You might call it an extreme family reunion — an event far beyond a Sunday afternoon of picnics and Frisbee.
Every other summer, Aliza and Avi Picard — among other relatives from France, Switzerland, Israel, the United States, Britain, and Belgium — send their children to a two-week family camp ("familiienlagger") in the Alps.
Avi Picard explained that the camp was an outgrowth of a foundation started in 1901 by his ancestor, Samuel Bollag, a Swiss Jew. Bollag, then 80 years old and the father of 12 children, intended the foundation ("Stiftung") as a vehicle for aiding family members and maintaining contact between them as they started moving to distant places.
"The second daughter, Berta, had already moved to Alsace at that time, which was then in Germany and is today in France," said Picard, who is descended patrilineally from Berta.
"The foundation is still active, and every six months we receive a report about births, weddings, and deaths, and also about donations given to the family fund for members in need," said Picard, an Israeli who is living in Teaneck temporarily while teaching Israeli studies — last year at Rutgers and this year at New York University. His wife teaches at the Moriah School in Englewood.
After WWII, the far-flung family created a biennial foundation-funded familiienlagger for cousins aged 7-17. The volunteer staff are relatives who are educators, experienced in hiking and mountain climbing, or who help in the kitchen.
"My father was in those camps, I was there, and my kids have attended the last four camps," said Picard. "Aliza and I served twice as staff members." This summer, the Picards’ four older children — ages 16, 14, 12, and 10 — attended the family camp, leaving their 5-year-old sibling at home.
Though the camps take place most often in the Swiss Alps and sometimes in France, for the foundation’s 100th anniversary the camp was held in Israel, where many of Bollag’s descendants now live. But the campers still come from all over.
"This summer, the majority of the expenses were for flights," said Picard.
The family rented a campsite to accommodate 45 children and a group of adult leaders in a remote Alpine village for the last two weeks of July.
Six months in advance, things are planned, especially for the kitchen. There are family utensils to bring and while most kosher foods can be bought locally, others must be brought.
In Picard's youth, most campers spoke French and Swiss-Germany. He and his brother were the only Israelis. Today the most common language is Hebrew, as some 60% of the campers are Israeli, although English is the main communication langauge, as the French, Swiss and Israeli campers can all speak it at some level.
Activities include hiking, gamesand swimming, while campers over 12 take part in a challenging two-day trip involving hiking to a high-altitude glacier and sleeping in a cabin.
Although the attendees' religious observance varies, all food is kosher and there's a lot of Shabbat singing.
"The atmosphere is traditional, but it’s not religious, and there is no morning service during the week," said Picard. The more fervently Orthodox members of the extended family choose not to attend, nor does the Argentinean branch come.
Nevertheless, the camp still brings together a large mix of nationalities and cultures, he added. And they all attempt to learn more about each other.
"My kids came back telling us that they had seen old 8-millimeter family movies, and had learned more about their relatives," said Picard. "They are trying to understand the family tree and how they are all connected. This is the Jewish history of a family that emigrated everywhere."
What a wonderful family tradition ensuring these young people remain connected and learn about their common family history.