New York — Gillian Herszage spends 48 weeks a year away from her best friends. As a ninth grader from Columbus, Ohio, Gillian had spent most of her life straddling two groups and never fully fitting into either: There were the frum kids at her school, who mostly didn’t share her passion for dance and acting, and there were the public school kids at the JCC, who performed in plays alongside Gillian, but didn’t understand why she was showing up in skirts and not shorts, like the rest of them. So when she went to Camp Maor for the first time three years ago, and she finally met a group of girls who were both Orthodox and passionate about performing arts, Gillian knew she had found her closest friends.
“At first I was nervous,” says Gillian, who had never been to sleepaway camp before Maor. “But I spoke to classmates and teachers, and they all told me I had to go. It was perfect for me.”
Gillian has been back every year since then.
Gillian’s first summer at Maor was also Maor’s first summer. Started in 2014 by Sari Kahn, Camp Maor, now an NCSY all-girls camp, was created as a response to a need that no other camp was filling. That need is the place where Orthodox Judaism and performing arts meet.
“I grew up in Florida, where my school put on annual performances on the same level as community theaters,” says Kahn. “My daughters don’t have that. When I started Maor, they were taking dance lessons, and we were coming up against a lot of issues: The dance lessons changed and were being scheduled over sefira, the type of music they were dancing to, the costumes they would be wearing at performances.”
Kahn found that she wasn’t alone in experiencing these challenges. Every parent she spoke to could empathize, and every performing artist she approached was excited about the idea of providing professional-level training to girls in an Orthodox setting.
Rhonda Malkin is one of the first professionals Kahn spoke with, and she was immediately on board. Malkin, now a dance coach and personal trainer to celebrities, was a member of the Rockettes for 12 years; she has been teaching at Maor all three summers, and this past summer, her daughter joined her at camp as a camper. While Malkin raves about the unique training opportunities that Maor provides, she sees the camp as offering something even more important.
“The amount of confidence these kids gain is unbelievable,” says Malkin. “Some of them come to camp so talented, but so shy and timid because they’ve never had the opportunity to explore their talents, and that’s what they get. They grow within their own self-esteem and their willingness to step outside their comfort zone.”
The staff members at Maor are not the only ones who see the difference one month can do; parents who send their daughters to Maor are amazed at the changes they see over the course of camp.
Rabbi Josh Joseph, senior vice president at Yeshiva University, is one such parent. His daughter Marsha attended Maor for the first time this July. Maor was not the first camp Marsha has been to, but it’s the first time that her father has felt she was in the right place for her.
“These are direct quotes from her letters,” says Rabbi Joseph. “‘I love this camp; it’s the best camp I’ve ever been to in my life. This camp makes me the best Marsha I can be.’ To see that in print—literally, I was in tears.”
Unlike at most camps, when kids are bussed home en masse at the end of the summer, at Camp Maor, parents come pick their daughters up — after watching them perform the skills they’ve been learning all summer in two enormous performances. First, all family members are invited to a non-musical production, after which the singers and dancers perform for women only.
“This year the performance was ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” says Kahn, who makes sure that the production connects to a theme that carries through the full month of camp. “The theme this year was the power within, and every chinuch lesson was connected to that theme.”
Kahn adds that, rather than just focus on performing arts, Camp Maor strives to provide every camper with a full camp experience. In addition to daily Torah classes, or “chinuch,” campers get recreational activities like swimming and night activities. Each camper can even choose whether to participate in daily sports, or something like Zumba or yoga instead — after all, one of the reasons Maor was started was to provide an alternative to the traditional sports-centric summer camp offerings.
And what about the futures of these girls? Kahn and Malkin are both certain that they are being prepared for successful futures, whether they choose to pursue performing arts as careers or simply carry the lessons they learned from Maor with them in other ways. Shaindel Antelis, a Jewish pop star who has released three studio albums, was a voice teacher at Maor this past summer, and she couldn’t agree more.
“These girls are beautiful and worthwhile, and can do anything they set their minds to,” says Antelis.
Though Maor was created to provide a place for artistic Orthodox teens, with few outlets, to express their creativity, it has become something much more than that to every girl who has attended.
“They’re a family,” says Ilana Lashak, a Stern College freshman who was a counselor at Maor this past summer. “You hear the girls saying, ‘These are my people.’ They may not have this type of group of friends at home, where they can combine performing arts and Judaism. They feel so understood; Camp Maor is a safe space for them.”
Avigail Klein flew over 9,000 miles to reach that space. Maor’s only camper from Singapore, Avigail is a fifth grader who loves acting, dancing and singing, and came to Maor to be among other girls who share her passions. Her favorite part of the camp, though, was the spirit of inclusion the staff provided.
“Everyone gets a turn on stage,” Avigail says. “That is what’s most important about Maor.”
By Simi Lichtman