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Go East, Young Campers! Recons Take to the Poconos Mountains
For decades, other religious denominations had considered summer camps vital for developing a strong sense of Jewish identity and inspiring the next generation of leaders.
Now, four years after following suit, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation has officially moved its fledgling camp into a permanent home in the Poconos.
After renting a facility in suburban Chicago for three summers, Camp JRF is now settled in at its 125-acre Wayne County site, known as the Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Campus.
The rustic grounds in South Sterling, Pa., will also be used for adult and youth retreats throughout the year.
"This is really a turning point for the Reconstructionist movement," said Rachel Weiss, the camp's 30-year-old educational director, who grew up attending a Reconstructionist synagogue in Illinois.
"When I was a kid, there were no Reconstructionist camps," she recalled, looking out at a group of kids walking to the dining hall. "This is the future of the Reconstructionist movement."
When the camp started in 2002, it had 39 campers from a handful of states. That number has grown to 150 from 18 states, according to Rabbi Jeffrey Eisenstat, the camp's director.
He said that JRF officials were tempted to buy land somewhere in the middle of the country since campers come from all over the United States, and especially since JRF helps to subsidize travel expenses.
But Eisenstat explained that the decision to settle in the Pocono Mountains came for a number of reasons: the Northeast's popularity as a summer-camp destination; the proximity to the Montgomery County-based Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which serves as a source for much of the camp's staff; and because of the sheer fact that 55 Reconstructionist congregations lie within a three-hour drive of South Sterling.
In terms of its physical size, however, JRF pales in comparison to other Jewish camps. Currently, it has the capacity for 220 campers. But Eisenstat said that there are no immediate plans to grow beyond that number. In part, this decision stems from a Reconstructionist ethos of cultivating smaller, tight-knit religious communities, he explained.
The wooded grounds offer all the usual camp fare -- ball fields, a swimming pool, a lake -- even a rock-climbing wall and a ropes course.
"Until now, we've not been a serious sports camp," said Eisenstat. "But we're not only going to teach skills, we're going to teach the philosophy of healthy competition."
Sixteen-year-old Joshua Davidson of Cleveland is in the Avodah program, which means he gets to be a camper for some of the day; during the rest of the day, he gets to help with facility maintenance. Davidson's summer project included helping to construct the outdoor, lakeside synagogue, where services are held in good whether.
"I love it," said the teen of the new campgrounds. "It's great that I got to help build it."
Zoe Miller, 12, sat at the lunch table with a bunch of teens also in the Avodah program. She said that it doesn't matter that most of them are three to four years older because it's not uncommon for campers from different age groups to mingle.
"You don't need to impress anybody. You can just be yourself," said Miller, who hails from Lexington, Mass.
"Everyone is really friendly," she added. "This is like family."
More than that, stated Eisenstat, "This is a holistic community -- a holy community."