Building better people

Building better people

“An amazing summer” awaits children at the J&R Day Camp, where the goal is to “build better people.” (Photo provided by James & Rachel Levinson Day Camp/Children/Youth/Families Division)
“An amazing summer” awaits children at the J&R Day Camp, where the goal is to “build better people.” (Photo provided by James & Rachel Levinson Day Camp/Children/Youth/Families Division)

J&R Day Camp is headed back to its roots, as the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s summer program for children ages 2 to 16 refocuses on nature — and intention — in its emphasis on the development of Jewish values.

According to officials, children attending the camp at the JCC’s 100-acre Henry Kaufmann Family Recreation Park in Monroeville will benefit from the work of a community task force that has been examining how best to enhance the quality of the program, a mainstay of Jewish Pittsburgh since 1969.

After looking back to the program’s beginnings and assessing the results of parent surveys, the task force determined that a concentration on nature would enrich the overall experience of the campers, said Lewis Sohinki, the camp’s new director.

“Intentionality” is the buzzword driving the revamped programming, Sohinki explained, adding that enhancements to the facility will further that objective.

For example, one of the hallmarks of the camp’s reclaimed focus will be teepees assembled around the grounds and designated to serve as intimate outdoor spaces within which campers will participate in many of their activities.

“The teepees will be an intentional spot where teaching and learning will be done,” Sohinki said, including the examination and discussion of plants and animals discovered in the campers’ surroundings.

A sustainable garden program will also be introduced this summer “to connect children with nature,” Sohinki said.

The camp’s outdoor adventure program has been augmented as well, with a zip line added that runs throughout the camp, in addition to the climbing wall and ropes course.

This will be Sohinki’s first summer at J&R, though he is no stranger to Jewish camps. He served for four summers as the director of B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in the Poconos, and serves on the Executive Leadership Institute of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He has worked as a youth counselor in the Reform movement and has served as the Baltimore Council BBYO director and the teen services supervisor at the JCC of Houston.

Part of Sohinki’s strategy to enhance the overall experience of his campers is to be “intentional and explicit about our staff,” he said. “We will be creating intentional moments, and we are being strategic.”

To that end, the counselors and specialists are “mature, young adults,” Sohinki said. They all will be trained in CPR, first aid and child development.

“And we will have much more intentional training,” he said.

An emphasis on “aspirational arts” will be at the heart of the program, according to Sohinki. Older children will serve as role models for younger children, who hopefully will aspire to strengthen their skills to reach the levels of their older peers.

For example, Sohinki said, a 12-year-old will learn to make a fire with some help from a 5-year-old. The 5-year-old then will look to the skills of the 12-year-old as future goals.

Several facility improvements have been made for the coming summer — including the repaving of the tennis courts — and Sohinki emphasized the “great resources” available on the grounds, such as an amphitheater that serves as a setting for dramatic performances, as well as Shabbat gatherings.

Jewish values, such as good sportsmanship, will be weaved throughout the camp day, Sohinki explained, and rituals will be emphasized as well.

“Any time you have an experiential environment for a child, and teach Jewish values through activities, it’s going to have an impact,” he said. “We are trying to create Jewish role models. We are building better people and we are using camp to do that.”

The enrollment of the camp is growing, he said. “Every child is important. We will make sure that every child has an amazing summer.”

Tours of J&R can be arranged by calling Sohinki at 412-697-3537.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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