Putting a twist on Chabad-Lubavitch teenagers’ usual summer camp experience, a physically-intensive program sent its fourth-annual group of young men into the wilderness this week to learn Torah and enjoy the great outdoors.

Known as Camp YOA – the acronym stands for “Yeshiva Outdoor Adventure” – the program’s grueling itinerary is focusing on the northwestern terrain of Montana and Washington, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. It ends Aug. 30.

Director Michoel Harari, who hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., says that he modeled the camp after similar excursions he had with groups in Australia and Ukraine. Each year, his staff leads an average of 30 young men across North America, employing camping and hiking to instill the values of teamwork and resiliency.

“Camp YOA taught my son responsibility,” says the mother of 16-year-old Zalmy Plotke, a camp alumnus from Los Angeles. “He gained a lot of survival skills, making him really self-sufficient.”

She explains that Plotke, who had to cook, clean and pack for himself, learned to appreciate life in a much simpler way.

“We are very pleased with all of his development in the program,” she concludes.

In previous years, participants came from a variety of backgrounds. Some were the children of parents who became religious at local Chabad Houses, while others were students in Lubavitch institutions who, for whatever reason, were distancing themselves from their communities. A fraction attended non-Lubavitch schools during the year.

“Not all kids are for sitting and learning in a regular camp environment,” says Harari. “They need direction.”

This summer, most of the teens come from Lubavitch homes.

Dovid H., 16, from Woodmere, N.Y., says that the camp changed his outlook on life in general.

“I wasn’t the most religious person at the time,” he explains.

In his first week, the teen went to Yosemite National Park, where he spent long hours hiking its trails and climbing its mountains.

Being so involved with nature “made me feel closer to G‑d and inspired me to be more religious,” he says. “I’m a lot happier now.”

Participants of Camp YOA hike up a mountain’s slope.
Participants of Camp YOA hike up a mountain’s slope.

Personal Interactions

Through its travels in the sparsely-populated wild, groups often come in contact with other Jews, and they spend Shabbat at Chabad Houses nearby. Campers use these opportunities to share their personal inspirations.

Dovid H. says that he ran into a 70-year-old man named Hoot while his group was relocating from one camp to another. The boy helped Hoot don tefillin, creating an instant bond that continues through a shared correspondence.

Many of the 2008 participants agree that one story stands out as the most memorable: According to Moishy Lemberg, a staff member from that trip, the group was tackling a steep climb up Mount Shasta when two Israeli backpackers were on their way down.

“Excuse me, are you Jewish? Would you like to put on tefillin?” one of the campers asked the pair.

The men did, at approximately 13,000 feet. Before they parted ways, the Israelis directed the campers towards a route that would take them on an easier path to the mountain’s summit.

Harari says experiences like that, combined with Torah-based discussions at the end of the day, help campers see their religious heritage come alive. In addition, staff present “customary classes in a most-innovative and productive way, providing [campers] with an interactive curriculum geared toward their growth and development as Chasidim.”

Rabbi Mendy Cohen, who directs Chabad-Lubavitch of Sacramento, Calif., says that he saw the camp’s results when participants visited his community during the Fourth of July weekend of 2007. After each Shabbat meal, the young men shared stories with community members.

“They added a huge amount of life to the Chabad House,” says Cohen. “It was really uplifting for the community.”

“The Camp YOA atmosphere really made Judaism come alive for my son,” says the mother of camper Peretz G., 16, of North Miami Beach, Fla. “There is a lot of camaraderie [and] teamwork. They push themselves beyond their limits physically, spiritually, and emotionally.”