Camp: Camp at the J
Where: Amberley Village, Ohio
Grades: Kindergarten - 8th grade
More than 200 kids around Cincinnati spent a portion of the summer unplugging from technology and connecting instead with each other.
The youths, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, learned the meaning of community and giving back in Camp at the J, a summer camp offered at the Mayerson JCC. The center, also called the J, is a community center on the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Campus in Amberley Village. The facility opened seven years ago, after the first summer camp was offered.
Camp at the J is open to children entering kindergarten through eighth grade. Kids are split into four groups based on grade level: Pioneers (kindergarten and first-grade students), Trailblazers (those going into second and third grade), Raiders (fourth- and fifth-grade students) and Quest (those going into sixth, seventh and eighth grades).
High school freshmen and sophomores also can participate through a counselors in training program.
“It’s a lot more of a community activity, focused around people and relationships,” said Camp at the J Director Matt Steinberg.
What is Camp at the J?
“It’s like a fun, summer program that trains them to be (camp) counselors when they’re old enough,” Steinberg said.
Three camp sessions are offered during the summer, each lasting three weeks. Parents can sign children up for one or more sessions.
A day at the J
The camp day starts at 9:30 a.m. and runs until 3:30 p.m. An extended day program is available for working parents who need to drop kids off earlier or pick them up later.
The regular camp day begins with a flag-raising ceremony, during which campers raise the American and Israeli flags and do cheers together.
After raising the flags, campers split into grade groups and take part in activities including Red Cross swim lessons, free swim in the indoor water park, arts and crafts, archery and the Israeli dodgeball game Gaga.
“I like a lot of the activities, like swimming. And we go on a lot of field trips,” said 9-year-old Daniel Goldstein.
Campers typically go on one field trip a week. Some excursions have included bowling, canoeing, going to a Reds game and doing a high ropes course in Louisville.
Camp participants also participate in one social action or community service project, called a Mitzvah Project each week. The projects focus on different themes, depending on the week. One week, older campers went to The Giving Fields in Melbourne, Ky. and painted fences, beautified the farm and picked crops to donate to the Freestore Foodbank. Other Mitzvah projects have included weaving fleece blankets and hats to give to the homeless.
“It’s stuff that teaches them to give back to the community and also that they can have fun doing at the same time,” Steinberg said.
A community activity
Giving back is one of many lessons kids learn while at camp. The Mitzvah Projects also help teach leadership skills. When campers visited The Giving Fields, some JCC staff members joined them but allowed the children to take the lead.
“It was really cool because the campers kind of led that activity … for them to do something that gives back to the community was a really cool thing,” Steinberg said.
Unlike many specialized camps, campers have a more traditional camp experience at the J, getting to know each other and their counselors.
“It’s a lot more of a community activity focused around people and relationships,” Steinberg said.
While campers learn about leadership and giving back, the core lesson of Camp at the J is finding a sense of community.
“They go to school to learn math and science. They come to camp to learn to be people. It’s not just about them having fun but also about doing something that’s beneficial for the community. They’re building friendships, learning to socialize and have a healthy and active lifestyle,” Steinberg said.
A growing camp
In addition to Camp at the J, the Mayerson JCC features a preschool and early childhood school, a full-service accredited senior center, a health and fitness center and a café. The center serves 9,017 members and approximately 250 summer campers.
Children come to the camp from all over Cincinnati, but some of the main areas the center draws campers from include Amberley Village, Montgomery, Blue Ash, Pleasant Ridge, Reading and Mason.
Although the camp has been growing each year, it can be challenging to get word out and encourage children to participate when so many new technologies and video games are competing for their attention, Steinberg said.
Planning for next year
One way JCC staff members keep camp engaging for kids is by allowing them to sign up for different clubs, which give them an opportunity to do more of one type of activity at camp. While campers get to experience all the activities available during camp, some kids might prefer to spend more time focusing on art, archery or multicultural activities.
Campers not only have opportunities to spend time doing what they like - they have more choices every year they return to Camp at the J.
“Every year, it’s developed new aspects. As we grow in the number of campers, we also grow in staff and expertise,” Steinberg said.
Drama and Israeli multicultural activities are two specialties offered this year that have not been available during past summer camps.
Camp at the J also has been growing its inclusion program, which pairs campers with special needs one on one with advocates who help them participate in activities.
JCC staff are already working on plans for the 2015 Camp at the J, with sights set on many new activities.
“We’re definitely going to continue the trend of growing the program and improving the facilities all around,” Steinberg said.