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Young Judaea to reunite alumni for 100th anniversary

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Camp Shalom photographed in the 1950s

On Aug. 27, hundreds of people are expected to descend on Camp Shalom to celebrate an impressive milestone. Canadian Young Judaea (CYJ), the umbrella organization for Camp Shalom in Gravenhurst, Ont., and five other camps across the country, is marking its 100th anniversary.

In 1917, Montrealer Dov Joseph founded CYJ, the first wholly Canadian Zionist youth movement without an affiliate organization in Israel or the United States.

CYJ, the youth arm of Canadian Hadassah-WIZO (CHW), is also one of Canada’s largest Jewish youth movements. It operates overnight camps, as well year-round programs from Halifax to Vancouver.

CYJ is the umbrella organization for some of Canada’s most successful Jewish camps: Camp Shalom, Camp Kadimah (Nova Scotia), Camp Solelim (Sudbury, Ont.), Camp Hatikvah (Kelowna, B.C.), as well as Camp Kinneret and Camp Biluim in Mont Tremblant, Que.

In Israel, CYJ runs another Camp Biluim, a four-week summer tour, as well as a post-secondary educational gap-year program.

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Risa Epstein, CYJ’s national executive director, has been involved with the organization for about 25 years.

She described CYJ as a pluralistic, but apolitical organization. “Our goal is to keep Judaeans connected with their Judaism and their local Jewish community and to grow and strengthen their relationship with Israel,” she said.

The organization has a large alumni network and Epstein expects many of them to join current campers and their families for the Aug. 27 festivities, which will run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

There will be all kinds of camp activities, including singing, dancing and a barbecue lunch prepared by Abe Levy of Tam Tov, Camp Shalom’s long-time caterer.

Epstein said that so far, more than 400 tickets have been sold for the event.

Epstein called CYJ “a growing movement,” pointing out the camps are full and the year-round programs draw between 100 to 150 participants a month in Toronto alone.

“We have more demand across the country than service. We just don’t have resources to offer more programs nation-wide,” she said.

The camps are popular because they have “a good reputation, high quality staff and an engaging program,” according to Epstein. “There’s no marketing. It’s all word of mouth.… We’re a year-round success.”

And the numbers – which include some 1,400 campers – support her claim. Camp Shalom gets about 250 children between the ages of eight and 13 for each of its two sessions. Kadimah accommodates 300 campers (ages eight to 15), as does Camp Hatikvah. Camp Kinneret serves about 200 eight to 15 year olds, while neighbouring Camp Biluim usually has about 120 16 year olds.

Campers stay connected to each other during the year through the youth programs, Epstein explained. “Our premier program, Jewish Outreach Leadership Training (JOLT) runs twice a month.”

She described JOLT as an educational program that allows the youth to participate in community social justice programs. “They might help with homework or do a clothing drive,” she explains.

Epstein said CYJ recently introduced Hineni, a philanthropy program geared to Grade 11 students. “We’re trying to teach the kids to be responsible future philanthropists, how to raise funds, to disperse them and understand the Jewish values connected to tzedakah,” she said.

The participants in these youth programs have the opportunity to attend six conventions a year, two of which are held in Canada. They also can go to conventions organized by international Zionist youth movements like Hanoar Hatzioni.

Epstein said she “can’t wait” for CYJ’s big birthday bash.

“We’ll have the opportunity to see multiple generations of alumni. Grandparents who were campers years ago are coming with their grandchildren,” she said. “To exist today in our ever-changing community and to still be relevant to young families and their children after 100 years is humbling. We’ve done a good job.”