Blending Judaism and survival skills at camp for boys

wilderness camp image
Campers building a shelter at Camp Yagilu Wilderness. Photo credit: Eli Cohen.

The Hebrew word Gila translates to happiness. But it is a different kind of happiness than other similar Hebrew words like simcha , or osher . Gila is the happiness found through discovery. And that is exactly the kind of happiness Chicago native Rabbi Tani Prero promotes.

Yagilu means "they will be happy through discovery," which is Prero's intention at his wilderness camp called Camp Yagilu Wilderness. Through Yagilu , located in Swan Lake, N.Y., Prero works with adolescent Orthodox boys on self-confidence, responsibility, and growth in the great outdoors.

Yagilu aims to help children discover their individual talents and strengths, while uncovering beauty and wonder in the world around us by harnessing the tools in nature.

The camp does this by teaching teenage boys survival skills like fire-making, navigation, how to build a shelter, the art of camouflage, and knife safety. As they learn these skills, the boys become aware of their surrounding and of themselves.

"At the end of the summer, you should see the smiles; you should see their fists raised with happiness, you should hear their cheers," Prero said.

The model of the camp focuses on challenge and success. Prero explained that success without challenge can make people become cynical. Also, if you have challenge without success, people become discouraged, he said. Yagilu works to empower kids no matter their personal challenges. He reflected that being a teenager is not easy, and he wanted to give teenagers a place to grow and thrive.

Like his campers, Prero did not have much experience in the wilderness growing up. As a West Rogers Park native, there is not much nature to be found.

"I grew up in Chicago. It's flat. There are no mountains… But I remember going to camp. The first overnight hike I went on was in the Colorado Rockies and I remember [how] it just inspired me in a way I never felt before," he recalled. "I really wanted to continue doing that and I wanted to also offer that to kids."

Since Yagilu began in 2013, the camp has grown every year. In its first summer, the camp had about 45 boys, the second summer they had close to 70, last year 80, and this year they have around 100 campers. Ideally, Prero would like to have 200 campers and expand to other locations too.

The rabbi also discussed how the wilderness and Judaism fit together. In fact, he believes they are one in the same. While people today live in human-made environments, the wilderness is exactly how God intended the Earth to be. He added that if a space is natural, anyone can connect to God through the natural energy God puts there. At Yagilu , this energy is so powerful that the boys say prayers over the environment.

"In Judaism, there are certain brachot for things in nature," Prero said. "We can connect to God through that view…One day if it rains, we'll spend a day studying the song of the rain. If we're going by a river, we'll spend a day studying the song of the river."

After the summer, Prero sees his campers grow in so many different ways. He sees them grow in self-confidence, their ability to try new things and in their leadership abilities.

"I had one camper, when I first met him, he couldn't even look me in the face," he said. "Then, when he came back to school, his teachers noticed he was a different kid. His parents called me after the first parent-teacher conference of the year and said they wanted to thank me. Every single teacher said that this boy is a new kid this year…That's why I started Yagilu . That's why I stay up until 2 in the morning working on Yagilu ." 




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