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Filling a Niche: Health, Fitness and Judaism at Camp Zeke in the Poconos

August 6, 2014 By:
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Campers at Camp Zeke pace through a grueling bootcamp session.

On a hot summer day at the end of July, nine children at Camp Zeke in the Poconos Mountains power through round after round of high-intensity interval training:

Thirty seconds of jumping jacks, 30 seconds of rest. Thirty seconds of push-ups, 30 seconds of rest. Thirty seconds of squats, 30 seconds of rest. And on it goes.

“I want to see sweat, I want to hear panting,” Cindy Rosen, the camp’s director of fitness and conditioning, instructs the campers in her bootcamp elective. “Get deep, boys and girls.”

Her demands are met quickly and without complaint — not surprising since Rosen has the commanding presence one would expect from a 24-year veteran of the Marines who completed tours of duty in Japan, Iraq and Af­ghanistan.

This scene at Camp Zeke’s martial arts gym, replete with kickboxing mats and punching bags, is just a typical day in an atypical camp.

Launched earlier this summer, Zeke is part of the second phase of a Specialty Camps Incubator funded by the Jim Josephs Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation, and run by the Foundation for Jewish Camp to “develop camps to reach demographic groups and geographic regions underserved by existing traditional and specialty Jewish camps,” according to the FJC’s website.

The first phase, funded in 2008, consisted of five overnight camps, including the New York-based Eden Village Camp, an environmentally focused program that has drawn a number of local children. After an 18-month advisory period, each camp was given $1.2 million to defray startup costs and underwrite the camps’ deficits over the first few years of their existence. The overall budget for the first round was $10.6 million, which included funds to run and staff the incubator program.

This year, four new camps strategically spaced out around the United States launched through the incubator, focusing respectively on business entrepreneurship, sports, science technology and, at Zeke, health and wellness. This second cohort, funded with a total of $8.6 million, runs on the same venture capital model as the first.

“It’s basically like we’re the investors,” said Michele Friedman, director of the FJC’s new camp initiatives. “As long as the camps continue to grow and flourish, the money is there for them.”

In addition, the UJA-Federation of New York spent roughly $250,000 to renovate Camp Zeke’s Lakewood, Pa., campsite, which it owns and rents to the camp for the symbolic price of one dollar a year.

Besides the boot camp, campers ranging in age from 7 to 17 partake in other specialty electives such as gourmet cooking, krav maga and yoga, as well as “regular” summer camp activities like swimming, arts and crafts and sports.

“We’re fundamentally Jewish, but in a very different way,” said Isaac Mamaysky, a former financial litigator who began laying the groundwork for the camp four years ago with his wife, Lisa.

“We combine fitness, healthy eating, healthy cooking and traditional Jewish teachings about these things into an amazing summer camp.”

During Shabbat morning services, for example, campers are offered alternatives to traditional prayer such as Torah yoga or a spiritual hike.

After spending 14 summers at Camp Jori in Rhode Island — one of the country’s oldest Jewish summer programs — Mamaysky said he felt the traditional Jewish overnight camp scene was lacking options for kids with niche interests.

“Lisa and I are both into healthy, active living,” he explained. “It was all just a natural extension of the way we live our lives.”

Aware of the Specialty Camps Incubator, he approached Friedman. After a yearlong application process, the concept of Camp Zeke spread its wings, named after the biblical prophet Ezekiel whose Hebrew name “connotes immense strength,” Mamaysky said.

On a recent afternoon, the camp’s director of culinary arts, Parisian-born Isabelle Lapin, taught a group of boys how to bake vegan, gluten-free chocolate chip cookies and scones. The day before, she had another group make sushi for the entire camp.

A camper who walked in from outside paused to watch the bakers argue over whose turn it was to stir the batter.

“It smells so good,” he said with a tinge of jealousy.

Since living a healthy lifestyle is crucial to the camp’s mantra, Lapin said she does everything in her power to instill an appreciation of vegetables into her disciples.

“Even the ones who didn’t eat vegetables at the beginning now do,” said Lapin, who describes herself as a “homemade from scratch” kind of person. “One of my main goals is to have all the children go back home with the knowledge that vegetables are good.”

Jonathan and Michael Marcus from Horsham, Pa., said the cooking lessons, along with judo, krav maga and baseball, were what drew them to Camp Zeke’s first session.

“If you told me to make something, I could probably make it,” said 9-year-old Michael.

His dad, Scott, added that the camp made a point of helping Michael find ways to work around his allergy to dairy.

For Jonathan, 7, the highlight of his session was getting kissed by two Israeli campers.

Max Heymann, an outgoing 13-year-old from Rockland, N.Y., said the opportunity to learn krav maga, an Israeli form of hand-to-hand combat, had initially attracted him to Camp Zeke.

“A lot of kids at my school are anti-Semitic, so it’s important to know how to defend myself,” Heymann said, adding that it’s also been nice to be surrounded by Jewish peers since most of his school-year classmates are Irish Catholic.

“I made nine new friends in my cabin alone,” he boasted.

What sold 12-year-old Rachel Serviss from Springfield, N.J., on Camp Zeke, besides a convincing home visit from the Mamayskys, was the Goldilocks level of Jewishness.

“It’s the perfect amount,” she said. “It’s not too heavy, it’s not too light.”

The Jewish elements of camp are directed by a “God Squad” that includes staff member Jason Bonder, a fifth-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.

“I’m trying to live out Judaism and a healthy lifestyle and really be a dugma ishi,” Hebrew for “personal example,” said Bonder, who returned from a study year in Israel at the beginning of the summer and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, a Cherry Hill, N.J., native. “This was a great opportunity for me.”

Aside from spiritual leadership, Bonder is also a former baseball player — he played in college at Muhlenberg and in the summer of 2007 for the Tel Aviv Lightning in the short-lived Israel Baseball League — and serves as one of a few “star” staff members who float in and out of the Camp Zeke atmosphere.

Champion welterweight boxer Yuri Foreman, Israeli basketball player Tamir Goodman — known to some as the “Jewish Jordan” — and cookbook author Susie Fishbein all participated in Camp Zeke promotional events during the school year. Chef Rozanne Gold, four-time winner of the James Beard Award for excellence in cuisine, culinary writing and culinary education, served as a visiting judge in the camp’s own version of the Food Network’s Iron Chef competition.

So far the biggest setback to Camp Zeke’s inaugural summer, according to Mamaysky, was accommodating more campers than he had expected. Some 120 campers attended the first session, including 20 who signed up in the two weeks leading up to camp. The second session currently has 60 campers — a number closer to what Mamaysky anticipated for each session.

Of the 180 total campers, 60 have tuition grants from BunkConnect or One Happy Camper. Those programs are also sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Camp and further illustrate the Jewish philanthropic world’s investment in Camp Zeke.

That involvement seems to be paying off as far as Mamaysky is concerned.

“I’m busier now than when I was a corporate lawyer,” the camp director said. “But that’s a good problem to have.”

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