The origins of Camp Chai’s tribes

Dear Families,

As we get ready for Camp Chai, campers are excited to find out what “tribe” they will be in. Every camp has traditions and Camp Chai at the J has a longstanding tradition of naming our groups by the 12 tribes. Here is part of the blessing that Jacob gave to each of his sons, who later became the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel:

Reuben: the eldest who showed a deep sense of responsibility. He convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph. Later, he offered the lives of his own sons if he should fail to bring Benjamin back to Egypt. His symbol is the mandrake, the flower he brought to his mother Leah.

Gad: means “good fortune” and though “raided by raiders, he shall raid at their heels.” The symbol is camp tents, standing for prowess in battle.

Joseph: the favorite son, who was noble and distinguished; he was Jacob’s favorite. Joseph’s sons were given a blessing from Jacob because of their father’s honor. The symbol for Joseph includes the bull and the unicorn for his two sons.

Benjamin: “a hungry wolf who eats in the morning,” produced fine soldiers and gave Israel its first king. The symbol is the wolf.

Dan: means “to judge” and Dan would “judge his people.” But Jacob also said: “Dan shall be a serpent in the way.” The symbol is the serpent and scales of justice.

Judah: was a “young lion,” declared Jacob. “Rulers will descend from him.” Judah’s descendants include King David and King Solomon. The symbol is the lion.

Naftali: was alert, nimble and a good speaker. Jacob said he was “a deer let loose; he gives goodly words.” The symbol is a deer, still used by the Israel Ministry of Posts.

Simeon: the descendants of Simeon would be scattered among the tribes. The symbol is the Gates of Shechem, which was a city where the tribe of Simeon lived.

Isssachar: was a hard worker and would enjoy security in the land. The symbol is a donkey, which works hard.

Zebulon: would “dwell at the shore and be a haven for ships.” The symbol is a ship with the breeze blowing and the white foam flowing.

Asher: means “happy,” and he would be “rich in oil.” The tribe of Asher grew olive groves and provided the Temple with oil. The symbol is the olive tree.

Menasha & Ephraim: Joseph’s sons were adopted by Jacob for a special blessing. “By thee shall Israel bless, saying: ‘G-d make thee as Ephraim and Menasha.’” The symbol for Menasha was the unicorn.

Levi: the tribe that served the Kohanim and the Temple. The symbol was the hoshen mishpat — the breastplate of judgment. On the plate were twelve jewels, each with the name of a tribe.

Now if that is too much to remember, here is a song we sing — it is to the tune of “Catalina Magdalina” (some verses are a little tricky) but the same message is given:


CHORUS: Jacob had twelve sons but they came from different moms. 

Each became a tribe in Jewish history.

Reuben was the oldest but he didn’t have much spine

so he got the basic blessing but without the bottom line. CHORUS

As for Simeon and Levi, their families got mixed.

Due to what occurred in Shechem, their blessing was nixed. CHORUS

All honor goes to Judah the ancestor of David the King.

His tribe would win back the Promised Land and praises would ring. CHORUS

Zebulon got the seashore and Issachar got the land.

In looking at the blessings, these two were very grand. CHORUS

The task of judging all the folks was given to Dan.

But for eloquence in speech, Naphtali was the man. CHORUS

Gad will be a raider with a winning warrior band.

And Asher will lead the traders and bring delicacies to the land. CHORUS

Benjamin was the baby but he led a wolf-like tribe.

First he takes the goodies and later he will divide. CHORUS

Joseph was the favorite but we all know that.

He got the longest blessing plus the coat upon his back. CHORUS

Ephraim and Menasha were Joseph’s pride

They got Grampa Jacob’s blessing as the stood side by side. CHORUS

Hope you can sing this! And if you want another “biblical story” in a camp favorite song, just ask me for my “Jacob Gets a Bride.”

Laura Seymour is director of Camping Services at the Aaron Family JCC.

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