A Historic Gathering
by Ramie Arian
A group of two dozen men and women recently convened in Teaneck NJ for a 2-day seminar on education. The group included six pioneering Jewish educators who occupy new full-time, year-round positions that each span a Jewish school and a nonprofit Jewish overnight camp. Their positions were created through a pioneering new program called Nadiv, and this gathering was the first of the program’s seminars. Together with their school and camp supervisors, plus an assortment of other stakeholders and guests, the educators participated in an important – perhaps even historic – gathering. In order to make that assertion understandable, some explanation is in order.
Nadiv is a project of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, funded by the Jim Joseph and AVI CHAI Foundations. It seeks to advance one of the most important priorities of the Jewish community – ensuring the Jewish identity of the next generation – by marrying what is most powerful in two of our community’s most effective means for building Jewish education and Jewish identity: our Jewish schools and our Jewish overnight camps.
As recently as a decade and a half ago, this would have seemed incomprehensible.
Why? There was a time when the Jewish community was not very concerned with ensuring the Jewish identity of the next generation. Conventional wisdom, and 2,000 years of experience, taught that the next generation could be counted on more or less automatically to identify strongly as Jews, bound together by tradition, by osmosis, and by a tribalism that seemed natural in a world where Jews were not well accepted and were too frequently not welcome. Instead, the Jewish community was mainly concerned with physical survival in places where we were persecuted, like Russia, Ethiopia, the Arab countries; and the physical survival of Israel, whose own strength and military might we had not yet come to trust. That time lasted until about 15 years ago when the Jewish community was just beginning to grapple with a very new reality which was laid bare by the 1990 National Jewish Population Study. And it took until the late ‘90s for the Jewish community to really, truly believe the sea of change that had taken place. So not until recently could we have said that “ensuring the Jewish identity of the next generation” was “one of the most important priorities of the Jewish community.”
There was a time when Jewish institutions used to be even more siloed than they are today (though the word “siloed” was not yet in use). Your synagogue was my synagogue’s competition; my school thought of your school as the enemy; the staff at my camp worked hard to enroll kids in my camp, not your camp. Even within movements camps, schools, and synagogues competed with one another for recruitment territory. There was very little shared sense of “movement.” Neither the world of Jewish schools nor of Jewish camps was considered to be a “field,” not even by its leading practitioners. The key umbrella groups in the Jewish world were the federations, but they had little room for new priorities or new organizations under their umbrellas. Those institutions that dealt with then-peripheral priorities such as Jewish identity and Jewish education were excluded. The Jewish world I am describing started to break down only approximately 15 years ago. That shift was symbolized and catalyzed by the advent of a variety of field-wide endeavors including the creation of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) and the establishment of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), where I am proud to have served as founding Executive Director. Before these organizations, the idea that our institutions could be collegial, that camps could learn from the experience of other camps, that schools might freely share their expertise with other schools, was foreign. And the idea of camps and schools sharing with and learning from one another was unheard of.
There was a time when schools were widely recognized to be educational institutions but camps, in general, were not. Jewish schools were mostly thought to be inadequately effective, Jewish camps were not even on the radar screen, and Jewish education itself was not much of a priority.
There was a time when philanthropic foundations played a peripheral role in the Jewish community. There were few of them, and those that existed were mainly directed personally by their founders, operating from their instincts and their emotional attachments, and largely unconcerned with, or unaware of, the power that could be generated by thoughtful, intentional philanthropic investment of the sort that AVI CHAI and Jim Joseph have since pioneered. And again, the kinds of educational resources that are represented by our schools and our camps were largely quite off the radar screens of our most important funders.
In light of all this recent history, what an amazing thing it is for us to say, as I did at the outset:
Nadiv is a project of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, funded by the Jim Joseph and AVI CHAI Foundations, which seeks to advance one of the most important priorities of the Jewish community – namely ensuring the Jewish identity of the next generation – by marrying what is most powerful in two of our community’s most effective means for building Jewish education and Jewish identity: our Jewish schools and our Jewish overnight camps.
How remarkable it is for that statement to seem natural, obvious, and matter-of-fact. What a long, long distance we’ve come, in just a decade and a half.
I’m trying to imagine the Jewish world 15 years into the future. I assume that by that time, sharing between schools and camps will seem commonplace. So will sharing among synagogues in different streams of Judaism, sharing between synagogues and JCCs, day camps and overnight camps, supplementary schools and day schools. I imagine that the Jewish world will be rich in innovative partnerships which will cross all kinds of geographic and institutional boundaries whose existence and whose limitations we today assume to be insurmountable. And accordingly, I imagine a rich web of educational opportunities for Jews young and old, a continuum of life-long learning, which is far beyond what most of us today think of as possible.
Fifteen years from now, I hope the participants in the recent Nadiv seminar will have the opportunity to gather together somewhere and reminisce about where they were when this new flowering of Jewish life began and about the roles they played in it. Because they ARE playing key roles in a major new turning point in Jewish life. Because they ARE all there in the beginning of a collaboration that has the potential to establish a new benchmark for collaboration, that can raise the bar for their colleagues and successors for generations to come. It is an exciting place to be, and it is a humbling responsibility which they have undertaken.
Ramie Arian is a consultant whose work centers on building Jewish identity and commitment through experiential education. Working on behalf of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, he serves as project manager for Nadiv.