Friday, August 26, 2011

My Time at a Hasidic Boys' Camp

Personal Stories

Camp Gan Israel in the Laurentians: The boys and their counselors gather in front of "770"
for a memorial service called Gimmel Tammuz: As the Chabad-Lubavitch website puts it:
"The anniversary of passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
of righteous memory (b. 1902), who passed away in the early morning hours of the 3rd of
the Hebrew month of Tammuz, of the year 5754 from creation (1994)."

Photo Credit: Perry J Greenbaum, 2011
For the better part of July, my wife and I and our two youngest children were at a Hasidic camp for boys. My wife was employed there for the month as a camp nurse, and our oldest boy, aged nine, was there attending camp for the first time at a sleep-away camp. (I did some writing, working on my novel.) It was a good trial to see if he would like it. Actually, we weren't far from him, but he was still in a bunk with other boys his own age. We were curious and slightly nervous how well he would fit in with the other boys, who were outwardly more religiously observant than our family was. 

We promised the camp directors that we would abide by all the Jewish observances and restrictions, including modest dress (in conformance with tznius, or modesty in Yiddish), head covering for married women (sheitel or tichel), and the laws of Shabbat, such as Shomer Shabbat. I, of course, wore a head covering; sometimes a kippah (or yamulke in Yiddish), sometimes a Tilley hat, sometimes a black hat, and sometimes my trademark cloth cap, known as a flat cap. I am quite fond of hats, so this proved no imposition.

Food was provided, and quite abundantly, so keeping kosher (laws of kashrut) were not a problem. Even so, we have been buying kosher food for a few years now, so we were familiar with keeping kosher and all its attendant rules.

The camp, Camp Gan Israel, is run by Chabad-Lubavitch, a hasidic community based in Brooklyn, New York. The camp in Canada is nestled in the Laurentians, 30 minutes north of Mont Tremblant, Quebec, a world-class resort famous for catering to the wealthy and famous. For example, actors Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones have a house in the area, as does Tommy Hilfiger, the clothes designer.

770 in the Laurentians: The main administrative building is a replica of the original 770
in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Photo Credit: Perry J Greenbaum, 2011
The Centrality of Prayer

The Hasidic boys' camp is another matter, and for all appearances is like any summer camp in the area. This one happens to cater to Hasidic families, and in particular those who follow the Chabad-Lubavitch tradition. As is common with groups, the boys conform to group expectations, including the wearing of  the customary black and white during the sabbath and holidays (Shabbat and Yom Tov), and where married men wear a kapote, and women cover their hair. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of prayer (davening) at the camp, conforming to rabbinical dictums to pray three times a day corresponding to morning, afternoon and nightfall (i.e., Shacharit , Mincha and Ma'ariv).

As well, after each meal, there is the saying of grace after meals (Birkat Hamazon), called bentshen in Yiddish (or blessings or reciting in English). Truly, it was quite a sight and sound to hear 400 boys and the counselors saying the Birkat Hamazon after each meal.  It was also very loud, amplified by the sound of palms hitting the wooden tables in a rythmic fashion in tune with the prayers—the sound like one hitting a hand drum multiplied by 400. As my son said in an understatement that only a young person can make: "Praying is very important here."

That is evident. The public community and religious rituals bind the boys together. But boys are boys and need to expend their energies in play. The camp, to their credit, kept the boys busy with activities, such as boating, swimming, baseball, football, soccer and going to water parks, water slides and amusement parks and doing camp outs and overnights in sleeping bags.

And most of the boys, but not all, speak Yiddish, a language with a 1,000-year history. In an essay, Bilingualism and Dialect Mixture Among Lubavitch Hasidic Children, Prof George Jochnowitz writes about the linguistic distinction of the Yiddish these boys speak.  I can now tell you that the boys' command of English is likely greater than their command of Yiddish. These Hasidim, many from the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, New York, and after a number of generations in America, have adapted and adopted many of the interests and mannerisms of their local communities, including a love of baseball and all things American. Many had the latest electronic gadgets.

Out for an evening stroll: Two young men enjoying the campgrounds one warn July evening.
They are wearing the traditional black and white clothes one associates with Hasidim along with
black hats and white tzitzits, the fringe garments that males wear underneath their shirts, in accordance
with the biblical injunction of Numbers 15:38.

Photo Credit:  © 2011. Perry J Greenbaum
Looking Beyond Dress

Beneath the traditional clothes are young boys and men who want to fit in and find themselves doing something worthwhile. Some, if not many, will become rabbis and teachers, continuing on the tradition of their parents and grandparents. Some will take on secular professions while maintaining their Jewish observance. One young man voiced a desire to become a large real estate developer. Another a doctor. And so forth. Such were their interests, the interests of young men trying to find their place in the world.