It really bothered Jonathan Gerber, a 30-year-old financial adviser and resident of Pico-Robertson, that there was no Modern Orthodox sleep-away camp in Los Angeles. Ever since the Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva discontinued its Moshava Los Angeles camp in the mid-1990s, local kids had been forced to head East for a similar summer overnight experience.
“Each summer, there’s a planeload of 48 students going to the East Coast,” Gerber said.
And that’s not all. Hundreds of Orthodox kids are thought to leave Southern California for sleep-away camp every summer. Many Orthodox kids also attend the Conservative Camp Ramah in Ojai.
Gerber believed that a local option that matched the Modern Orthodox observance families practiced at home would give more kids a chance to have a summer experience that studies have shown can strongly impact Jewish identity.
So during a conversation in May with Ari Moss, his friend and then-president of the Shalom Institute in Malibu, Gerber floated the idea of borrowing the institute’s 220-acre campground and retreat facility for a two-week Modern Orthodox camp.
His dream finally will take shape this summer in the form of Moshava Malibu (moshavamalibu.org), where officials hope to attract 150 boys and girls Aug. 11-25. Tuition is $2,000, with a special early-bird rate of $1,800 available until Jan. 1. Applicants must currently be in grades 3-9.
It helped that the nondenominational Shalom Institute, which hosts the Big Jewish Tent events as well as its own camp and retreats, was interested in engaging the Modern Orthodox community.
Gerber next reached out to Bnei Akiva — which runs camps and programs throughout North America and Israel and has a strong presence in Los Angeles — and offered it the opportunity to bring a Moshava camp back to Los Angeles.
Moshava — a moshav is a cooperative agricultural settlement in the State of Israel — has become synonymous in the Modern Orthodox community with popular sleep-away camps that promote religious Zionism, aliyah (immigration to Israel) and outdoor experiences.
Another draw of Moshava is the emphasis on youth leadership, according to Shimi Baras, shaliach (emissary) for Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles.
“This is the only place where programs are run by high school kids. There’s no professional staff,” he said. “There’s a lot of independence … high-schoolers are the counselors; a lot of them later get management and leadership positions and say they learned the leadership in Bnei Akiva.”
Until now, other Moshava camps, such as Wild Rose in Wisconsin or Camp Stone in Pennsylvania, have benefited from the leadership provided by Los Angeles youths.
Rabbi Kenny Pollack, an L.A. native and Moshava veteran who was hired to be the director of Moshava Malibu, said the approach to camping is experiential.
“In terms of a sleep-away camp, it’s very unique in that you’re running a tochnit — a program — that’s Zionistic and experiential in education. We’re not going to offer Torah out of a book. … Instead of learning about olive oil and grape juice, we’ll be making it.”
The camp also will feature traditional summer activities — swimming, archery, hiking, organic farming, a ropes course and other outdoor fun.
While this first session will run for two weeks, the camp hopes to expand eventually.
“Ultimately, within the next five years, the goal would be to have a full summer program — two four-week sessions — and a week-long winter camp,” Gerber said.
And while a full summer session might require Moshava Malibu to get its own space, Gerber hopes to continue the model of leveraging the current infrastructure.
“This is a great model of combining three teams: the Shalom Institute, which has the actual facility; Bnei Akiva of North America, which is providing registration services and programming and hiring of staff; and then Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles,” which is doing recruitment and helping in other ways.
Baras also hopes that the camp will help position Los Angeles as a West Coast Bnei Akiva center. In the last year or two, he has reached out to Jewish communities in the West like San Francisco, Denver and even Mexico for Shabbatons and retreats, and he is stepping up his outreach in advance of Moshava Malibu registration.
The stakes are high for Gerber, who sees camping as an effective, low-cost tool to keep young Jews impassioned and connected.
“Take a look at the Ramah community, which is keeping Conservative youth so impassioned,” he said.
Besides providing an enriching camp experience, the directors hope to transform the L.A. landscape with committed, leadership-oriented young Jews. Pollack predicted that down the road, having a Moshava camp here could increase the number of homegrown Jewish educators at local day schools.
The L.A. camp director, who lives and works as a teacher in Cleveland during the school year, called Moshava, “a camp incubator of educators.” He said that many of his fellow teachers in Cleveland went through the Moshava camps and were trained early to become leaders and educators.
“We are all products, and that model is where L.A. could be,” he said.