In the dead of the winter, on Saturday nights when most teens are huddled around a screen playing Fortnite, the Chillers are gathering at Oorah’s ChillZones. This winter, ChillZone attendance hit record highs – peaking at 1,000 participants on some evenings and averaging between 500 and 600 for most of the season.
While these Saturday night winter gatherings have built up a wide following over the years, what made this year different?
“I really attribute this increase in attendance to the dedication and personalities of our Head Chillers,” says Bina Zahner, Oorah’s Camp Organizer Administrator, who supports the ChillZones from Oorah’s headquarters. She and Rabbi Avraham Brog, Camp Director of Boys/ Head of ChillZone, both strive to create programs to engage and inspire children who may not have strong Jewish educational backgrounds.
Aviva is one of those Head Chillers who made a difference this year. She led the Monsey, NY ChillZone with her friend, Shira. The pair had never organized a ChillZone before and found it both satisfying and challenging.
Great Summer at The Zone
Aviva learned about the ChillZone program last summer when she worked at a counselor at Oorah’s The Zone sleepaway camp in upstate New York. Like Aviva, all the counselors are volunteers tasked with creating a fun atmosphere and transmitting their enthusiasm for Judaism to the campers. Oorah leaders carefully vet all camp counselors and Head Chillers to assure that they are qualified to serve as role models for the children in their care. Many Head Chillers are often, like Aviva, former Zone counselors.
“It was an incredible summer, and I wanted it to continue,” says Aviva of her experience at The Zone. “I wanted to keep inspiring girls like my campers. I loved dancing with my campers, and I wanted to do that again and sing camp songs and keep giving.”
She added that it is important to her personally to do meaningful things and after graduating from high school, where there were many opportunities to contribute, it becomes more challenging to find those types of projects. Creating a ChillZone was a perfect activity.
Mrs. Zahner explains the Head Chillers are “truly dedicated to our mission. Why else would they come out every Saturday night in the dark and the cold? Some of them travel over an hour to get to their Chill Zone.”
Because they had never run a program before, “we really learned on the job,” says Aviva. Oorah provided lists of campers and past participants to get them started.
Connecting with the Chillers
“We called every name on the list,” recalls Aviva. “We texted past participants. And we put up posters in all the schools”
Once they had connected with potential Chillers, the pair worked to make sure the programs was fun and entertaining so the girls who attended the first time continued to come.
“We tried to make it exciting. We bought colorful tables clothes and matching plates to make it inviting,” says Aviva.
Aviva said it took the couple of weeks for her and Shira to work out all the logistics. They organized races and competition that the girls enjoyed. They worked to create a Jewish learning component, and Aviva notes the girls suggested that someone sit in the center of a circle and read from the text, which the girls then discussed. Oorah provides a selection of material for the Chillers to use. They also enjoyed art projects that Oorah supplies.
Mrs. Zahner explains that the boys have more sports-type games at their ChillZones. From Oorah headquarters, Mrs. Zahner keeps all of the ChillZones supplied with the games, raffles prizes and books that the Head Chillers need to run the programs, which is no small tasks. Every week she arranges a shipment to most of the 35 ChillZones in the U.S. and Canada filled with items designed to delight the participants. There are also two ChillZones in Israel to support students attending Oorah’s Discovery U program there.
And it wouldn’t be a ChillZone without pizza! Aviva said they always ordered extra pizza because they were never certain how many girls would turn up.
“If one girl had a sleep over, all the girls she invited would come,” she says with a laugh.
Once a year, explains Mrs. Zahner, there is a special ChillZone event. This year, each ChillZone had a carnival with eight or nine booths, games and prizes. Across the country, different ChillZones staggered them for different weeks, but these were highly publicized by the Head Chillers and drew additional attendees, many of whom continued to come for the rest of the Chiller season, which ends with the start of Daylight Savings Time.
Aviva says that at the end of the Monsey program the carnival was mentioned as the girls’ favorite activity in a survey.
Aviva adds she took pictures at each ChillZone and created a video afterwards that she posted on WhatsApp. Now only did the Monsey Chillers love the videos, but other girls saw them and asked if they could come and chill.
All the effort paid off with a special bonding among the girls. “If one girl couldn’t come or was sick, the other girls would ask to add her name for the raffle. We really became a ChillZone family,” she says.