Peninsula Jewish sports camp completes inaugural season

Nearly 100 campers from seven states and four countries came to Menlo College in Atherton for the inaugural summer of the JCC Maccabi Sports Camp. Three two-week sessions were held from June 17 through July 27 for kids from fourth through 10th grade.

Coach Zak Elfenbein runs Noah Nakisher through a drill. photo/jeff bayer

The first overnight Jewish sports camp on the West Coast combined individualized, one-on-one coaching with “learn[ing] about Jewish values, rituals and community building,” according to the website.

The camp was established by the Foundation for Jewish Camping, which received a joint grant of $8.6 million from the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation to create four new specialty camps.

The others were an entrepreneur camp outside near Boulder, Colo., that taught kids skills to become innovators and leaders; a health and wellness camp in the Pocono Mountains that taught things such as yoga, self defense and culinary arts; and a science tech camp near Boston that explored robotics, video game design and environmental sciences.

Organizers said the camps enabled children who might have chosen a non-Jewish camp or other summer activities to instead connect with their Jewish identity.

As for the sports camp in Atherton, director Josh Steinharter said, “We want to not only help athletes develop individual skills, but learn what it means to be a strong member of the community by playing with respect.”

After morning exercises and breakfast, the campers split up into their core sports — which included basketball, baseball, soccer or tennis — for a two-hour period of drills and skill development. After lunch, the campers engaged in an elective  such as the Israeli dodgeball game Gaga or Ultimate Frisbee. Then the campers returned to their core sports for 90 minutes of scrimmages and games.

Former major leaguer Shawn Green gives tips to campers. photo/facebook

At night, all of the campers came together for sports and typical Jewish camp programming, such as making tie-dye shirts. One night the counselors dressed up as Jewish sports heroes such as Hank Greenberg and Mark Spitz. The campers talked to the “superstars” to learn about what character traits make a quality athlete.

Joel Swedlove, the program director and basketball coach at the camp, and Steinharter brought a special guest to each of the camp’s two-week sessions. The first was a biggie: former major leaguer Shawn Green, who hit 328 home runs in a 15-year career mainly with the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers.

“He taught the kids a mental approach to the game,” Steinharter said, “and to be good athletes.” And he also signed a bunch of autographs, of course.

Aimee Jose, whose two daughters attended the sports camp, raved about their experiences. Her 9-year-old daughter Beanie already plays soccer, but she wanted to improve her skills. “She wants to go into club soccer, and camp helped her,” Jose said. “She has now shown us a level of commitment, so we’re letting her try out for club soccer.”

Jose said the camp exceeded her expectations. “There was nothing the kids didn’t like,” she said.

She also liked how the camp and its activities, such as outdoor Friday night Shabbat services, strengthened her daughters’ Jewish identity.

“My kids are interfaith and interracial — my husband is Filipino — so it was great for them to be exposed to all kinds of Jewish kids,” she said. “They came back singing songs that they didn’t know before. They came home with a stronger identity.”

Steinharter and Swedlove said they want to double the number of campers for next summer while also maintaining the high level of personal attention and one-on-one coaching.

For information on the camp, call (415) 997-8844 or visit