For several hours each morning, the Yeshiva high school boys spend their summer days much like they do during the school year: studying Judaics and engaging in prayer.
But their afternoons look a little different.
At Camp Twin Echo, about 10 miles north of Ligonier, the 35 boys — most of whom attend Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh — finish their studies, then head to the on-site lake to canoe or row or fish; or to the fields to play baseball or soccer or football; or to the woods to hike with the resident ranger who lives on the grounds of this picturesque camp operated by the Boy Scouts of America.
While Yeshiva Schools has been running a summer camp for its high school boys at Gemilas Chesed Synagogue in White Oak for the past five years, this is the first summer that the boys have had the chance to experience the five-week program in a more traditional campground setting.
“We realized the boys needed something different,” said camp director Rabbi Henoch Rosenfeld. “So, we’ve taken it to a new level. Camp Twin Echo is on 250 acres, with updated cabins, sports fields, a lake and wooded areas. There are bonfire pits, and the boys can star gaze at night. It’s a real relaxing atmosphere for the boys to clear their minds and reflect on what they learn.”
The camp employs 10 men in their early 20s as staff, who have come to the small borough of New Florence from Canada, Brazil, California and Connecticut.
Until about 1 p.m. each day, the campers — who are required to attend the camp in order to attend Yeshiva Schools next year — engage in their morning prayers, then learn and discuss Bible, Talmud and Chassidic philosophy. Guest speakers come from Squirrel Hill to lecture and to lead the discussions.
“But after 2 is when the fun begins,” said Rosenfeld, noting the competitive sports leagues, the lake activities and the nature hikes.
Although the facility does not have a swimming pool, the boys travel to the local YMCA twice a week to use its pool, gym, workout room and game room.
“It’s a tremendous atmosphere,” Rosenfeld said, adding that while the emphasis during the school year is on being taught by formal instructors, at camp, the boys learn from each other as a team. “The Boy Scout camp is conducive to this,” he said.
To promote the concept of teamwork, Yeshiva brought NBA trainer Steve Campbell to camp to spend four days with the boys, engaging them in physical and motivational training.
“The boys had a tremendous time getting to know him,” Rosenfeld said.
Since camp began the first week of July, Rosenfeld has already seen positive changes in the boys in terms of confidence and leadership.
“I think we will see a big difference in the school year,” he predicted. “I think the camp will help them grow into better, prouder Jews.”
While Yeshiva Schools faced some “minor resistance” to the mandatory nature of the camp from some parents who were concerned it would interfere with vacation plans, the administration was able to assuage those concerns by giving parents enough notice of the dates of the camp so that they could schedule around it, Rosenfeld said.
Many of the parents were relieved to have something for their sons to do this summer, he said.
One of those parents is Rivka Fishman of Houston, whose son, Menachem, is “having a fabulous time,” she said.
“It’s a beautiful campground, and the boys have activities all the time,” she said. “They’ve been on trips to play paintball and to a ropes course. And the staff is unbelievable. My son even said he enjoyed the learning, and he’s not the most studious type.
“Kids need to be busy and structured,” she added. “There’s no program like this at home, so I was thrilled about this, actually.”
The program, said Paul Herman, an alumnus of Yeshiva Schools and the parent of Zevi, allows the campers to have fun while keeping up with their religious studies.
“It lets the boys know that studying Torah is great, and that baseball is great.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.