Behind the scenes with some of the people who make camp happen


By Chandrea Serebro

Rochi Zimbler Rosh Machaneh, Camp Kesher

As Vice Rosh and then Rosh of Camp Kesher, Rochi Zimbler is pretty much in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly on camp and that everyone else is doing his job. No small task when you consider that if anyone slips up or if anything doesn’t go according to plan, it’s you who has to face the music of the camp goers and the rest of the staff, and even the parents! And if you still don’t think that this makes her a behind the scenes hero, knowing that she also has to hear and address any and all issues that either the campers or madrichim (counsellors) might have, ensure that they are safe and cared for with compassion, and give them the best holiday of their lives to boot just might.

It’s Clark Kent meets Agony Aunt and everyone in between. And Rochi does it with such flair because she was once the kid on Camp Kesher, returning year after year for six years in a row, and now she wants to give that memorable experience to others. Despite the sleep-deprived days and having to think on her feet, the connections Rochi makes and the guidance, purpose, and sense of belonging she can offer these kids gives her the perfect job-satisfaction. Most importantly, when Rochi can help them connect with their Jewish identity, it’s a job well done.

“I always had the most memorable experience and it’s an honour to give back to such an amazing, life-changing organisation. I love what Camp Kesher has to offer. I did then, and I still do now.” Camp Kesher gives campers a space to form their own identities in a safe and caring environment, says Rochi, a place for children to forget about their worries, offering them a springboard to achieve great things for their futures. “It’s an environment where each camper is given attention. I have personally seen the impact that camp has on so many children and it’s so inspiring, giving me a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.”

It is a two-and-a-half week camp, but it’s a yearlong job that keeps Rochi busy, ensuring that the itinerary is sorted in good time before camp, that the selection of madrichim each year is the right team, and managing the team on camp. Rochi sits in on all the interviews with new madrichim applicants as well as new campers who are applying to come to camp, and she is also consulted by the committee on some of the decisions that are made. Because it’s paramount that campers feel that every day has been pre-planned and meticulously organised.

“It can cause a lot of anxiety for children if their days are just scrambled together and ensuring that everything is well planned helps them just be children and enjoy themselves without having to worry about anything else.” Creating a safe and stress-free environment is one of the priorities, as campers trust that the Rosh and madrichim are there to make the camp safe, loving, and a care-free space for them.

“They come to us with their problems and they want that connection and that is very valuable. I don’t do camp to be altruistic, I do it because I enjoy being in a position where I know that I am relied upon and trusted by the campers. Being in the background means that I can maintain my connections and friendships, that even if I’m not on camp, I can still ensure that it’s the best possible camp by giving advice and support to the people that are running camp. I definitely feel appreciated, I know that the campers and the madrichim appreciate my input as well as respect my opinion.”

South African Zionist Federation

Arguably the most behind-the-scenes heroes that function for Jewish youth camps in South Africa is the SA Zionist Federation (SAZF). Didn’t know they were involved? Most of us didn’t, and that’s partly what makes them so deserving of the hidden hero title. “The Fed has always been like the Big Brother of the Zionist youth movements in South Africa who are all official affiliates of the SAZF,” explains Nicci Raz, National Executive Director for the SA Zionist Federation.

The SAZF are more than just stakeholders, concerned about the insurance and physical security of the campsites. A lot of time and energy is poured into ensuring that the youth movements are thriving. The operational team and lay leadership have played a vital support role to the leaders of the movements which include Bnei Akiva, Habomin, Betar, and Netzer – guiding and mentoring them along the way.

“We are extremely proud to play such an active role in the development of Zionism among the youth of our community and working with the leadership of the various movements over the past two years has been a highlight for me as Director of the SAZF,” Says Nicci.

The SAZF created a forum called the ZIONIST Youth Council which consists of the leadership of all the major youth movements, as well as SAUJS, the body that represents Jewish students on campus. It is during these monthly meetings that the group comes together to talk about core issues affecting youth and our community today and their connection to their Jewish Identity of which Israel is such a core aspect. The youth council has a place in all the board meetings and strategy sessions of the SAZF. “It is important they have a voice.” They encourage open dialogue and provide the tools and access for the leadership of the various organisations to enrich their ability to lead their movements as well as use each other as support by collaborating on projects of mutual interest.

The SAZF has also made significant financial contributions to assist with security upgrades to infrastructure and other security requirements. They take care of and manage the insurance of the camps, fire and safety, and other compliances as well. There are over 2500 kids across the different camps, which is a major responsibility when it comes to ensuring there are adequate security measures in place.

Recently, the SA Zionist Federation beefed up the security on all the different campsites with significant upgrades to keep up with the dynamics of world Jewry today. “We also share ideas and have visibility of the educational programmes for the camps and, of course, enjoy our time visiting each site in December, meeting with the leadership, and interacting with campers.”

Holiday Camps play a major role in the growth and development of children and their ideologies, offering them an environment which is not school, nor home, in which to express themselves and learn about issues that they will grapple with their entire lives – their social responsibility, their Jewish identity, Zionism, and their individual connection to Israel. The Youth movements offer a place where kids can interact with their mentors, who are young, and who they can look up to and relate to; they learn in a relaxed environment; they have fun; they develop an entirely other social world and meet new friends; at the same time as having a life-changing, fulfilled holiday in a safe, relaxed environment.

“We believe that parents need to understand the value of what belonging to a movement and attending summer camp gives our children, and all parents should support the system and encourage their kids to go too. Camp does so much to enrich the adolescent years and grow the future leaders of our community,” says Nicci – which is why the SA Zionist Federation does so much to grow and empower the movements that offer our children such a unique experience.

Benny Ndlovu, Storeroom and Kitchen Staff Manager, Bnei Akiva

Being a jack of all trades means that there is no one job title for you, and what started out as a Storeroom Manager role for Benny Ndlovu quickly became the Go-To Man for behind the scenes magic on Bnei Akiva. Benny does it all, and he does it with skill and kindness, offering real friendship and support to the campers. His jobs are vast – he does everything from ensuring the food and hygiene storerooms are always stocked up; receiving orders – and if it’s food, affirming that they are kosher before they find their way into the kitchens; and issuing correct quantities as per the meal schedules, to working with the team to make sure ‘mitbach’ (the affectionate term for kitchen on camp) runs smoothly, particularly regarding ensuring hygiene standards are kept, food preparation, and the setting and clearing of the chadar ochel (dining hall).

“Seeing everyone happy at camp, year after year, and seeing channies grow to become maddies is hugely rewarding for me,” says Benny affectionately. Benny works for Bnei Akiva and in 2000 was asked to join them in Mosselbay with his family for camp, and has found himself there every December since. “The whole camp environment is so amazing. The work and holiday atmosphere is one of the greatest things, but truthfully, no words can really fully describe what one enjoys about camp. It’s an adventure you go on once, and then you are hooked. The singing, late nights, music, happy noise from the chadar ochel or sports field, tiyul, and the Shabbat preparation – it’s alive and dynamic.”

It comes with challenges of course. “The difficulty with food is that you are always worrying if it is enough, and working in mitbach is generally not an easy task either.” Benny has made a lasting impression on many of the campers, “by always trying to do my best and be available to assist, and just by being happy”. Happiness is catchy – “the campers respond very positively to me, they show respect and appreciation, always verbally thanking me when we meet randomly, and they even ask how we manage to do what we do”. That is because Benny is always there filling some role, whether or not it is his to complete, “doing what needs to be done, anytime, day or night, no matter who should be or was supposed to be doing it in the first place”.

“It’s always great to be part of a project like camp from beginning to end. I feel very much appreciated, sometimes I get to speak to campers at the beginning and end of camp and this is rewarding.” And Benny is appreciative too – he is happy doing his job, feels appreciated, and hopes to keep going back.

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