Creating A ‘Canyon Ranch For Kids’
Wed, 02/06/2013
Associate Editor
Lisa Kravitz, with husband and Camp Zeke partner Isaac Mamaysky. Photo courtesy Camp Zeke
Lisa Kravitz, with husband and Camp Zeke partner Isaac Mamaysky. Photo courtesy Camp Zeke

Ayear after Isaac Mamaysky and Lisa Kravitz celebrate their wedding this June, they plan to welcome their first child: Camp Zeke, a Jewish overnight camp focused on health and wellness.

Named for the prophet Ezekiel, Hebrew for “God will strengthen,” Camp Zeke, which will be located within driving distance of New York City, is one of four specialty camps being developed with help from the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s $8.6 million “Incubator II.” The incubator — round one spawned five camps, including Passport NYC and Six Points Sports Academy — aims to nurture programs that will appeal to youth who might not otherwise consider a Jewish camp.

A former camper, counselor and onetime handyman at Rhode Island’s Camp JORI, Mamaysky, 30, grew up in Providence, the child of Russian émigrés. Kravitz, 27, grew up in Pelham Manor, works in marketing for a financial services firm and is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s List College and Columbia University.

The two, who live in Manhattan, recently met with The Jewish Week. The following is an edited transcript.

Jewish Week: What exactly is a “health and wellness camp,” and how will Zeke be different from existing Jewish camps, like Eden Village, that also emphasize healthy food?

Mamaysky: Eden Village is a great camp, and we’re very impressed by what they have done. We are both among a small group of camps prioritizing the food movement, but other than that we’re very different. Campers interested in environmentalism and farming wouldn’t come to us, and campers interested in strength training, Pilates and fitness wouldn’t go there.

Kravitz: We’re tapping into trends popular with Jewish and non-Jewish families: holistic wellness, teaching kids from a young age about health and how to be active.

What spurred you to start Camp Zeke?

Mamaysky: I always wanted to work at camp growing up. I was at Camp JORI as a camper, counselor and in various other positions from 1992-2006, and by the end of my time there I was seriously considering what my career should be. I was telling everyone I wanted to make camp my career, and everyone was telling me, ‘No, get a real job, get a real job.’ So I went to law school, and for better or worse I did well, ended up at one of these Manhattan firms. But I was literally dreaming about camp the whole time. About a year and a half ago, Lisa and I were ice climbing in the Adirondacks, and I was really impressed with our guide, who was a former pharmaceutical researcher. I told him I was considering different career options, and he said, “What have you always wanted to do?” I said, “Start a camp,” and he said, “Well why don’t you do that?” From that point I started talking to everyone I could think of in the camp world to think about how start a camp.

What did you love so much about camp?

Mamaysky: Some of my closest friends to this day are my friends from Camp JORI. The director, Ronni Guttin, was like a second mother to me. I talk to her all the time, see her every time I go to Rhode Island. She’s inspiring in a sense that I see how much she loves her job, and I wanted a job I love as much as she loves hers ... I always felt most comfortable at camp. When you compared my school experience to my camp experience, school was fine, but at camp I felt at home.

Are you a former camper also, Lisa?

Kravitz: One of the main goals of the incubator is to attract campers who wouldn’t necessarily go to a Jewish camp, but would go to a specialty camp. I’m that target. Jewish camp didn’t appeal to me, but I went to cheerleading camp and guitar camp.

What sparked your interest in health and fitness?

Mamaysky: When I was in high school I was extremely overweight: I weighed over 300 pounds. And that was very difficult for me, I was very uncomfortable in my own skin. It was a long process, but starting at the end of high school and continuing at the beginning of college, I lost over 100 pounds. It really changed my life: I started exercising, eating healthy, and I’m so much happier now, my life is so much more joyful.

How did you managed to lose 100 pounds?

I used to eat terribly unhealthy foods: the standard American diet, which has caused so many problems for so many people. I changed the way I eat to a diet focused on whole, plant-based foods. I’m a cyclist, weightlifter and runner. We ski and hike. It’s a combination of eating healthy food and leading an active lifestyle.

So is Zeke a weight-loss camp?

Mamaysky: Not at all. Picture a Canyon Ranch for kids. That’s what we’re shooting for. That said, if a camper comes and is overweight, just in light of the environment we will have, the emphasis we have on active living and whole foods, that camper will probably lose weight.

What will the Jewish component be like?

Kravitz: We anticipate a very pluralistic environment where campers can come whether they’re observant at home or not and be part of a community, learn new traditions. We’ve seen this model in a lot of other camps and it works really well.

Mamaysky: We plan to have optional services every day. We know many campers won’t want to go to services, and that’s fine. We’ll have other programs where they can explore spirituality on the hiking trail. People will be able to explore Judaism in different ways.

Kravitz: And of course we’ll have a camp-wide Shabbat and a kosher kitchen.

What are your Jewish backgrounds?

Kravitz: I grew up going to a Conservative synagogue and attending Hebrew school there. But I have a lot of friends who are Reform and Modern Orthodox.

Mamaysky: I grew up in a Conservative home, went to a Conservative Jewish school for a while then an Orthodox school then an unaffiliated Jewish summer camp. I’ve really seen the broad spectrum of Jews. ... I was the first in my family born in the U.S. My parents came from Odessa in the late ‘70s, and we always spoke Russian at home. I didn’t learn English ‘til I started kindergarten.

So will Camp Zeke ever serve dessert?

Kravitz: Of course. Taking dessert out of a child’s diet isn’t going to teach anything. Our emphasis is on moderation. Through our culinary arts program, we’ll teach that you can make a pizza, a delicious pizza, here’s a way to do it in healthy way that tastes just as good.

Mamaysky: We’ll have ice pops made from real fruit. All the foods that kids love, just healthier versions with less sugar.