By Sharon Rapoport
It began with a dream … a dream to establish San Diego’s very own Jewish Summer Camp. Now, 11 years later, Camp Mountain Chai has provided thousands of our community’s youth with life-changing experiences, developing their Jewish identity, self-confidence and personal growth.
But many families who’ve sent their kids to the pristine campgrounds in San Bernardino, Calif., don’t realize that Camp Mountain Chai exists because of the likes of Ed Samiljan — and the thousands of bagels his wife, Rae, provided Ed and his team while they raised funds and developed plans for the camp. It is because of his perseverance and passion that Camp Mountain Chai has established itself as one of the premier overnight Jewish Summer Camp experiences in the nation.
Research, Work and Bagels
Samiljan, a retiree who spent over 30 years working in the photographic industry was motivated to create Camp Mountain Chai by his love of faith and tradition and a desire to ensure their continuity.
“Rae and I have been always interested in finding mechanisms to keep kids engaged in basic Jewish values,” he has explained. “In the United States, kids grow up in a very accepting society, which challenges our continuity, and regardless of your heritage you have some desire to see it, and what you think are the basic core values you’ve been exposed to, continue.”
It took a few years of dedicated teamwork, extensive research and plenty of bagels to turn the idea into reality, but the results have been gratifying. On its first summer, CMC received 125 kids, mostly San Diegans. In summer 2016, the camp’s 11th year, a staff of 75 people will be handling 500 children and teens, from all over California and many other states.
Mass-Marketing Jewish Continuity
Samiljan was raised in a ghetto of Boston by a single parent and his grandparents, in a community of tenement houses with an overwhelmingly Jewish population. No one had a high income, and going to camp would’ve been considered frivolous in that environment. It was parents and grandparents who “made Jewish continuity. It was a very solid Jewish environment,” he said.
The idea for Camp Mountain Chai grew from a conversation with a Jewish mom during a meeting at the United Jewish Federation of San Diego. At the time, Samiljan was running a program, Pathways to Judaism, which was designed to provide support and educational opportunities to interfaith couples, but the program was expensive to sustain and was only reaching 15 to 20 families at a time.
“One morning, a young woman was complaining that she wanted to send her kids to a Jewish camp, but she couldn’t because they were all filled up,” he recalls. “We never had a Jewish camp in San Diego, so I kind of had an epiphany — that camping might be a great way of mass marketing Jewish continuity. We would have a way of handling hundreds of kids at a time, putting them through the program.”
Important Enough to Take Home
Through their research, Samiljan, along with CMC´s two other “founding fathers,” Todd Kobernick and Jack Bark, discovered that Jewish camp has an impressive track record of promoting Jewish life, values and culture. Kids are placed in an environment that is warm and friendly and exposed to Jewish “stuff” in a manner they readily accept.
Where formal programs struggle for a child´s attention, camp´s informal approach succeeds. Samiljan recalls the story of two grandchildren of a personal friend who had virtually no religious training, and after just a few weeks at camp helped conduct a Friday night Shabbat service.
“We established Camp Mountain Chai to replicate these life changing experiences with hundreds of children every day.” As a result of their time at camp, “these young people discover that Jewish values and culture are important enough for them to take home.”
At camp, youngsters come from homes with a wide range of Jewish experiences, from the more observant to children who have had very little exposure to Judaism. They all participate in traditional camp activities such as archery and kayaking, along with prayer, singing, Israeli dancing, and Friday night Shabbat services. All of these are performed in a fun, casual (though respectful) and enjoyable way. “We’ve made Jewish values highly palatable and absorbable. We’re building continuity but we’re also building San Diego community.”
Another very exciting benefit of camp is that it allows kids who live in Del Mar or Carlsbad to get to know kids who live in Chula Vista or San Diego proper, as they come together for a common experience. In recent years, Camp Mountain Chai has also been hosting children from all over California, Arizona, Nevada, New York, Texas, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Israel.
No Child Left Behind
Running a camp like Mountain Chai is expensive, and the tuition can be, too. But Samiljan, along with a group of generous sponsors and supporters, has worked tirelessly to ensure that no child is ever turned down for a camp experience because of financial need.
In looking forward to celebrating the camp’s first major milestone, its tenth anniversary, Samiljan’s hopes for its future to remain focused.
Camp Mountain Chai´s 10th Anniversary Gala honoring Ed and Rae Samiljan will take place on May 15, at 5:30 pm in Paradise Point Resort. It will be a night of “Camp, Comedy and Celebration,” with a special guest comedian. All proceeds will benefit the Camp Mountain Chai Scholarship Fund.
Reservations and more information can be found at www.campmoutainchai.com/gala or at (858) 499-1330.