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Downhill Judaism in the Catskills Mtns

The Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, (FREE), sponsored a special 8 day winter camp located in the heart of the Catskill Mountains for public school children of Russian speaking background who do not enjoy a formal religious education throughout the year.

The Camp FREE Winter Experience provided days filled with a blend of Yiddishkeit while enjoying great winter sports. They rollicked in skiing, snow tubing, ice skating, rope-course climbing, swimming, and bowling.

The structured learning sessions were only 45 minutes per day, but the whole day was one big lesson on how to live and act like a Jew. Their desire to learn more about their Jewish heritage was never ending, and every spare moment was filled with discussions on Jewish topics.

“I learned two new things here in camp – how to daven properly, and how to ski down a mountain. It was just so much fun” said Simon, age 11, from Brighton Beach.

On Shabbos the boys prayed at the Landfield Avenue Synagogue where they participated in the beginner’s service led by Rabbi Benzion Chanowitz, Chabad emissary to Monticello, NY, where the camp was located. After services the children enjoyed their Shabbos meal followed by a special gathering, where the children sang songs, heard inspiring stories and tried to stump the rabbi with their never-ending questions.

“This is the first real Shabbos that I have ever experienced,” said Eric, age 12, from Sheepshead Bay.

At the Grand Banquet each of the campers said a few words and expressed their gratitude to the counselors for such a worthwhile experience, and their feelings of how the camp affected them on a personal level. They all announced their resolution to keep in touch even after returning home.

“Although my family is not from a religious background,” related Sam, age 13, from Mill Basin, “what I really loved so much about the camp was that I had the opportunity to learn what being Jewish really means and the importance of saying the shma prayer each night before going to bed.”

The day after camp a mother related that she had been trying to convince her son to put on his tefilin ever since his Bar Mitzvah, but to no avail. “The morning after camp as I was coming in for breakfast, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was my son putting on tefilin on his own! I just want to thank you so much for all that you have done, he really grew in Jewishness and had a great time as well…”

The campers’ words at the banquet and the feedback from their parents show how inspired they were by their counselors’ conduct, even more than by what they were formally taught. The personal example of our dedicated staff was the best lesson of all.

If you know of any children who might benefit from FREE’s youth programs or to get more information, please contact FREE at 718-467-0860 Ext.123, or email

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