By Rabbi Jill Levy
[Author’s Note: This post was written before Hurricane Harvey and its impacts on our community. Since this time, we have felt the amazing connection that we share as a Houston Jewish community. Anything that happened before the hurricane can sometimes feel irrelevant. At the same time, the summer camp experience is just one small illustration of our past success and an example how we will continue to grow in the future.]
Have you ever worked hard to solve a problem and then realized the solution was in front of you all along? All too often in Jewish professional life we think creating new programs (or even organizations) will be the magic solution to declining affiliation rates. Many of these programs have worked but they also take huge financial resources. I asked myself, are there other ways we can connect with families that we may be missing? I then realized, we have a captive audience of children and parents at the J every summer. Families may come for the ‘childcare’ but they could engage because of the community.
I decided to become a camp director this summer so that I could connect with a captive audience of 225 1st and 2nd grade families and 40 staff members. My goals were to build relationships with families who only enter our doors in the summer, to build a bridge to our year-round Jewish engagement programs, and to be a rabbinic presence who enables campers and staff to connect to Jewish leadership in a more profound way.
Integrating myself into the daily operations of camp meant that Jewish living was woven into the fabric of the entire experience, not just something each group did for 30 minutes per week. For example, we partnered with our local PJ Library for a bedtime Shema activity during our annual late night/overnight. Our children heard Israeli music during morning carpool. Conversations about behavior were framed in the context of Jewish values. Families volunteered together at the Houston Food Bank on a Sunday morning. I was known as “Rabbi Jill” by campers and staff, which meant that they now had a personal connection to a rabbi regardless of their religious background.
So often in the Jewish community we are waiting for the latest and greatest fireworks, which are often important and groundbreaking. At the same time, we cannot ignore the opportunities that have always been here. They usually take some heavy lifting and they are not shiny and new, but they are still equally deserving of our investment. Thirty-six years after his famous moon landing, Neil Armstrong finally agreed to his first television interview. Reporter Ed Bradley asked him, “You said, ‘How long must it take before I cease to be known as the space man?’ Why did you make that comment?” Armstrong responded, “I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.” Let’s recognize and value the important daily work invested into Jewish day camp.
Day camp is one of the best Jewish engagement tools that we have at our disposal, especially for JCCs. Professionalizing and prioritizing Jewish day camp and is an opportunity knocking at the doorstep of Jewish leadership. I hope you will join me and open the door.
For more information about the impact of day camp, please see “The Complete Guide to JCC Day Camp.”
Rabbi Jill Levy is Director, Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC of Houston.