Oakland-Piedmont day camp thriving with multiple venues

Keeping up the Jewish tradition of thriving in exile, a 40-year-old East Bay day camp is alive and well this summer even though its former home base — the Oakland Piedmont Jewish Community Center — closed last year.

Shuttling campers in vans from Oakland's Lake Temescal to the Arts Magnet School to the downtown YMCA and coordinating the activities of more than 100 campers by CB radio isn't easy, but Camp Tzofim director Jessica Israel says the situation suits this summer's theme, Exodus. Campers are exploring the original Exodus story, as well as the modern diasporas of Yemenites, Russians, Ethiopians and others.

On a recent Friday, for example, kids were making seder plates, creating skits about freedom, playing trust games, building human pyramids and creating their own Ten Commandments for campers.

The human pyramid was the biggest hit with 10-year-olds Gwyneth Kelly and Ashanti Crawford. "Even though someone was digging into my back, it was OK," Gwyneth said.

Ashanti, who is African American and non-Jewish, said making the seder plate provided a lesson in Jewish history. "Everything on the plate that you eat is special because it reminds you of the slavery of the Jews."

In another activity designed to build trust, kids worked in pairs, one blindfolded, the other serving as a guide. The exercise, according to Israel, is designed to teach kids that "when the Jews crossed the Red Sea, they had to trust God to get them across."

Camper Zoya Son, 9, had her own explanation: "You gotta rely on the person guiding you," she said. "I think it's supposed to teach you to trust another person and rely on people."

It seems to have taken that kind of faith to keep the camp together in the absence of the OPJCC, but the newly formed Oakland-Piedmont Jewish Community Services has managed to pull it off.

After the JCC closed in August, the new agency started up with a new board of directors and a new executive director, Haggai Wolf, who was director of youth services at the JCC. Israel stepped in as youth director.

"I'm really excited to say we're running all the programs we used to have, plus some new ones," Israel said. "It's just a little more difficult because of not having JCC staff."

The camp's "diaspora," as Israel calls it, has some advantages: The Lake Temescal setting allows greater emphasis on nature, and a traveling preteen-teen group will do more social-service activities than in years past.

In addition, teens and preteens will get a chance to participate in one of four two-night overnights, a trip to Santa Cruz, white-water rafting, a ropes course in Tahoe or a stay at Camp Tawonga in Yosemite.

Gabe Kurtz, 12, enjoys the overnight trips, but he also appreciates the camp for other reasons. "I don't know a lot of Jewish kids outside the camp, so it helps me know more Jewish kids," he said. "And it helps me learn more about my religion."