As a child growing up in Stockholm, Noah Waldfogel was teased by his classmates for being Jewish. He was the only Jewish student in school, and he had only one Jewish friend his age. And though he sometimes attended synagogue with his father, he was largely unfamiliar with Jewish rituals.
That changed in 2006, when he was 10 years old and his parents sent him to attend Glämsta, the only Jewish overnight summer camp in Sweden. He remembers the wonder of his first few Shabbats at camp, which were quite different from how his family marked the day at home.
“It was an unbelievable feeling to experience as part of the Jewish people, and you really felt like you were a part of the community,” Waldfogel, now 22, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a phone interview from the city of Lund, where he attends college.
At Glämsta (pronounced Glem-stah), which is located in Stockholm’s picturesque archipelago, about two hours from the city, he experienced many Jewish rituals for the first time. He also learned about Jewish culture and the State of Israel.
The camp serves as a rite of passage for many in Sweden’s Jewish community, which numbers about 15,000. Though it is organized by the Stockholm Jewish community, kids come every year from around the country — a few even from other countries. Like Waldfogel, many campers have few Jewish friends prior to attending.
“Jewish life in Sweden is almost entirely built on Glämsta,” Waldfogel said. “Glämsta creates a feeling of community, and it creates a positive feeling about Judaism, Jewish friends and Jewish traditions.”
David Lejbowicz, the camp’s director for 19 years, says it is impossible to estimate how many kids have been to Glämsta. But he says that attendance has increased in recent years and that more than 300 children will attend one of the camp’s three sessions this summer.
Glämsta was founded in 1909 by a Swedish Jewish businessman, Isaak Hirsch, who bought the land to use as a camp for Jewish kids from poor families. But in the 1960s and ’70s the camp shifted its focus to the larger Jewish community and started making religious education a bigger part of the curriculum.
The camp, which now has a budget of about $575,000, gets its funding from dues, foundations and the Stockholm Jewish community.
Since the country only has one Jewish sleepaway camp — Chabad runs a day camp in Stockholm — kids come from a range of backgrounds, from secular children with little knowledge of Judaism to those who attend Stockholm’s Jewish school.
Lejbowicz said that presents a challenge.
“It’s very difficult to find the balance,” he said. “To on one hand arise curiosity in the child who doesn’t know that much, while at the same time keep it exciting and further informing the child who has gone to [Stockholm’s Jewish day school].”
Daniella Bornstein, 22, said that attending Glämsta had a much bigger impact on her Jewish identity than attending Jewish school.
“My Jewish identity really only comes from Glämsta,” Bornstein, who lives in Stockholm, said in a phone interview.
She said it was an “obvious” choice to attend camp when she was 9 years old, since nearly all her classmates were going and many of her relatives had done so.
“I felt that we learned so much more out there than at school,” Bornstein said. ”We got to practice Shabbat for real instead of just reading about it in books.”
Gerber, who attended Glämsta as a camper before working there as a counselor and religious leader, described Shabbat at Glämsta as “shtiebel-like,” using a Yiddish word for a prayer space that is often smaller and more intimate than a synagogue.
Counselors encouraged customs such as dressing up for Shabbat and dancing outside after Friday night dinner to make the environment feel “magical and special,” Gerber said.
“I think for many counselors they want to give the kids an experience like what they had as children, and it feels very much like it’s a heritage that is passed down from the counselors to the campers,” he said.
Bornstein echoed Gerber’s description in talking about Shabbat at camp.
“You enter ‘Shabbos mode’ and you don’t really do that at home. There’s a magical atmosphere in a way,” she said.
Glämsta has a life-changing impact on many campers and counselors. Waldfogel believes that his life would be more similar to non-Jewish Swedes had he not attended Glämsta.
“I wouldn’t have an understanding of Jewish traditions,” he said. “I wouldn’t have Jewish friends. I wouldn’t have a feeling of Jewish community in the same way.”