As I pulled up to the entrance of Camp Deeny Riback (CDR), I could hear the excited yelling of children as they made their way across campus. Off to my right I could see a group of boys and girls doing squats and crunches, which I would later learn was for Boot Camp Day (although when I visited, it also happened to be Purple Day and Tie Dye Week), and I felt the nostalgia for my childhood years tugging me in. Summer was in the air, and these kids were having the time of their lives at the JCC MetroWest’s premier day camp.
Camp Deeny Riback is situated in Flanders, New Jersey, a community in Morris County, and is popular among Essex county residents. CDR is committed to making sure its campers grow up to appreciate their Jewish identity; as I was taken on a tour of camp, Director Julie Perlow referenced a study from 2011 by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which suggested that attendees of Jewish day camp are significantly more likely to identify as Jewish and continue to support Israel later in life.
And “Deeny,” as it is known, does its best to instill pride for Judaism in its campers. Every morning begins with “Boker Tov,” when campers welcome the day ahead with song and dance, and learn the “Hebrew word of the day” from the camp’s two shlichim. The shlichim—who will also feature prominently in the camp’s upcoming Israel Day event, which is so popular that it even brings in the nearby Jewish community to celebrate Israel—run daily activities and generally serve to bring the campers closer to Israel. Of course, as with many camps, the kids’ favorite part of Israeli culture is gaga, an Israeli version of dodgeball.
The campers are involved with many aspects of Judaism throughout the day. Led by Rabbi Richard Kirsch, campers engage in an enthusiastic recitation of Birkat HaMazon upon finishing their lunch every day (which according to Perlow is delicious!). The younger children also visit Rabbi Kirsch in the Mitzvah Tent to keep track of their daily mitzvot, and learn different mitzvot each day through “Mitzvah Madness” with specialist Devorah Klar.
By far the biggest mitzvah that the camp performs is hosting the “Camp Friends” program, which fully integrates campers with special needs with ordinary camp life; bunks that join the program have a counselor specifically assigned to monitor the child. The program has been running for upwards of thirty years, and according to Perlow, Deeny is one of only a few Jewish camps in the area to offer this service. According to counselor Ben Lefkowitz, the camp friends “have buddies in the groups they’re in and get to participate in activities like everyone else...they smile just as much as anyone else.” As Julie took me on a tour, she pointed out such bunks. “See if you can figure out which camper is the ‘camp friend’ in this bunk,” she said. I couldn’t, and that was the point—they were completely integrated. The camp friends feel so at home that some have even returned as counselors.
Camp Deeny Riback’s Jewish pride should not distract from its primary goal as a summer camp: making sure the kids have fun. The camp has facilities to rival most other camps; campers regularly enjoy mountain biking, rock climbing, baking, pool and lake swimming and a host of other activities. The main pool was recently renovated after the camp received a generous private donation, increasing its size and adding a water slide.
The camp can be cleanly divided into two areas, with double the number of facilities. Since Camp Deeny Riback extends from pre-k through eighth grade, the youngest groups actually have their own campus. “Junior Village,” as it is affectionately known by the staff, has all of the same facilities as the regular camp, but downsized. I was taken past the pool, which is five feet at its deepest, and the rock wall, about eight feet high. The benefit, I was told, is that the younger campers are often incapable of playing on the regular-sized facilities—imagine, for example, a five-year-old trying to score on a regulation-size 10 foot hoop.
The laughter of the children echoed around camp as I headed back towards my car, and continued to echo in my head for the duration of the ride home. “Even the most reluctant kids smile at CDR,” Lefkowitz told me a few days later. “I think smiles are CDR’s specialty.”
By Dov Greenwood