VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — A midsummer downpour is hammering Virginia Beach, and there’s nobody on the water for as far as the eye can see. Except, that is, for a group of 20 or so young surfers packed together, bobbing up and down on their boards, occasionally hopping up to catch a wave before crashing back into the ocean.
“Unless there’s lightning in the area, we’re out there every day,” says Lynn Lancaster, back on shore underneath a tent. “I mean, they’re wet either way.”
Lancaster is one of two directors of Sababa Beachaway, a Jewish surf, scuba and sailing summer camp in the Hampton Roads area. Campers age 10-17 come for two-week stays to learn their chosen skill, but more than anything, says Lancaster, they come to be kids.
Out on the ocean, one camper catches a wave and fights to get up on the board. He struggles to get on his feet before quickly falling back into the water.
“Yes Alex! Go Alex!” yells Joe Lancaster, Lynn’s son and a camp staffer, from the beach. “He’s been hanging back up until today, this is the first time I’ve seen him so aggressive. He’s getting confident.”
Confidence is key to having fun at the camp, says Danny Mishkin, Lancaster’s co-director. But he says they understand that kids are at different emotional places from day to day. Each morning surf session begins with a blessing. Then, when the campers first get out on the water, they all sit on the boards and share how they feel starting that day.
Mishkin says that the goal is never to turn out expert surfers. If they’re good, that’s great. But the real objective is for campers to have fun, relax and connect with their spirituality.
“Connection to self, connection to other, connection to nature and connection to God, those are really the priorities,” Mishkin says. “The ocean is such a spiritual place and a lot of peoples’ happy or spiritual place is the beach. So for us to teach our spirituality in that location is only helpful for those connections.”
Before starting Sababa, Mishkin worked as a religious educator for camps and synagogues around New York. He had just finished surfing with his son when he read an email seeking grant proposals with “out of the box ways to engage Jewish teens.” Suddenly, he saw two teens run by on the beach, carrying the surf boards.
“For so many years I’d been running Hebrew schools, which I loved. But I always wanted to have that sort of enthusiasm of running into the water and negating stress in a Jewish experience. So when I saw that, and I got that email, it clicked.
Most afternoons at the camp follow a similar structure to the average, terra-based sleepaway camp. Kids can choose from different activities. There’s downtime, movies and games.
The downtime is key, says Lancaster. She thinks that during the school year, too many kids are over-committed. Between school, religious school and extracurriculars, she says that most kids don’t get a chance to have quality downtime except when they’re at camp.
In a dorm lounge on the campus of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, where the campers lodge, three boys have grabbed a deck of cards and started playing. None are on their phone.
“Where else do you see that today?” Lancaster asks. “This is what camp is supposed to be. They’re not buried in screens. They’re just being kids. That’s what we want.”
Rachel Vick, a freshman at Penn State, has been coming since the camp opened four years ago. She’s now a counselor, and says that the time to unwind is what keeps her coming back. She remembers going through the college admissions process and being able to cast aside all those worries when she got out on the water at camp. She also said that counselors genuinely care about what campers are going through.
“People aren’t always asking how you feel every day and really listening,” Vick says. “And kids can have so much outside stress and pressure. So when someone asks and listens it really matters.”
The camp is non-denominational, with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and non-Jews attending. And most evenings before dinner, campers convene, gather in small groups by age and gender, and talk. With a prompt in the form of a famous quote, Jewish text, or something else, they have an open discussion about how they’re feeling. With camp winding down, some teenage boys say they’re not ready to go home.
Luckily, there are still a few days left to get back on the surfboard.
“What I love about surfing is it really is just you, the board and the ocean,” Mishkin says. “How can you not feel close to God when you’re there?”