Camps Desperately Need Professional Mechanchim

Oped by Rabbi Gershon Avtzon: Would you send your child to a Cheder that is run by a group of young adults that have no true chinuch experience? Why is camp any different?

By Rabbi Gershon Avtzon – Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Lubavitch Cincinnati

A frelichen Chanuka and good Chodesh! I know that it is still in the middle of the winter, but this is the time that parents begin thinking about, and quickly registering, into various overnight camps. While there is much to write about the whole registration process, the anxieties of waiting for answers and the exorbitant cost of camps, it will not be the focus of this article.

 We are all aware, and many of us have personally experienced, the profound positive effects that a camp can have on a child. The child is in a loving and warm atmosphere twenty-four hours a day and many times receiving the attention that they may not receive in school (or at home). There is a reason that our holy Rebbe declared camp as the place that produces Chassidim.  

Notwithstanding the above; As a parent, educator and and after spending close to fifteen years as a camp Rabbi in an excellent and mainstream Chabad overnight camp, I would like to bring something important to your attention: The lack of proper – on the grounds – Chinuch guidance in overnight camps, that (can) have detrimental effects on the future of your child. 

The heroes of camp are the overworked, and underpaid (staff and) head staff. They work tirelessly before the summer to hire the staff and create the best program for the campers that will be under their care. They need to deal with young, and inexperienced, staff members and the multiple issues that arise between programs, between staff themselves and between the campers themselves. They are often sleep-deprived, emotionally drained and dealing with hundreds of moving parts all at once. 

While their dedication and devotion is admirable, one thing is certain: They do not have the experience (in chinuch or life), or the right frame of mind, to be making serious chinuch decisions that can have long-term effects on our children.

Please ask yourself the following question: Would you send your child to a Cheder that is run by a group of young adults that have no true chinuch experience? How about an out-of-town Cheder, where you do not see your child every day and have no real way to know how they truly are adjusting and coping? If the answer to the above is (as I hope) “No”, then ask yourself the following: Is camp any different?

Many camps have “Camp Rabbis” or a “Vaad Hachinuch”, but instead of being the first, and final, say on a particular chinuch issue or standard –  they end up acting as an advisory board to the head staff. If a head-staff member seeks their opinion or advice, they are helpful and available, but the head staff member does not feel obligated to seek their advice, or oblige by their decisions.

The following are three events that happened last summer, in which I had to get involved, which prompted me to finally write about this important issue. These are just some of the real-life stories that I had gotten involved with, and there are obviously so many more:

1) A young girl (Disclaimer: A relative) was sent to a particular overnight camp. She was so excited to spend the summer time with her classmates and friends. When the bunks were divided, she found herself in a totally separate bunk then her entire class. She was told that it is fine and “she will settle and get used to it”. When her mother called to discuss with the head staff, the mother (who is an accomplished educator herself) was told that it was her negative attitude that is ruining the summer of her child! The “Vaad Hachinuch” of the camp told the mother that they don’t have the authority to mix into this decision. The girl had a miserable summer and it took much work to help her emotionally prepare for school this year.  

2) I was with my family in a bungalow colony for a few days last summer to refresh and spend time with my younger children. I received a phone call from a camp director asking my opinion about expelling a child (from a broken home) from camp. After hearing the details, I felt that with certain guidelines in place the child would be able to stay. I then had to spend a long time (until 2:00 am) convincing the head counselor (whom I personally like very much) to accept the logic of my decision. It was clear to me, and the dedicated director, that the head counselor had been given too much say and power.

3) There was a particular camp play that I watched a video of recently. The play was completely toichen-less and was obviously based on a movie that the writer of the play had seen at some point. When I confronted the camp director about it, I was told that the head staff were told to consult with the camp mashpia about their plays. Did they consult? No. Was the play shown anyways? Yes.  Would you allow your child to digest food without a proper hechsher? Obviously not.  

The bottom line: For the sake of all our children, I ask that all camps employ professional mechanchim in their camps that have real authority. No chinuch policy (learning curriculum, discipline policies, types of trips and extra-curricular activities) should be allowed to be implemented without their authorization. As parents, we should demand to know the names of these mechanchim – in advance of our registration – so that we can be assured that the chinuch decisions of our children are being made thoughtfully, responsibly and with the right hashkafa.

Certainly, the young adults who are approached to be head staff should condition their acceptance of the position on there being an active, functional and responsible vaad hachinuch. They should realize the responsibility that their position entails as well as their own obvious chinuch limitations.

[While many of us are just grateful to receive an “acceptance” letter from the camp of our choice, I am hoping that at the very least the subject will be brought up to the directors by multiple parents and some movement in the right direction will be made.]

May we all merit to be led by our children – Called “meshichoi” (“My anointed ones”) by Chazal – to greet Moshiach Tzidkeinu!

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below, or by sending me a personal email at: [email protected]

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  1. We need to hear more directions from known educators like above ,about what goes on in summer camps and what can be done.

    1. Bochurim were a lot more capable, mature, chassidish, and less arrogant. There was also much less man power needed than today, so 2 or 3 solid bochurim is all that was needed to run lubavitch camps

    2. Great article about camp
      One additional point that needs to be addressed: in most non lubavitch camps, the head counselors and/or Learning directors are experienced machanechim who come back year after year. Additionally, the learning teachers (for the older children) are mechanchim. Untill the 70’s Parksville was that way. The camps have a bungalow colony attached to the camp for these families. Usually the teachers work for free or minimal pay in exchange for the bungalow (and meals from camp kitchen)

  2. This article assumes that if only there would be professional mechanchim in camps, nothing would go wrong.
    This is not true.
    Any of these stories could and do happen in schools and yeshivas as well.
    The young boys and girls who run the overnight camps are usually our best.
    They often know how to build children who are destroyed by professional mechanchim all year long.
    Are they perfect?
    Certainly not.
    Is there room for growth?
    Last year, all the head staff of the boys camps spent a weekend learning and growing.
    They were open to hearing from veteran directors about what the boys need from them and how to handle the different issues that come up.
    A full weekend of training (plus loads of follow-up) for 8 weeks of work.
    Relatively, our teachers get a lot LESS training, not more.
    We never hear of a kid “going off the deep end” because they were disciplined in camp unfairly or because they were misunderstood in camp.
    We hear those things mostly about yeshivas and schools.
    And again, mistakes DO happen.
    In camps, schools, everywhere.
    Let’s stop complaining and keep learning and growing on all fronts.
    And let’s celebrate our young mechanchim! They are heroes!! They are our hope and strength!!
    I am a veteran mechanech and I learn the most I’ve ever learned from my children who understand the young children very well — in some ways, even better than I do.

    1. Your comment opens with “This article assumes that if only there would be professional mechanchim in camps, nothing would go wrong.”

      Please point out how you made this assumption about the article. I don’t think the article or it’s author assume anything of the sort.

      Besides, I don’t think anyone with a bit of knowledge of what goes on, on the ground, will disagree that the more we can improve – by following the authors points – the more we should improve.

    2. Which 21-23 year old understands children’s emotions and Chinch ?? . A few years ago I was a head-counselor of a well-known overnight camp . I considered myself to be a chasssideshe bochur and still consider myself to be a chassishishe youngerman. Now as a parent I realize how clueless I truly was . When I was a headcounselor I thought I knew it all. Giving over the full authority to a 23-year-old is a big mistake.

  3. Tzirei Hatemimim is a boys’ camp actually run by experienced mechanchim. The bochurim counselors are carefully chosen for being mature, responsible and truly chassidish. Halevai all camps would learn from them.

    Unfortunately they are limited in space and only one month (overnight).

    1. Perhaps if this camp received the financial support needed to cover its deficit, it could expand and accommodate more talmidim, for both months, and maybe even with an English speaking division.

      All good intentions aside, any good endeavor relies on funding… Investment in the Chinuch of our children is certainly the most important investment of all!

  4. this is totally unrealistic. rabbi klein has opened a boys camp specifically for this purpose, he hires real teachers and runs on a MASSIVE deficit. camps are a business, they are not going to follow that model.

    1. That doesn’t answer the problem. If it’s true that it’s bad chinuch, than we need to figure out a solution.

      We don’t buy treif food because it’s cheaper. We shouldn’t send kids to bad chinuch just to save money.

  5. I wanted to write such an article a few years ago but had too much going on in our family’s life.
    I had my son that needed chizuk in one of the so called best lubavitch camps for 14 year old boys and according to my understanding kids that need chizuk are the ones that need more attention then the auto pilot kids and they were part of the cause that my kid went off the way.They where treating him bad till they expelled him I personally came down to beg and tell them how crucial it is for his well-being (in yidishkeit) not to do it, the counselors that was involved was a few young boys that didn’t understand chinuch at all. I was pleading with the director of the camp that’s its pikuach nefesh mamesh to expell my son and his answer was that the young counselors and head counselor threatened him if he is not sending my son home they are quitting in middle of the summer so he can’t go against them. Sure enough my sons being on the street the rest of the summer got him to go off completely.
    The idea of making camps was to be mashpia on kids that need chizuk not to push them away farther away.
    A parent in pain.

    1. I disagree with the idea that so called “auto pilot kids” need less attention.
      I was always a good boy through camp yeshiva etc. and I always felt left out because all the attention was given to those that “need more help”.
      While it may be true that some need more attention than others, and someone who is going through a hard time should definitely be given help and attention, the fact that someone is not “problematic” or “high maintenance” does not at all mean that he doesn’t need attention. You can never know what’s going on inside.

  6. The Rebbe said more than once that chadorim should be opened year round. One example is Yud Beis Tammuz 5745. Maybe the time has come to carry out the Rebbe’s will.

  7. You have the same problem in many yeshivos, the staff who are being hired have very low to zero experience on being mechanech bochrim. thats a much bigger problem than camp.

  8. Instead of writing a response as a separate article, I’ll write it as a comment, but straight to the point.

    The more a person does something the less excited and enthusiastic they are about it.

    The more freedom a person has, the more they feel that it is “their project“ and the more effort people are willing to put into it
    Give the same person the same project but with a lot of limitations, and he will not produce the same, because it is not “his “.
    This is the very reason why camp is so enjoyable, because the staff are putting hours upon hours to make “ their project”the best I could possibly be .

    If camps would do what you are suggesting, staff will stop investing the hours they do and the result will be a camp, which looks like a school…….

    Written by a professional educator but awful writer.

    1. The Rebbe clearly advocated for year round school!

      Fun and crazy doesn’t necessarily mean camp is better…

    2. You can still have a mashpia that is consulted for all ruchnius things and situations without taking away from the staff a feeling that it’s their camp and their efforts

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