From long drops to cell phones, camp is still machaneh

  • Habonim1982
Long drops, tinned sardines, and bucket showers – these are the features of December machaneh that are indelibly ingrained in the minds of the campers of yesteryear.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Dec 05, 2019

Though these iconic camp memories are foreign to campers in 2019, Habonim or Bnei Akiva campers still tap into a timeless experience that hasn’t changed.

Log fires may have given way to LEDs and trains have been replaced with planes, but it seems the spirit of the camp experience remains unchanged.

“There’s no question that in our days, things we were simpler,” says Errol Anstey. “We wrote letters, made do with simple food, and accepted the basic nature of the camp experience. That’s what it was.”

As honorary president of the Habonim youth movement, Anstey got involved as a channich (camper) in 1981. He later became a madrich (camp counsellor), and then sgan-rosh (deputy head) of camp. He remains involved, visiting the campsite regularly and seeing the changes that have taken place.

Where tents were once standard for every camper, younger channichim are today housed in cabins. The long drop toilets and bucket showers of yesteryear have been replaced with flowing water amenities.

Security upgrades have also left their mark, a perimeter fence around the campsite preventing the use of a zipline that older channichim remember riding from the top of the site’s iconic tower into the neighbouring sea waters.

In addition to the physical alterations, Anstey notices a change in the pace of the daily schedule. “Life was much slower back then,” he admits. “Everyday activity was simpler, carried out at a slower pace and far more relaxed. We drifted from breakfast to activity, always chilled, and in no hurry.”

He compares this to the constant movement and activity at machaneh today. “There’s no time for kids to be bored at camp today,” he says. “The space itself is much more dynamic and active. People don’t stop – they stay busy. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s a dramatic shift.”

Equally dramatic is the move towards greater inclusivity, opening the camp experience to more youngsters than before. “If you were ‘complicated’ in the past, you just didn’t go on camp,” says Anstey. “If you were gluten intolerant, sickly, unable to afford camp – you just didn’t go. Camp provides a variety of meal options, medication, and funding today that were unheard of before.”

The former conference centre has also been converted into a basic infirmary, and the campsite features additions such as five-a-side soccer courts, trampolines, and other recreational amenities.

Where food is concerned, not only are vegans and vegetarians catered for, but a team of Israeli chefs is involved in preparing the everyday fare. “The quality of basic food offered has definitely improved,” says Anstey. “Kids are realising that they don’t actually need to bring a trommel full of food because good food is provided.”

He says the programmes conducted on camp have also changed significantly, catering for a reality that simply didn’t exist in the past.

“The education system on camp is much more sophisticated – it has moved with the times. Back then, madrichim had to prepare all their material before camp, type and print it out, and use it as it stood. We couldn’t make changes, even if the schedule changed or something happened that made a programme less relevant.”

Daniel Sussman, Habonim mazkir klali (secretary general) and rosh machaneh, says that the education provided has had to adapt to the demands of reality in South Africa and Israel. “In the past, continuous growth of Israel was a key focus,” he says. “Tochniot (activities) really stressed the need to help Israel grow, to go to Israel, and establish a kibbutz.”

Habonim has had to revaluate its relevance in relation to the Jewish state, realising that equipping channichim to contribute on kibbutzim is no longer relevant. “As a more secular Jewish institution, we’ve had to redefine our identity while maintaining a core Jewish identity in spite of changes in the Israeli way of life,” says Sussman. “The camp experience has to remain up to date.”

Another key change Sussman identifies is a lack of independence amongst youngsters today, who lack the self-reliance which defined the channies of old. Anstey agrees, pointing out that access to cell phones and constant communication with parents makes this even more challenging.

“In the past, if a child missed home in the beginning, they got over it because they couldn’t speak to their parents and their madrichim helped them handle it,” he says. “Today, their parents speak to them constantly, and they actually encourage them to come home. They don’t help them become independent.”

Zev Krengel, the second of three generations to attend Bnei Akiva machanot, says, “My mom went on Bnei, I went, and my children go today.

“Parents didn’t really get involved in my day. They saw you off, but weren’t really invested in your experience. Today, parents value what camp offers more than they did before, meaning they want to be more involved in making sure their child enjoys the opportunity.”

After going on camp as a channich for years, Krengel served as rosh machaneh in 2005.

Krengel says Bnei Akiva also has changed only in terms of superficial and time-related elements, maintaining a core that looks identical to that of his day. “Of course, there are more cosmetic changes made today and tweaks are made all the time,” he says. “I have no doubt that the youngsters who run Bnei today do a far better job than we did. It’s more demanding, and things have had to change.”

Indeed, the Bnei Akiva campsite now offers a comprehensive array of sporting equipment for rugby, soccer, volleyball, netball, indoor basketball, and more. It has improved shower facilities, a tuck-shop stocked with all the necessary nosh, and outstanding Shabbat meals.

“The changes are there, but the reality is that kids are still excited to sleep in tents, will eat food provided in bulk, and work hard for a united purpose.”

They all agree that camp is still a quality experience. “Channichim are still the same channichim – they will complain about the food and the heat, but they bring the same energy to camp that was legendary before.

“Visiting the campsite at Bnei is like entering a time warp,” says Krengel. “You arrive and, in spite of some changes, you see the same setup and spirit you did decades ago.

“Machaneh perpetuates our community’s unity, and like our Beth Din and characteristic South African warmth, it’s one of the true cornerstones of our Jewish community that makes us what we are. Jewish youth camps remain a defining factor of our South African Jewry.”

1 Comment

  1. 1 Michelle Shapira 05 Dec
    Very sad to see that the existence of Netzer Machane is absent from the article.  Why is this the case? And even Camp Kesher. They may be small but they have a great impact on the children that do attend these machanot.

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