By shearing their own sheep, dyeing their own wool, harvesting their own grain and doing 36 various other tasks, hundreds of Jewish children from all over London spent their summer learning firsthand about the types of labor prohibited on Shabbat.

For three weeks in August, bunkmates at the Gan Israel Chabad-Lubavitch Day Camp of North London, which celebrated its 50th anniversary years, immersed themselves in the world of the 39 melachos, the primary categories of labor identified through rabbinical exegesis that form the building blocks of Sabbath observance. According to parents and teachers, the experience made Jewish law come alive.

“Studied from a book, this subject can often seem technical, dry and a little boring for many children,” explained Chana Karasik, who co-directed the camp with her husband, Rabbi Shmuly Karasik. But “camp is more than just a fun place to spend the summer holiday; it is also a place to grow.”

The directors chose to teach the categories of prohibited labor as a way to take advantage of the surrounding countryside. All told, some 375 campers aged 3 to 11 joined their 60 counselors – “the biggest and most successful camp we’ve ever had,” in Karasik’s words – on excursions to Kent for the first week of camp, which focused on the 11 tasks associated with bread-making.

The campers, who came from all sectors of the London Jewish community, did everything from sowing the grain and harvesting the wheat to making sheaves, grinding the flour and baking the loaves.

During the second week, the children tackled all of the labors involved in making cloth. From their campgrounds, which had been transformed into a farm with live sheep, goats and calves, the bunkmates learned about proper animal care, sheared the sheep and then combed, dyed and wove the wool. Rabbinic judge Rabbi Yisroel Gukovitzki, an authority in the 39 melachos, presented a weaving workshop replete with spinners and looms.

In the third and final week, the campers learned about the processes involved in making tefillin and parchment, including all of the steps of leather production.

Campers learn about the dyeing process.
Campers learn about the dyeing process.

“It was incredibly eye-opening for the children,” reported Shmuly Karasik. “Some of the children didn’t know that tefillin were made from leather, or that leather was once a cow eating grass in a field.”

Aside from their primary activities, the children also spent their time in a road safety course presented by Hackney Council, and taking trips to area venues.

Parents lauded this year’s curriculum.

“It has been a wonderful camp with a great atmosphere. Our children have made friends with other children from different places,” said Ari and Nikki, two parents who sent four children to the camp. “We were so happy that our children [learned] about the 39 melachos in a hands-on way. They loved the activities and are excited to discuss what they have learned.”

Avigail, the mother of one camper, added: “My kids loved coming every day and are so disappointed it’s over. They can’t wait for next year! I was so impressed with how much they knew.”