Staffweek: The Rebbe’s Camps Light Up A Child’s Neshama

A counselor of children who are not religious should not try to be like them. It does not gain their respect. They respect someone who respects himself, who is real, not trying to be someone he is not.


In a letter to all Jewish boys and girls, the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach writes: “The summer vacation gives you an opportunity to apply yourselves to Torah study and Torah activities, in the surroundings of sunshine and fresh air, with the utmost eagerness and enthusiasm.”


In response to the Rebbe’s call, thousands upon thousands of children will be attending Lubavitch camps this summer: day camps, overnight camps, camps across North America, camps in Russia - camps wherever shluchim are found.


The camps have been set up and the children are enrolled. Now the key players are the camp staff. How can we ensure that the camp staff will be focused on the goals of the Rebbe and will effectively achieve those goals? The answer - STAFFWEEK!


From Wednesday 22 Sivan through Tuesday 28 Sivan, hundreds of bachurim assembled in the Oholei Torah zal or in Tzivos Hashem Headquarters to attend the third annual STAFFWEEK 5761, a joint project of Tzivos Hashem and the Igud Menahalei HaYeshivos. The program provided an exceptional opportunity for young men going off to camps to prepare themselves for a most productive, successful, and fulfilling summer.


The STAFFWEEK program prepares summer camp staff for dealing with children in a way that the child will have an optimal experience in camp, with, as the Rebbe says, Torah learning and Torah activities with utmost eagerness and enthusiasm. This year’s theme: “Camp Lights Up a Child’s Neshama.” In addition to general sessions all camp staff members attended together, special workshops addressed more specific topics: challenges of camp staff in the former Soviet Union, challenges specific to head counselors, and skills of an effective learning teacher.




Last year in the summer, Levy Heber was sitting in seider niggunim in 770 and a young man came up to him, introduced himself as Gershon and asked, “Do you remember me?” Heber looked closely. The bearded young man was about 24 years of age. The face was familiar - yes, he did remember him! But he sure had changed over 11 years! Gershon was one of Heber’s campers that first year he went to Russia - in fact, it was the first summer American bachurim set up camp in Russia. Those were the days! The bachurim knew no more than a few expressions in Russian. The campsite was a converted schoolhouse. The classrooms were the dorm rooms, the small outdoors area was the playing field, and, well, you see, Russian schoolhouses just didn’t have plumbing in those days.


Heber realized how far Gershon had come. A boy with no previous knowledge of Yiddishkeit comes to camp, the counselors don’t even speak his language, and 11 years later he is in 770. Gershon asked Heber, “We came to camp to have fun. You came to camp to light up neshamos. You could have been in an American camp speaking your own language, with plenty of fresh food, plenty of camp supplies, and indoor plumbing, but you chose to come to Russia. Did you realize the effect you would have on your campers?”


Heber told this story at the session for camp staff going to Russia in order to emphasize that you never know. You never know when the seed you plant will blossom. It may take 11 years to see the fruit of your labor, or you may never see it, but there will be fruit. Gershon was right when he said that we had come to light up neshamos.




Yossi Mendelson, head counselor of Machane Menachem, introduced Rabbi Hershel Fried, his former principal and renowned leader among educators, on Monday evening of STAFFWEEK. During Rabbi Fried’s insightful presentation which lasted a few hours, the bachurim listened intently, and at the conclusion they gave him hearty applause and a standing ovation as thanks for the valuable information he imparted.


With the assistance of an overhead projector, Rabbi Fried presented his chinuch techniques through the words of our Sages, including, of course, the Lubavitcher Rebbeim. His message is applicable to everyone in leadership positions, whether they are counselor or head counselor, teacher or principal, mother or father, or the boss in a business.


Mechanchim (educators) are the shluchim of Hashem,” Rabbi Fried began. “More important than understanding a piece of Gemara is guiding the child in davening, in mitzvos, and in yiras Shamayim. And how is this done? Not through control, but through giving them the understanding that their life has meaning and their actions count. A child needs autonomy, self-respect, and independence. No prize in the world will give him that.”


Rabbi Fried explained the necessity of clear rules and clear consequences together with the empowerment of making choices. He illustrated how clear, applicable rules lead to freedom from uncertainty and the ability to make good choices. He expounded on the importance of the feeling of belonging, being part of the group, and the potential danger if a child feels excluded because he does not understand a Gemara.


With stories and quotes, Rabbi Fried’s valuable message empowered the bachurim to approach their relationship with their campers with a fresh sense of commitment and insight, and gave them the tools to make that relationship healthy and productive.




Rabbi Yossi Paltiel, mashpia of Chovevei Torah (ULY), gave a workshop entitled “Bringing the Rebbe to Camp.” His main point: When you live by the guidelines set by the Rebbe, he is there with you helping you.


Rabbi Paltiel focused on two ideas, examining them from different angles. He stressed the importance of realizing the purpose of the staff member in camp, and he emphasized that a staff member has to be real in order to be a dugma chaya (role model) and an effective leader of children.


The seminar took place during the week of Parshas Shlach, which relates that Moshe approached Hashem to ask about sending spies. The answer was, in effect: Do as you see fit. The Rebbe concludes from this that Hashem wants us to use our intellect. He wants us to learn Torah and apply what we learn to make our own decisions. Relating this concept to camp, Rabbi Paltiel pointed out that during the school year the script is written. There is structure to the hours, the days, the weeks, and the months. Camp is not structured in the same way. Camp is the time to use your intellect and make individual decisions. But on the other hand, Rabbi Paltiel reminisced about his own camp days, once camp is underway the momentum carries everyone along and there is no time to think. The best time to think about your role in camp is now, before camp starts.


Camp is an opportunity to feed Yiddishkeit to the children in a way that sneaks by the nefesh ha’bahamis (the animal soul). It is a time when campers can gain a tremendous amount. On the other hand, a staff member is free from yeshiva, free from so many rules and restrictions. It is his chance to have a good time. Now is the time to ask oneself: Am I going to camp for my own good time or am I going to be a mashpia ruchni, spiritual guidance counselor, to the campers?


Once a staff member has decided that he wants to make a difference in the life of his campers, he has to be a Tamim. The Rebbe Rayatz defined a Tamim as sincere, whole and serious. In order to make a difference in the life of a child, the counselor has to be real. A child can tell a phony at first glance. Children judge their parents, teachers and principals; campers judge their counselors.


In addition to the careful observance of mitzvos, it is important to remember to use only language that is appropriate for a Chassid to use. Careless language usage and inappropriate topics of discussion impart a message to campers that undermines other mitzvos counselors do. Poor language choice and speaking about improper topics demonstrate insincerity, unwholesomeness and lack of seriousness… and this is what a Tamim is not.


A counselor of children who are not religious should not try to be like them. It does not gain their respect - and they can see right through it. They respect someone who respects himself, who is real, not trying to be someone he is not.


All activities should be geared towards your purpose of being a mashpia ruchni. The songs, the plays, the stories the counselor tells have to be real, have to carry a message, have to lead to accomplishing the goal of lighting up neshamos in camp.




Rabbi Sholom Baras, principal of Lubavitcher Yeshiva on Ocean Parkway, gave a well-received workshop to the learning teachers. He conducted the workshop as if it were a learning class and then spoke about the technique he used.


Rabbi Baras asked the boys: How can you hurt a person? As the first bachur answered, Rabbi Baras asked his name and made a mark on a piece of paper. More bachurim answered, were asked their name, and a mark was put down. There were no right or wrong answers, but Rabbi Baras made it clear that he was still searching for another answer. How can you hurt someone without touching them? He narrowed the possibilities. How can you hurt someone when you have already left the premises? The answer: by digging a pit.


Now Rabbi Baras asked the bachurim, “Did you realize that the class had started and you have just learned a mishna? Did you notice how I learned your names without formalities? Did you want to answer because you saw that I was giving points even though I did not make any promises? Did you feel like you were learning?”


Rabbi Baras then gave examples of the same method to teach Chumash and Gemara. He explained that this first step gets the students involved and thinking. Later, when you tell them what the Torah has to say, it is already something they can relate to and they will be eager to look inside to see the source.


Create an environment. Be prepared and be on time. Be fresh and be excited. Let them know from the start that learning is business.


It is important to keep the class moving, but there will be a point where the concentration level begins to wane, so be prepared. That will be the time for a story - not a bubbe maaseh. Tell only true stories. Add your personal touch to make it interesting (who knows what Yankel actually said) but it must have a message and must be real. But, and this is very important… don’t finish the story! The ending should be saved for after learning, or as an incentive to come back on time after a break, or for the next day, so the children will run to class to hear the conclusion.


Have a reward system based on participation, not on correct answers, and consistently mark down each time a student participates. A pen is essential for this. Rabbi Baras was emphatic when he told the bachurim: Never, never, never lend your pen to anyone. Graph paper is useful to record points, and a list of names of students before camp starts is a plus, but a pen is a must.


Rabbi Baras concluded with suggestions on how to keep discussions relevant and interesting, how to keep students’ attention and how to effectively discipline without punishment.




Rabbi Yosef Y. Simpson addressed a group of bachurim chosen to be head staff. He impressed upon them to recognize the responsibility they were undertaking. Each one of them would be setting the tone for the entire camp experience for their campers. Rabbi Simpson assured them that since they were selected by hashgacha pratis, they have the potential to be successful.


If you feel confident as the head staff, then the counselors or learning teachers who are counting on you will also feel confident and will show respect. You are the leader; you are the decision maker. But you need your team. You have to be aware of what is happening in camp, but you cannot get involved personally with everything or you will spread yourself too thin. There needs to be teamwork: Delegation is important. The respect and cooperation of your staff is important.


When a head counselor needs 150 campers in the dining room to be quiet, it would be difficult for him to deal with all 150. He would have to yell and pick a scapegoat to punish to instill fear in the rest of the campers. But if the head counselor just has to announce to his 15 or so counselors that he needs the room quiet and they in turn are each responsible for 10-15 campers, then there is a more calm, friendly atmosphere and the head counselor does not have to become the bad guy. In fact, no one has to become the bad guy.


Your counselors may not cooperate at the first meal. You may have to tell them again and again, but do it without yelling, without threatening and in private. They will get the message, but some have to be told a few times.


Mutual respect between staff and head staff sets the tone for respect between campers and staff members as well. You should always speak with respect, especially in front of campers. Yelling is counter-productive; it indicates a lack of control.


Special problems in camp are brought to the head staff. The head staff must be prepared to delegate tasks to alleviate the situation. The head counselor has to listen carefully to the problem and then decide who should deal with it. This is delegation; it is not passing the buck. Counselors can come to head staff for guidance, but unless there is an extreme case, the head counselor should not intervene. He should delegate to the counselor or the administrator or other staff members who are capable. Trying to solve every problem puts the head staff in the category of micromanager and gets in the way of competence.


Be aware of the good things your staff members are doing and tell them when you notice. Praise goes a long way. The counselors and learning teachers have earned praise, so give it: “I was so happy to see your students learning.” “I saw you helping that camper when he was having a problem.”


These statements make the staff member feel good and will also make it easier if you need to reprimand them for something in the future. They will know that you are not just looking at the negative.


Remember that you want your campers and counselors to come away feeling good. As head staff, you have responsibility and authority. You are the leader, you set the tone, you establish the achdus. The fact that you were chosen as head staff indicates that you have what it takes to be successful.




Former head counselors Nissen Brenenson and Gedalia Lowenstein held a workshop for head counselors. The hour-long session was packed with tips and ideas they learned through years of experience as head counselors.


Lowenstein began by stressing the importance of a complete camp schedule being drawn up in advance. He gave advice as to the cycle of the week and the cycle of the camp session, how to keep the schedule from getting boring and how to keep the camp under control.


In setting up the daily schedule, Lowenstein stressed the necessity of “bumpers,” time slots allotted for the transition from one activity to another. Younger campers need more time than older campers, and it is imperative that everyone knows where they are supposed to be at what time.


On the topic of crisis management, Lowenstein suggested that the head counselor walk around camp on the first day and visualize what could go wrong in order to be prepared for any eventuality. Be ready to delegate. For example, if a camper gets hurt, the doctor should be called and the mother should be called. If the buses come late, be prepared with games, races and ice-breakers. Sometimes you need to call the director and let him solve problems. In all cases remember to stay calm, or at least appear calm.


If a problem presents with one camper, remember that the rest of the camp must proceed as usual. If you have no head co-counselor, appoint a responsible counselor to take charge.


Other topics covered by Lowenstein were: communication with parents, teaching throughout the day with activities, trip management, age-related developmental differences, effective utilization of prizes.


Following Lowenstein, Brenenson gave advice about relating to counselors and directors, how to handle camp-wide events, the importance of giving clear instructions, and how to handle specific troublemakers or campers who just don’t fit in. He gave brilliant tips for the first staff meeting and the first day in camp.


In conclusion, Brenenson spoke about the potential of song. “People love to sing. It’s fun and enjoyable, and even if they don’t have a singing voice, they can sing along in a group where their voice will be covered over. Use singing as much as possible,” Breneson advised. “It is a powerful teaching tool. But be prepared. Know what song you are going to sing. Make sure you know it well and teach it to the staff. Have the songs printed on song sheets. Use them on the bus or any time that might otherwise be downtime. Songs make any time an uptime.”




Kak tebya zovut? Kak dela? Even if a counselor does not know Russian, preparing a few key phrases enables him to begin to communicate with campers and show that he is interested. Slowly the campers will learn a little Hebrew and English as the counselors pick up more and more Russian. To facilitate learning the key phrases and common words, STAFFWEEK updated and expanded their Russian Phrasebook.


The Phrasebook is one of many new or modified publications that Tzivos Hashem now supplies camp staff who are venturing to Russia. Baruch Ostrovsky worked around the clock with a staff of translators, editors and veteran staff from Russian camps to produce Your Jewish Guide to Russia, A Siddur for the Russian Camps, Camp Song Book for Russian Speakers, Head Counselors Guide: Russian Division and a Russian translation of the Teacher’s Guide so the local counselors can achieve a higher level of independence and responsibility.


Although bachurim travel to many foreign countries to staff summer camps, the Russian experience demands special attention due to the sheer number of camps, the extreme cultural differences and the unusual potential these camps hold. The Russian camps see many more brissim than anywhere else in the world.


Workshops were also presented by Levy Heber, Gedaliah Lowenstein and Benjy Brackman, each of whom have extensive experience with the Russian camp frontier.




STAFFWEEK included many other workshops and presentations. This article presents only selected workshops and these not in their entirety. Most of the presentations are available on tape from Tzivos Hashem. Call Tzivos Hashem at 718-467-6630 for an order form or ask for extension 221 and leave a message.


Participants in the special session for Head Staff pause for a group picture with their group leader.


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