In Vermont's most southern tip, just a short drive from the New York border, the hills are very much alive. In the cozy lounge area of the Trailside Lodge, a girl is teaching her friends a dance. Two guitars lean on a couch and a pair of dirty sneakers sit on a chair. Girls swim outside, while inside music is playing and the sound of laughter reverberates in the walls.

While this might sound like camp, the teens here would be insulted if that's what you called it. Sure, they're having the ultimate summer experience, filled with fun and friendship, but nevertheless this is different. Nestled in between two grassy knolls, their lodge is bustling with personal discovery, burning questions, and what one girl called "mind-blowing learning."

This three week summer program run by Bais Chana Women International is aptly called "The Un-Camp." Pioneered by author and scholar Rabbi Manis Friedman, Bais Chana is driven by a charge of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, to provide in-depth learning experiences for Jewish women of all ages and backgrounds.

RELATED

Most of the girls here come from public schools, and have had little or no exposure to Chabad-Lubavitch. The girls found out about Bais Chana either through their local Chabad rabbis, from friends or online searches. All together, 40 young ladies are bringing their unique stories and backgrounds to this summer's program.

The goal, says Bais Chana director Hinda Leah Sharfstien, is to "help them connect and identify with their Jewish essence as a source of strength and pride, and to give them a solid foundation on which to build their families and communities.

"In the next few years," she adds, "these girls are going to be making some of the biggest decisions they'll ever make: what their life's priorities will be, what kind of man to marry, how they want to raise their children and what kind of contribution they want to make to society."

At the "Un-Camp," out-of-the-box programs, games and activities are supplemented by two daily classes given by Friedman. In the morning, girls open Lessons in Tanya, an English translation and detailed commentary on the bedrock Chassidic text authored by the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, more than 300 years ago. At night, an ask-anything session is generated by a question box filled with such queries as, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" and, "Is there life on other planets?"

But while sometimes the discussions can get a little ethereal, no one here is floating on a cloud. Take it from Matti Menda. A girl with a hippie-influenced style, Menda is originally from Turkey and grew up going to a Reform temple. Currently, she attends a public high school in Berkeley that has over 4,000 students.

"Everything here is so practical," she says about learning at Bais Chana. "Judaism now looks so real. It's like, 'Wow, I could have been doing this my whole life.'"

Liorah Alter wholeheartedly agrees. She comes from Toronto and goes to a school where the majority of students are either Muslim or Asian. She came to Bais Chana, she says, "to learn how to take Judaism into my life."

After 12 days of classes, she reveals with wonder: "I'm learning that everything is connected to Judaism."

Down to Earth

Indeed, all the classes at Bais Chana are centered on bringing Judaism down to earth. Consequently, Friedman keeps a keen eye on society and teenage life to draw illustrations for his points.

"He teaches in a way that everyone can relate to," says Yarden Grossman, a bubbly and bright-eyed girl from Northern Virginia, where she attends Sunday night classes at her Chabad House. Because the rabbi uses real-life examples of how to integrate Judaism, "I'm becoming more prepared for life and the things that will get thrown at me."

To be sure, Friedman's knowledge of society comes as a great surprise to the girls, many of whom have an image of rabbis being isolated from the world. During a class last Sunday, a discussion on the nature of sin led Friedman, the author of Doesn't Anyone Blush Anymore?, to make mention of a recent Mel Gibson movie.

"Why are other people so afraid to talk about that stuff?," exclaims Alter, her friends nodding in agreement.

At Bais Chana, though, nobody is afraid to talk about anything.

"It's not like a normal classroom," says Cassie Moscoe, who calls herself a "B.T." – shortening the term ba'alat teshuvah, meaning newly observant – and is the only Jew in her Toronto school.

"You feel very comfortable, and your questions won't be rejected," says Moscoe.

No Topic Taboo

Massachusetts-native Talia Galore found out the summer program from a friend, who said that the Bais Chana "Un-camp" was known for its fun and learning. Still, the 15-year-old, who hopes to join the Israeli army some day, didn't expect the classes to be so long.

"But I was happily surprised," she relates. "The classes are totally interesting and everyone gets into it."

With the array of topics addressed at Bais Chana, it's no wonder. Nothing is left untouched, as staff and students engage in intriguing discussions on prayer, science, mitzvahs, self-image, relationships, happiness, life and death, the Jewish belief in the Messiah, the soul and pretty much anything else that is on the girls' minds.

When a group of girls are asked about the ideas they'll remember the most, their responses reveal a sundry of lessons, like, "Think before you get into a relationship with a boy," or, "The little things we do can make a huge difference."

On a more personal level, the girls learn such fundamental principles as honoring one's parents – "You owe your parents everything." – and that Judaism is not a static religion, but an ongoing relationship with the Divine.

Florida native Kali Schrage, sporting a nose ring and a deadpan humor, explains in a moment of seriousness – rare for the star of the almost-nightly skits the girls produce themselves – that the things she's learning come almost naturally.

"After every class, I leave feeling enlightened," she says. "You learn about things you knew about, but didn't really."

Like the mitzvah to be a good daughter, says Friedman, who contends the girls get most excited about the identity conflict between "daughter" and "woman." They must be clear about each to emerge with a healthy view on life.

"As a woman, you can't ignore these two realities," he explains. "If you can properly define those two things, you're a new person."

Grossman, for one, says she's picked up on the message: "I'm definitely going to be more of a daughter to my mother than I have been."

For her part, Menda acknowledges a newfound power within.

"Now I know there's a point to everything." After a pause and a twirl of her long wavy hair, she looks up with a smile and adds, "This may sounds naïve, but, since I've come here, I know that I have it in me to change the world."