Camp Achva celebrates 55 years of Jewish impact

Once an Achva-nik, always an Achva-nik.

There are roughly 5,000 of them. Some are kindergarteners. Others are pushing 70. The common thread: Their summer memories were made at Camp Achva, where Jewish kids go to make friends, gain independence, and of course, have hours of outdoor fun. 

And this year, Achva-nik pride is on full display to celebrate 55 years of impact. The day camp has long been a centerpiece of Jewish culture in Northern Virginia, home to the largest Jewish population in the Washington metropolitan area.

There are 200-some campers who spend three to six weeks on the lush grounds of Gesher Jewish Day School, which transforms into Camp Achva from June through August.

The campus is packed with 5 to 14 year olds trying all sorts of activities — from slingshots to archery to woodworking to arts. Next summer, that list will grow to include weaving, climbing, and possibly racing through a new low-ropes course, an opportunity to be adventurous while building leadership and teamwork skills. 

By doing, kids begin to figure out what they like and who they are, without pressures or expectations. 

This is how Alexi Wirpel, 17, grew into herself. During nine summers at Achva, seven of them as a camper and one as a counselor, she tried new things, sang and danced on Shabbat, and met some of her closest friends. 

“When I started, I was a shy kid who was terrified to talk to people,” Wirpel said. “Camp brought me out of my shell, and I genuinely don’t know what I would have done if that hadn’t happened.”

For Wirpel, Achva is a family tradition. Her uncle, Josh, was the very first registered camper in 1969. Her mother, Andi, was an Achva-nik for several years before becoming a counselor.

“To me, Camp Achva means community,” Andi, 58, said. “I’m thrilled that my kids attended camp, and now my daughter, Alexi, is a counselor.”

A big draw for the Wirpels and other families: Camp makes Judaism fun. Saying hamotzi over bread and singing Hebrew songs can happen on the nature trails, soccer field, or even around the fire pit. All the while, kids are with old and new friends in a casual space, where shorts and sneakers are the norm.

Everything is designed to meet campers where they are physically, emotionally, socially, and above all, Jewishly. 

Jewish summer camps, a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s in America, were largely born out of a need to connect the next generation with their roots. The founding of Camp Achva in 1969 is no exception. 

The story goes: Northern Virginia was a region dotted with Jewish institutions but void of Jewish day camps. Taking note, a mother of three complained to her husband, “There are no Jewish camps here.” He reached into his pocket, handed her a $50 bill, and suggested, “Go start a camp.”

And she did. The woman, Adele Greenspon, opened the very first Jewish day camp in Northern Virginia, with help from fellow moms, Shirley Waxman and Judy Frank. They welcomed 70 campers their first summer.

Ron Hohauser, 55, was one of the original Achva-niks, a camper in the 1970s and a counselor in the 1980s. There, he took to three sports: Gaga, punchball, and ultimate frisbee. He also learned Hebrew songs and Israeli dances.

“Camp Achva gave me a sense of belonging and connections to our local community,” Hohauser said. “I knew what I would be doing every summer, and I knew I’d love it.” 

Stephanie Sanders Levy was another camper during the early days of Achva.

“We were a small camp with big dreams,” Levy said. “That required passion and innovation from the directors, and support from parents and the community to ensure that we would experience a fun program filled with Jewish history, tradition and values through music, drama, art, and dance.”

Years of camp strengthened her connection to the Jewish people and Israel, encouraging her to take on Jewish leadership roles as she grew. Levy has since been on the board of Federations, synagogues, and other Jewish institutions. 

This story is a common one, where Achva-niks grow up to be active Jewish adults. Wanting to be a doer in the Jewish community starts with empowerment, one of the most elemental aspects of Achva. 

Unlike school, kids have input on and ownership of their days. They can choose to create pottery or build a birdhouse or play kickball. The flexibility and informality of camp teaches kids to lean into joy.

Another crucial element to becoming a Jewish doer is inclusion, said Greg Feitel, who serves as director of Camp Achva, his dream job as a child.

Feitel, a former camper and counselor, said Achva has grown to become the most inclusive Jewish day camp in the region. Of 200-some children, approximately 100 have a diagnosis for neurodivergence. 

To ensure all campers can participate to the fullest extent, morning pep rallies are held outdoors to better disperse sound. Extra time is built into daily schedules to help kids transition from one activity to the next. Staff participate in ongoing, comprehensive training to learn how to meet each child where they are.

“We adapt our environment to our campers rather than adapt campers to our environment,” Feitel said.

This summer, hundreds of campers will do activities in line with the 2024 camp theme, “Camp is More Than a Bagel.” Playful and laced with meaning, the theme was inspired by Jewish is More Than a Bagel: Songs for Jewish Children, an album by Achva-nik Shirley Grossman.

For years, Grossman wrote songs about Jewish experiences and traditions that fellow campers would sing and dance to — at all hours. Michelle Pearlstein was one of them. She still remembers the words and moves from her time at camp in the 70s and 80s.

Pearlstein, who now serves as development director of Pozez JCC, hangs on to one of her earliest camp memories, a photo of her showing off a gappy smile and a 1976 T-shirt. She is one of 24 JCC employees who went to Achva, and her children are second-generation Achva-niks.

“Those of us who love it, we just don’t leave,” Pearlstein said. “Camp is a magical experience, where we bring the joy of Jewish living to life.”

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