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‘A modern camp with an old soul’ celebrates its bar mitzvah

Read this story in The Jewish Voice

Camp JORI is celebrating its bar mitzvah this summer. It’s hard to believe that Rhode Island’s only Jewish overnight camp has been at the Worden’s Pond location in Wakefield for 13 years already. Ronni Saltzman Guttin, director, shares that the transition from Clarke Road in Narragansett to the current site was a smooth one since the camp’s core values and traditions remained the same, despite the technological advances and enhancements to accommodations.

The biggest draw is JORI’s ability to unite the campers, who relish taking care of one another, the way they care for family members. After all, once the kids get to camp, they’re all part of one big family. As Guttin puts it, “Camp is a great equalizer.” She means that no one has to worry about being of a different affiliation or belonging to an interfaith family. JORI doesn’t discriminate. Instead, it creates an environment where children have the same appreciation for Jewish life.

Guttin and Rachel Mersky Woda, assistant director, accomplish this feat through meaningful, fun-loving Shabbat celebrations, activities focused on Israel, Israeli counselors, music, sports, art and language. Modeling their programs after those of other camps, JORI takes advantage of proven techniques to ensure that the camp provides a memorable summer experience.

In light of contemporary time and money challenges, Guttin and Mersky Woda work hard to fit camp into families’ decision-making equation. Because Guttin believes that the Jewish camp experience is paramount for children, she says, “We take pride in providing financial aid. Finances shouldn’t be the reason a family doesn’t choose JORI.” They point out that BunkConnect, an affordability initiative built on the success of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s One Happy Camper program, makes it easier to ask for financial aid. Mersky Woda encourages it, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Guttin says that not too many people realize that their family income can be as high as $125,000 to be eligible to apply.

Similarly, the directors rely on BBYO Passport – BBYO’s worldwide summer travel program for Jewish teens and their families – to handle all of the logistics regarding the CIT’s (Counselors in Training) four-week trip to Israel. For instance, Mersky Woda says that, last year – with the war raging on – they found it a relief to not worry about the itinerary and other day-to-day concerns; “BBYO Passport saves us time and energy.” Guttin and Mersky Woda knew that their kids were safe and secure. Providing additional comfort, BBYO Passport even hires past JORI staff to run the trip as group leaders.

The continuity is also evident in the effect the trip has on the campers back home; they are inspired by their peers’ adventures. Those on Worden’s Pond love watching the slides the travelers send to Rhode Island for the rest of the camp to enjoy on Shabbat. When the CITs return to JORI for the remaining 12 days of the summer, they bring their newly acquired knowledge with them. Mersky Woda says, “It’s a game-changer for how they see Israel.” Many become counselors the following year.

Guttin recently returned from Israel, where she traveled courtesy of Lekhu Lakhem Fellowship, an educational program for Jewish camp directors developed by the Foundation for Jewish Camp and JCC Association. Guttin loved having an opportunity to see Israel through the eyes of camp directors and to talk to them about their experiences.

In addition to discussing their daily activities, the group considered possible ways to improve camp. Asked to choose a project, Guttin decided to focus on music as a way to increase camp spirit. She says that she loves traditional American camp music, folk songs from the 1960s and ’70s, as well as contemporary Israeli music. Because the camp celebrates Shabbat through music, Guttin would like to encourage further exploration and musical experimentation within camp, whether through song or instruments the kids bring from home, including guitars, drums and keyboards.

Another takeaway Guttin brought from the trip is the realization that there are many additional ways to create connections to Israel. She’d like to incorporate the country’s events as a way to tie together information about Israel and the camp’s activities.

For instance, Guttin was amazed by the railroad system through the Izre’el Valley. The tracks run along the same path as they did during the Ottoman Empire. Since Guttin is a huge train fan, she came up with the idea to use train stop locations to discuss cultural differences, terrain and area growth. She’s thinking about creating activities around Israel Day, with each station representing a different town on the line.

Guttin’s new inspirations will be in concert with JORI’s ongoing improvements. Those who send their kids to the camp might have noticed the latest facility and technological enhancements that have helped bring JORI into its prime. The gorgeous waterfront, with its recently built pavilion, is undergoing additional work to make the best use of the land. Roadwork is under way to reduce runoff to the pond. It’s important to the camp to protect resources and remain environmentally conscious. An additional waterfront building is planned for storage and staff living space. Also, this summer, a picnic grove will be created using some grant funding, and the kids will enjoy a new ropes course.

While the camp boasts various upgrades, such as the website Mersky Woda redesigned with the assistance of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, its mission remains the same. Guttin emphasizes that JORI stays true to its origins. Mersky Woda chimes in, saying that she wishes more people would be aware of the camp’s history and how much it has informed their operations. Guttin agrees, clarifying that their aim is to take the legacy that has guided the camp since 1937 and apply it to modern life. She says, “Someone called JORI a modern camp with an old soul,” a description that’s proven apt.

In the early 1900s, JORI was built to offer a great summer experience to the residents of the Jewish Orphanage of Rhode Island. Of course, now, its state-of-the art accommodations differ greatly from the modest facility it once was. JORI’s website reminds us how much time has passed, “If the walls of Camp JORI could talk, they would tell the story of four generations of campers coming into our door as wide-eyed youngsters, enjoying fun-filled summers.” The kids have changed, as have the families’ needs. Yet, the camp’s strong values uphold. JORI retains its goodness and warmth that attract the campers year after year.

Guttin concedes that certain elements remain traditional, while they embrace new ideas to attract today’s kids. A parent of a JORI camper sums it up, “JORI’s major strength is creating a camp community with Jewish values where kids can make friends, develop close connections with counselors, and develop important life skills such as independence, self advocacy and solving problems.”

To provide the most flexibility, JORI offers many ways to experience summer camp, including day camp, a weekend-long trial program and sessions of different lengths. As Mersky Woda’s card reads, “We strive to provide a safe and supportive setting for campers to create life-long connections with the Jewish community.”

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