants to concentrate on skating. In her third week at camp, the 14-year-old can now skate on steeper, taller ramps than she could before, and she can also perform new tricks, like sole grinds.
"During instruction, you have someone who is really advanced in the sport to teach you things that you don't know and you want to learn," she explained.
With action sports dominated by males, it was hard for Erthal to find female counterparts to skate with — until she came to Woodward.
"The girls are all put together here, and I've met some other girls who inline, skateboard and bike," said Erthal. "Then you can keep your relationship with them out of camp, too."
Although participants are required to wear helmets and pads at camp, injuries are commonplace in the sport. Lachower has had 11 broken bones, including his tailbone and collarbone.
"No risk, no fun," he said simply. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
To ease the pain of learning new tricks, Woodward has taken a page from its gymnastics program, installing pits filled with foam-rubber cubes, allowing skaters to fall on a soft cushiony surface rather than wooden ramps or asphalt.
Indeed, Lachower's three-week stay at Woodward might serve as a last hurrah for the Israeli's skating career, as he's reached his turn to enlist in the Israeli army comes August, which could put him right in the middle of the current violence in and near Lebanon.
"To be honest, I'm a bit scared, but everyone goes through it, so I'm going to go do my duty," he said.
Truth be told, Lachower is not emblematic of the normal Woodward camper — most come from well-to-do American families who can afford to buy action sports equipment, and can spend between $795 and $945 for a week of camp. Many of the kids dress in a similar fashion, donning an outfit consisting of T-shirts from skating companies, baggy jeans or shorts, and messy hair or a backward hat.
These kids could have chosen to go to a traditional day or overnight camp featuring a multitude of activities, but they wanted to meet their specific interest head-on — in this case, action sports.
Christopher A. Thurber, co-author of Summer Camp Handbook, notes that many kids are looking to specialty camps more and more than in the past decade.
"If kids have a specialized interest, the summer is a great time to do that," said Thurber. "Kids don't have an opportunity to do these things during the school year."
He also stressed that, in many instances, campers will split time between a traditional camp and a specialized camp, which he thinks is a good idea.
"Camps can teach kids to be socially mature, self-reliant and independent," explained Thurber. "When they acquire new skills [at specialty camp], when they feel competent at something, they feel good about themselves."
Involved at a Much Younger Age
Evan Heltay, president of Mysummercamps. com, a Web site that boasts a list of more than 16,000 camps across the United States and Canada, says that, of new camps that pay to be included on the site, the majority are specialty camps rather than traditional ones.
"High school kids are becoming big professional athletes," said Heltay, referring to basketball player Lebron James, who is a star in the NBA after being drafted out of high school. "People think that getting involved at a much younger age is the best way to do this."
Heltay also noted that many camp directors and owners across the country are Jewish, and they seem to be hip to the developing trend of specialty camps.
"The teen tour and travel camps — that industry is dominated by Jews," said Heltay, who also stressed that Jews are so closely tied to camps because some 50 or 60 years ago, there was no welcoming place for Jewish kids to go in the summer.
"Jews have traditionally sent kids off to camp because there were two parents working and a need for children to be some place," explained Heltay, "and there was a non-availability to go to country clubs or resorts not allowing Jews."
Up, Up and Away!
As Gabe Fish scales up a rock climbing wall, he grabs onto jagged edges and secures his feet onto small circular pegs. In almost no time at all, the 10-year-old goes from standing on the floor to hanging just feet from the ceiling. His camp program at Philadelphia Rock Gym allows Fish to spend his day doing his favorite thing: climbing.
"This is a lot different than my other camp," said the Mount Airy native. Fish is also enrolled in a traditional camp, but enjoys the opportunity to climb without being interrupted or having to move on to other activities.
The intermediate-level climbers in his group, ranging from ages 10 to 13, spend three days polishing their technique in the gym, then climb for two days at Ralph Stover State Park in Bucks County.
While many parents would worry about their kids climbing high in the air, Fish said that his parents are happy with the safety precautions at the gym, which include "top roping" — a technique that includes a fellow camper holding Fish's weight by using special equipment while he climbs up the wall.
"They really like the people here," he said. "They think that I'm definitely under good safety."
In the future, Fish sees himself continuing with the sport, and with the camp.
"I want to continue with competitions," he said, "get better at climbing, and go to different levels."
Another specialty program that draws children from the Philadelphia area is Day Jams, a weeklong camp that turns individual musicians — from ages 9 to 15 — into full-fledged rock bands. The camp allow kids to form a band, give it a name, write songs, and then perform at a concert on the camp's final night.
In the Philadelphia area, Day Jams is held at Gwynedd Mercy Academy in Gwynedd Valley.
During a rehearsal at a session last month, Brandon Peckman played a riff on his guitar, and his bandmates from Yield joined in one by one. Their original song had a catchy rhythm, and although the kids made a few mistakes, they hardly sounded like a rock band that had only been together for a mere 31/2 days.
"When you're thinking up the original songs, you try new things and you let your creativity go wild," said Peckman, whose music is influenced by such legends as the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Led Zepplin.
Peckman could have gone to a more traditional camp, but the teen, who favors long hair and dons a rock-band T-shirt, chose Day Jams because he'd rather use his off time during summer for music.
"If you really want to get good at something, you should focus on one goal and try to achieve it," he said.
Tim Wendel, a guitar instructor at the camp, is encouraged by the rapid changes that occur as the bands go from strangers on day one to rockers by day five.
"Now everyone's gotten to know each other, and the bands are starting to stick together a little bit," said Wendel, 22.
With some kids coming into camp with more experience than others, Wendel tries to make sure there's a good mix of abilities in each band. "If a kid struggles a little bit and another kid is better, you have to find a common ground, so that they both can have fun in what they're doing."