If there’s a place in the Bay Area where summer rules and a kid can truly be a kid, it’s Camp Kee Tov. The day camp associated with Congregation Beth El in Berkeley is celebrating its 50th year of providing a space for creative and imaginative play, eschewing cleanliness and forging lasting relationships.
They call it ruach, or Kee Tov spirit.
“Being outside, getting dirty, being out in nature — it’s sort of classic,” said Rabbi Rebekah Stern, a former Kee Tov camper and counselor, a parent of a current Kee Tov camper and a rabbi at Beth El. “It feels kind of like a throwback [to old-time Jewish day camps], but because it feels that way, or in spite of the fact it feels that way, it’s what makes us stand apart.”
Camp Kee Tov’s 50th anniversary will be marked on Friday, July 14 with a Shabbat dinner at Beth El that will include a marshmallow-roasting and song session. The next day, the celebration will continue at the Ashkenaz music and dance venue, with a ticketed event for camp alumni, parents and staff.
One reason for Kee Tov’s continued popularity is its structure. Campers must register for four-week sessions, and that length of time seems to solidify an immersive camp experience not unlike that of an overnight camp. Within those four weeks, campers in kindergarten through ninth grade develop enduring social bonds.
Stern said she remains in close contact with many of her former fellow campers and counselors. Kee Tov has created a “deep, broad web” across the Bay Area, she noted.
Now, as a parent of a camper, Stern said she enjoys hearing her daughter come home from camp singing the songs she herself sang as a camper lo those many years ago.
“Some of the skits the staff puts on in the mornings are the same skits that have been running for decades,” Stern said. “I really think that our four-week session model is maybe the single most important reason for the robust nature of Kee Tov culture.”
Many campers return summer after summer, then transition to counselors-in-training after ninth grade before becoming full-fledged counselors and then, perhaps, staff members.
Emily Schnitzer, in her second year as camp director, has a history with Camp Kee Tov that dates back to 1996, when she was in third grade. She spent seven years as a camper, seven years on staff, two years as a program director and four years as associate director — and she even met her fiancé at Kee Tov.
“Camp has made me the person I am,” she said. “From such a young age as a camper, I was shown behavior by my counselors that I can do anything. They will build you up and you will rise to the occasion.
“Sometimes you fail, and sometimes when you fail you’re surrounded by people who are trying to lift you back up. That not only helps shape how you view yourself, but how you view others and place and community. It only makes you more open and more willing and positive to other ideas and solving problems.”
The underlying values of Kee Tov — former campers and staff continually refer to concepts such as community spirit, healing the world, joy and kindness — are traditional Jewish values, Schnitzer said, and for her, the camp helped mold her Jewish identity. As someone who grew up in a household that celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays, she credits Kee Tov with pushing her toward Judaism, becoming a bat mitzvah and embodying a Jewish life.
“Kee Tov ground these values and these principles and this way of life in something a little more concrete,” she said. “No matter your belief on the God spectrum or the Torah, it’s still this value system that everyone believes in that’s a universal value system. These are core pillar values, and anyone would agree that it’s important to take care of our Earth and the world, and it’s important to learn from others. It allowed me and allows others to see those values in a way that’s universal.”
Run under the auspices of Beth El, a Reform synagogue, Kee Tov is open to Jews and non-Jews alike. Its popularity makes slots in the two four-week sessions a hot commodity, Stern said, especially in the older groups. According to the Beth El website, Camp Kee Tov began with 100 campers in the late 1960s, but now enrolls more than 700 per summer, along with 90 counselors.
“This is about good, clean fun,” said Stern, adding that the camp creates “new opportunities for kids to test their own boundaries and comfort zones and grow as a result.”
Thinking into the future, perhaps 50 years from now, Schnitzer believes that whatever changes occur at Kee Tov, its kehilla kedosha (sacred community) will endure.
“This is a safe place for parents [and] staff, and we want to hold on to it,” she said. “It’s the best nine weeks of the year for everyone, hands down. Our creativity doesn’t ever leave, no matter what happens.”