Much has been written of late about the magic of Jewish camping. Still relatively new to the camping scene is the 6 Points Sports Academy, the Union for Reform Judaism’s sports camp, hosted at the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC, featuring high-level sports training for young Jewish athletes. As Jewish educators, just back from serving as the faculty at this remarkable camp, now in the last session of its third season, we did what many other camp faculty do: lead tfilot, tutor bnai mitzvah students, etc. We also put on our mitts, cleats, swimsuits, and helmets and worked out with the campers on the field, adding a whole new dimension to the idea of being accessible Jewish role models.
1. Skills – First and foremost, this is a legitimate SPORTS camp. Campers choose their “major sport” from basketball, soccer, tennis, swimming, baseball (for boys), softball (for girls), lacrosse (for girls), cheer leading/dance (currently for girls, but theoretically open to all) – and spend 3.5 hours each day (except Shabbat) being taught by top-level coaches, with state of the art facilities. This time is supplemented by electives that allow for cross-training, and enjoyment of other sports, and development of additional skills. The quality of campers’ skills – both individually and in team concepts — has grown significantly with each summer. This is true not just as the original campers improve, but comes as well from the addition of more talented youngsters as the camp has grown. The adage “if you want to help someone develop a good Jewish background, give them a good Jewish playground” comes to life at this camp, in a manner that also encourages the development of a solid work ethic.
2. Connection – Connecting Jewish kids with each other is one of the things that Jewish Camping does exceedingly well. And here, there are natural opportunities for gender specific programming due to the nature of the campers chosen sport. Also, over 60% of the campers are male. This is a significant statistic, and one which runs counter to most other gender-based trends in organized Jewish life today. However, it would be a mistake to think that the appeal of this camp is only for Jewish boys. Girls who play sports rarely have the opportunity to receive the same high quality instruction at a regular summer residential camp, much less a Jewish one.
3. Values – Different Jewish values are highlighted each day. Coaches do not only run skills clinics; they also are ready to talk Jewish values with their campers as part of the daily routine. Counselors, staff and faculty build on these moments throughout the rest of the day by awarding bracelets for specific values that the campers earn. This is experiential learning at its best. The campers support each other in every way, from an encouraging hug to a celebratory high five. Also, today’s youth know much more about athletes than ever before. They know their favorite athletes at their best and, like it or not, they also know the business of sports and the behavior or some athletes, coaches, and athletic programs at their worst. 6 Points teaches much more than athletic skills; it also teaches skills for life on the field and off.
4. Spirituality – Athletics often focuses on physical development. How strong are you and what can your body do? We also know that there is a mental side to sports. Pregame preparation, outsmarting opponents on the field and mental toughness all play important roles. Yet, there is also a spiritual side to sports. Locker room and sideline prayers (and whether or not Jews feel included or excluded during these moments) are only the tip of the iceberg. There are moments of gratitude, of hope, and of pain and loss on and off the field. Kids are given a Jewish lens through which to see these moments and a Jewish vocabulary to express themselves. No day at 6 Points goes by without touching on the spiritual side of our tradition, whether through prayers of gratitude at each meal, learning life lessons on the fields of play, or by creating a Shabbat experience filled with a deep appreciation for prayer and rest after a hard week of working out.
5. Israel – There is a unique view of Israel here, seen through the eyes of the Israeli staff members who bring significant life experiences to the table. Rather than lecture about Israeli politics or run campers through a simulated boot camp, the Israeli counselors at 6 Points crafted 30 minute workshops that highlighted the games that they grew up with. One counselor was an Olympic hopeful in badminton who had been at Israel’s famed Wingate Institute. Two other counselors taught their group how to play an Israeli version of hopscotch. Another focused on team building exercises she used during her service as an infantry commander. These workshops helped make the Israelis at camp more “real” and “approachable.” They invariably led to deeper conversations about Israel in the days that followed.
6. Shabbat – The focus on developing sports skills during the week allows for the creation of an overall Shabbat experience that is truly distinct from the other 6 days of the week. Shabbat at camp also features worship services which are more like spiritual pep rallies than anything else. There are a variety of spaces for worship, from an idyllic forest clearing to large flexible rooms. This allows for the freedom to set up the worship space in the round, which can feel like a football huddle. The ruach (spirit) of the worship carries the participants along in a manner they don’t often get to experience at home. It is “normal” to see the worshippers in these services spontaneously rise in the middle of a prayer, especially those being sung. And among the surprising results, one can hear campers calling out “yesher ko’ach” to teammates and opponents for good plays in the field during the rest of the week.
The overall result, once again this summer, was a program that marks 6 Points as a true sports camp, yet one that, also, in profound ways, allows Judaism to be expressed with a vibrancy and holism not often seen in other settings. Kol hakavod – it was a blessing to be part of such a program.
Rabbi Andy Koren of Temple Emanuel (Greensboro, NC) and Rabbi Steve Weisman of Temple Solel (Bowie, MD) have served on 6 Points’ faculty each summer since its opening in the summer of 2010. Robin Shuler, who joined the 6 Points faculty team as a rookie this summer, is the Temple Youth Director of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Charleston, SC).