Steve and Shawn Bojan of Milwaukee, Wis., were faced with a dilemma. Their 12-year old son, Nathan, was ready for sleep-away camp. Of the half-dozen Jewish options in the area, there was one that they were considering, though they were concerned about bullying.
“The kids there are not always the nicest. You know how boys can sometimes act toward each other,” says Steve.
On the advice of Rabbi Avremi Schapiro, youth director of Lubavitch of Wisconsin, they chose to send Nathan to Camp L’man Achai in upstate New York. “When I took Nathan to New York and helped him settle into the bus that would take him to camp,” Steve says, “I realized that I had nothing to worry about. There were boys there from all over the world, and they were all helping each other with their baggage. This is not typical boy behavior.”
Camp L’man Achai caters to Jewish boys from ages 8 to 16. Founded in 1991 by Rabbi Shmuel Kleinman, the camp’s target clientele were the thousands of children pouring into the New York metropolitan area from the former Soviet Union. Originally part of Camp Gan Israel in Parksville, N.Y., L’man Achai soon outgrew its original space and eventually settled into its own 150-acre property—with a private 50-acre lake—in Andes, N.Y.
The eight-week summer program offers an array of sports and recreational activities—soccer, swimming, boating, fishing, archery, photography, crafts—along with daily Hebrew lessons and a host of Jewish programming.
The joy of accomplishment comes in many forms at L’man Achai.
According to camp director Rabbi Yitzchok Steinmetz, the composition of campers changed as well. “Today, there are not many Jews leaving Russia, and the children of the Russian immigrants are pretty indistinguishable from other Jewish kids,” he explains. “We cater to boys from all over the world. Many of them come from families that are affiliated with their local Chabad centers but are at various stages with regards to their own relationship to Judaism. And others come from a wide spectrum of Judaic and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Steinmetz estimates that perhaps 40 percent of the campers are from Russian-speaking homes. Many come from overseas, hailing from places like France, Spain and even Costa Rica.
Rafi Greenstein of Brooklyn, N.Y., who first came when he was 7 back in 1998, fell in love with the camp and continued to go every year until he was 12.
“I loved the staff,” he recalls. “I thought the world of them. My counselor that year was Levi Gajer. I was also very close to Moshe Rendler, another staff member. Even after camp was over, I used to talk to him for hours on the phone.”
That fall, Gajer and Rendler arranged a special class for their students at the United Lubavitcher Yeshivah in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood. Since many of the boys were transferring from public school, the yeshivah accommodated their unique needs and helped them acclimate to the rigor of Talmud study, coupled with balancing their Jewish and secular studies. Greenstein was among those students. He went on to study in mainstream Chabad educational institutions.
Greenstein’s camp experience came full-circle when he returned as a staff member for three years, serving as a counselor and a sports coordinator. Last year, he raised money to outfit the camp’s game room with foosball, table-tennis and air-hockey tables, as well as other gaming stations. “It is where I grew up and became who I am. L’man Achai was where I learned how to live as a Jew,” says Greenstein, who still goes back to visit on weekends.
A Step on the Path to a Ph.D.
His experience mirrors that of Shimshon Ayzenberg, now a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University in California.
Ayzenberg’s first contact with the camp came through a chance meeting with Kleinman in 1994.
“We had just moved to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn,” he relates. “Although we were not religious, I was wearing a kippah that day. I was getting onto a train when Rabbi Kleinman saw me. We talked the whole train ride. But I was young, and we didn’t get each other’s contact information.”
A couple of weeks later his mother, who was then working as a cabdriver, picked up a religious woman. It turns out that she was Kleinman’s wife. This time, they exchanged addresses. Two weeks later Rabbi Kleinman was at their door to install mezuzahs.
“For the next year, I would go to the Kleinmans’ house every Shabbat. I was not the only one. They sometimes had as many as 30 boys, mostly Russian kids from public school, staying at their home. One year later, I was in L’man Achai as a camper. It was the first time that I had experienced Jewish life in such a way.”
After years as a camper and eventually a staff member, Ayzenberg enrolled in the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies. “While I was on staff at L’man Achai, there were a number of religious guys who would study with me. There was a Talmud class that I went to, and it was there that Judaism grounded itself in me. It was the first time I befriended Jewish guys my age, and they were Chassidic. Going to study in Israel was the natural next step in the progression.”
'Everyone Changes for the Better'
While not all campers end up transferring to Jewish schools, Steinmetz says that everyone changes in some way. “For many boys, this is the first time they do not need to be embarrassed. Judaism is cool, and everyone is doing it. When you are having the time of your life—banana boating, hiking, going on trips and praying—your association with Judaism will be a positive one.”
Needless to say, Nathan Bojan is returning for a second year; he starts camp on June 26. This time, however, he will be leaving early. He has to be home in time to celebrate his bar mitzvah.
Shimshon Ayzenberg, left, now a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, with fellow campers studying Talmud with learning director Rabbi Avrumi Stroh.