Dozens of children pounded piles of dough that would soon become baked lafah, a Middle Eastern flatbread. Nearby, parent Nurit Avneri rolled homemade falafel into balls, then dropped the ground chickpea, humus and onion mixture into a pot of boiling oil.
The exotic fixings would soon be lunch for the campers of Camp Gan Israel at the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education in Columbia.
"It's not that it's just fun to hit the dough, we got to make the dough flat," said 6-year-old Phoebe Heiligman of Columbia. "That's the way to do it."
The 45 campers, ages 2 through 12, had just learned about the Middle Eastern fare in celebration of Israel Week, a five-day camp program.
"The kids have had a blast," said Chanie Baron, camp director. "We kept them very, very busy. We have always included Israel in our program. But this is the first year that I devoted an entire week to it."
Campers viewed a children's video on Israel; drew passports with their photographs pasted on them and received handmade airplane tickets for their pretend trip to Israel; earned tickets at the camp carnival to purchase and haggle over trinkets at an Israeli "shop"; created souvenirs out of mock-Israeli olive wood; and learned some Israeli folk dancing.
"The kids are having fun because we are making it exciting instead of just saying, 'Israel is this' and 'Israel is that,'" said Baron's 15-year-old daughter, Chaya, a camp counselor.
Baron tied the theme into the Three Weeks, the period of mourning that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
"The Israel theme is a way to teach the kids a love of Israel and to connect it to the Three Weeks," Baron said. "We focus on rebuilding rather than the destruction and on what we can do to make the world a better place."
The Three Weeks began Tuesday with the fast of the 17th day of the Hebrew month Tammuz, when Jerusalem's walls were breached. The mourning intensifies during the last nine days and culminates on Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av - a 25-hour fast, which begins this year at sundown July 26.
The first and second Temples were destroyed on Tisha B'Av - the first by Babylon in 586 B.C. and the second by Rome in A.D. 70. The Roman armies leveled the Temple Mount but left the outer wall of the courtyard's western side, known as the Kotel or Western Wall. Other tragic events in Jewish history, such as the Holocaust, are also recalled.
"The purpose of the mourning is to motivate us to think and visualize about a better time - the coming redemption, the gathering of the exiles to the land of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple," said Baron's husband, Rabbi Hillel Baron, director of the Lubavitch Center. "There also was a spiritual exile in the sense that we're pulled in all directions of the secular world instead of being centered on the ways of God and Torah."
This week, older campers carved a sign out of pottery with the Hebrew word mizrach, which means east - a reminder to face east toward Jerusalem during prayers. Designed to resemble bricks, the pottery was then assembled into the shape of the Western Wall.
Each group designed its own display under such names as Kiddie Kotel. A group of boys ages 6 to 9 designed their Kotel out of paper bricks. "We also discussed what we can do to help rebuild" the Temple, Chaya said.
Her campers each wrote on a brick what mitzvah, or commandment, they would do, such as helping set the Sabbath table or giving to the poor.
"I said I would give tzedakah [charity] and visit hospitals," said Phoebe's 9-year-old sister, Naomi Heiligman.
Campers also constructed cardboard suitcases with the word Jerusalem on the front; small blue and white Israel flags fashioned from clay; and passports with their name, birthday, photograph and signature.
To create souvenirs, campers painted their Hebrew name on star-shaped blocks cut out of mock olive wood that will become magnets or key chains. They also painted olives on paper olive trees. The walls in one of the rooms bear one group's Salt Sea Project, blue paper shaped like waves with salt and sand glued on and colored to resemble the Dead Sea.
Campers earned play money designed to look like Israeli currency at the camp carnival. They used the money to purchase trinkets in a shop manned by Avneri, who has two children in the camp. Names and prices of the items were written in Hebrew. They also learned the ancient Middle Eastern art of bargaining.
"We tried to teach the children how to haggle like at an Israeli marketplace, to give them a flavor of bargaining," Chanie Baron said. "But just learning the value of an Israeli coin is new for them."
Plans also included blueberry picking at a Maryland farm to simulate fruit picking on a kibbutz, an agricultural commune.
As campers waited for their lafah to bake, Avneri served hot falafel balls with fresh tomatoes. The Israeli native, whose family owns a Tel Aviv restaurant, offered to prepare the falafel and lafah dough.
"I want the children to feel a little about Israel," Avneri said.
Contemplating the week's activities over lunch, Naomi plans to someday use a real passport. "I liked learning about Israel," she said. "It looks pretty. After that video, I want to visit Israel."