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Published Thursday, March 17, 2016

Saying Goodbye to Yavneh

By Todd Feinburg

Retiring Camp Director Debbie Sussman, center, leaves Yavneh after 26 years in September.

What would your kids or grandkids do if they couldn’t make eye contact with a computer screen of any size for a week or two during the summer? How about for eight weeks? At Camp Yavneh, a Jewish overnight camp in Southern New Hampshire, director Debbie Sussman says talking with those around you is the only communication that’s permitted for campers. “No cell phones, nothing that communicates, no laptops or iPads or anything with a screen – they’re not allowed to bring them.”

It is that intense connection to the moment that Sussman believes makes the Yavneh experience one that campers return for, year after year – herself included. For after 26 years as camp director, and several more as a camper and counselor, Sussman is stepping down at the end of this summer, when she’ll be training her replacement. “I think what I’ll miss the most as director is the total immersion in a positive, loving Jewish world that can blot out the real world for two months.”

In its seventh decade of operation, Yavneh allows passionately Jewish young people the chance to be in a very Jewish environment while offering a comfortable introduction to Jewish culture for kids who may be growing up without much exposure to Jewish culture, said Sussman. “We take everybody from where they are, and offer them a very supportive and loving environment. What the kids take home with them is what they take home.”

Part of what makes the environment so supportive, says Sussman, is the cohesiveness of the culture and the closeness of the community. “Yavneh was founded in 1944 as a k‘lal Yisrael (all Jews are one) Hebrew-speaking educational camp,” she explained. “That was the mission in 1944, and that’s still the mission today.” That doesn’t mean that things haven’t evolved through the years. Hebrew immersion has been dropped, for example, although many counselors still speak Hebrew to the kids, and the camp itself uses many Hebrew terms and teaches some classes in Hebrew. “How it’s approached now is very different than in 1944, but it’s the same strong mission, all to the good of the Jewish people.”

Another part of the closeness, according to Sussman, stems from the long associations campers and staff have with Yavneh. For example, she says that all the counselors, but for some Israelis who come each year and receive special training, went to the camp as children. “Our unit heads, who are like 20 or 21, they have been at camp for 11, 12 or 13 years, and they have such a love of camp that they want to pass this on and continue this culture and environment to campers. One hundred per cent of our counseling staff were campers at Yavneh, I don’t know if there’s any other camp that can say that.”

All of which means that Sussman, when she retires at the end of September, is walking away from a very special part of her life. “I will love it till the last day that I’m director,” explained Sussman. “But I want someone younger to come in and bring their energy, a different energy – I think that’s very important. The camp’s been very successful, and I know that’s going to continue with a new person who has a love of Jewish camping, and, more specifically, has a love of Yavneh.”

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