A classic summer camp song session at Camp Nai Nai Nai (Photo/Shelly Howe)
A classic summer camp song session at Camp Nai Nai Nai (Photo/Shelly Howe)

Jewish millennials let down their hair at summer camp in the redwoods

Ahhh, summer camp. Bonfires, creaky bunks, new best friends, camp songs and … a tiki bar?

Thanks to Moishe House and Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, Jewish summer camp no longer needs to end when you finish your year as a counselor in training.

That’s because Camp Nai Nai Nai has you covered — even if you didn’t make it to Jewish summer camp as a kid.

Under the redwoods at Camp Navarro — a back-to-nature facility for corporate retreats, weddings, festivals and other events in Mendocino County — more than 125 campers, most of them Jewish 20- and 30-somethings, showed up for the weekend experience Aug. 17-19.

“The world is going in a direction that people are interested in collecting experiences rather than things,” said David Cygielman, founder and CEO of Moishe House, a Bay Area-born organization that provides Jewish residences and community/learning experiences for young Jewish adults. “We want this [camp] to be a key Jewish experience for people.”

Camp Nai Nai Nai on the West Coast is following on the heels of a camp of the same name that has run in Pennsylvania over the Memorial Day weekend the past two years. The Mendocino version, held in what was billed an “inclusive and pluralistic Jewish space … for all observance levels,” attracted campers from all walks of Jewish life, with roughly two-thirds from the Bay Area and the rest from points as scattered as New York, Denver and Mexico City. The costs for lodging, food and programming ranged from $285 for early signups to $395 for a private cabin, plus $50 if you wanted to ride the camp bus to and from San Francisco.

(The food, by the way, “won’t be your typical camp food,” the website promised. “We’ll have meals that are a twist on old camp classics, but with upgrades for our adult palettes.”)

As they arrived on a Friday afternoon, campers received a nametag and bunk assignment, then found their way to a craft station where they could make a friendship bracelet, a flower crown or a tie-dye. The weekend ahead promised “spontaneous dance parties” and an “energy only found at Jewish summer camp,” according to the website.

A happy camper
A happy camper (Photo/Shelly Howe)

Camp Navarro has big lawns, hiking trails, a river beach, tents and cabins, an amphitheater and a dining hall. And though it’s easy to find space to be alone, Camp Nai Nai Nai mainly functions to bring people together.

“Jews are all about community,” said participant Moriah Sobeck, 27, of San Francisco. “I always feel safe. These are my people.”

A Shabbat service in the amphitheater officially opened camp. Led by Emanu-El rabbis Sydney Mintz and Jason Rodich, the service was backed by the band Shamati, which explained to attendees that “nai nai nai” is the universal “I don’t know the words to this song but I can still sing along.”

With that, Shamati introduced the camp theme song, “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel, only in this case the campers replaced the “Lai lai lai” refrain with “nai nai nai.”

“Nai nai nai is about knowing what to do when you get to the ‘nai nai nai’ part, no matter your background,” said Roey Kruvi, senior director of immersive experiences for Moishe House.

Mintz encouraged the campers to discover their inner fifth child, going beyond the “four children” discussed during the Passover seder. This child, she said, is all about summer camp: playful, joyful and open. “It’s important for us to come and be in nature, away from our screens, and be together,” Mintz said. “Give yourself permission to explore that fifth child.”

Later, the campers watched a song-and-dance performance by camp staffers in which they introduced themselves. By this time, many campers, having visited the tiki bar and/or helped polish off bottles of wine at dinner, were primed and ready for the nighttime festivities, which included an aerialist performance, live music and a bonfire.

The next morning after breakfast, campers met in small groups and then broke into the first of four hourlong playshops. Activity choices included Israeli folk dancing, improv, yoga, screen printing, walking meditation and food science (which included making alcohol-infused goodies).

One of the playshops was the Unsilence Outpost, set in a secluded spot among the redwoods. Developed by Danny Cohen, a professor at Northwestern University and an artist, the Unsilence Outpost was meant to bring a deeper conversation to the otherwise lighthearted weekend; Cohen asked campers about their feelings on tough subjects, including race, sexuality, politics and religion.

The camp is a necessary antidote to city living. It re-centers you.

Aaron Wallach, 27, who lives in Washington, D.C., attended both 2018 Nai Nai Nai camps, the first in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, and then in Mendocino County.

“A broad swath of the community comes together,” he said in praise of the experience. “The camp is a necessary antidote to city living. It re-centers you, and everyone knows you need it.”

Wallach said he loves how the weekend manages to get people to play more. “It’s a retreat to play, with an opportunity to challenge yourself without any judgment or fear you may have had as a kid,” he said.

Following the playshops and Saturday dinner, there was a Havdalah ceremony and then a concert by Shamati. Many campers partied into the wee hours, rocking out to ’90s music. By 3 p.m. Sunday, they were heading home.

But that’s not the end of things for Nai Nai Nai. Camp director Lisa Klig said the plan is to expand into the Midwest next year, and, eventually, organizers hope to have 400 to 500 people attend each weekend session.

With campers, staff and others combined, Klig said, “161 people spent three days in the redwood forest, not only having a blast, but also forming friendships and romantic connections, exploring their personal identities and building Jewish community.”

Camp officials expect many of this year’s campers to return next year and even contemplate attending an additional Camp Nai Nai Nai in another part of the country.

“What we hear time and again from campers is that at camp they meet people who are real and [they] can be their most authentic selves,” said Kruvi of Moishe House.

“There is something to the mystery of Jewish summer camp that gives participants permission to shed layers and build lasting and meaningful connections with their Jewish peers,” he added. “Camp Nai Nai Nai is a unique place for young adults to reconnect and explore their own Jewish identities.”

Camp Nai Nai Nai has not announced details about its 2019 camps yet. Look for updates at campnainainai.org or call (858) 367-3684.

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.