A Summer of Learning and Innovation

By Jeremy J. Fingerman

As the 2019 summer camp season draws to a close, my team at Foundation for Jewish Camp begins to capture the learnings, reflections, and insights derived from our visits to camps across North America.

Nothing affirms and validates our work more than seeing the fruits of our labor and investment first-hand. We feel so gratified to observe amazingly talented leaders providing intentional educational experiences that strongly connect both campers and staff to “joyous Judaism.”

I like to say that each of our Jewish camps are laboratories for creating tomorrow’s Jewish community – balancing cherished traditions with forward-thinking adaptations. This summer, we observed camps trying new approaches, learning from each other, and taking time to see things from a different perspective. We watched kids who had never been to Jewish camp become inspired by new specialty camps – Havaya Arts, 6 Points Sci-Tech, and Ramah Sports, among others – that seamlessly connected the high-level exploration of their interests with intentional and joyful Jewish expression.

We learned about new ways that camps are adapting to our rapidly changing world. Four themes that emerged from our summer visits may provide inspiration and motivation to apply learnings and innovations in our broader Jewish communal endeavors.

New staffing models

Camps face a field-wide challenge in retaining college-age counselors, who increasingly can’t balance their role at camp with internships, academic work, family time, school sports, and the multitude of other competing priorities they try to fit into a single summer. Jewish camps are rethinking and adapting in a variety of ways in order to retain their talented staff, who are essential to successful Jewish summers.

At Camp Stone in Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania, for example, they have adjusted their staffing model to have most counselors work only five weeks. One week of staff training is followed by a traditional four-week camp session. In this model, counselors benefit from both working at camp and pursuing other summer priorities, and second-session campers benefit from fresh, energetic staff.

During my visit to JCA Shalom Day Camp in West Hills, Calif., I met a high-performing counselor who had spent two two-week sessions working at JCA Shalom’s overnight camp, and then worked at the organization’s day camp for the remaining weeks. That way, he could spend evenings with his family preparing for his move out of town. When camps lead with agility and flexibility to explore different approaches, benefits accrue for all.

Connection to Israel

Much has been written about the growing divide between Israel and the diaspora. We have expanded a successful pilot Israel Education Initiative for teenage day-camp counselors, helping them develop a deeper knowledge of modern Israeli history well before they leave for college campuses. In turn, these counselors employ their greater understanding of Israel to transmit lessons to their campers confidently throughout the season.

We were inspired by the intentional investment made by the Anisfield Day Camp of Cleveland’s Mandel JCC to more than double the number of Israeli shlichim working exclusively at the day camp. These impressive young people have infused the camp with more Hebrew and more Israeli music and dance. At the same time, they told us about how much they were learning from the North American campers and host families. It’s a great way to bridge the perceived divide between our two Jewish communities.

Learning together

We’ve observed more day and overnight camps exchanging insights and perspectives with each other. No longer seeing each other as competitors, more and more camps openly share programmatic ideas, staff training strategies, and Jewish learning models. In addition, they realize that the families they serve share similar priorities, standards, and expectations. By working together, the field of Jewish camp can better address the diverse needs of today’s Jewish families.

This summer, for the first time, we added a new component to our Executive Leadership Institute, our highly regarded 18-month management fellowship for seasoned camp directors. The 16 members of this fourth ELI cohort left their home camps for two to three days to travel together in small groups to visit other Jewish camps. Many of them had never been to a camp other than their own, and the level of sharing and learning exceeded our expectations. Each director returned home with fresh, innovative approaches to issues ranging from how to maximize water skiing programs to how to amplify Jewish learning at camp – and everything in between.

Overcoming adversity

I learned a powerful insight from the Jewish calendar during one recent visit to Eden Village Camp, an organic and sustainable farming Jewish specialty camp in Putnam Valley, N.Y. Eden Village dedicates a small plot in its garden to be representative of each of the 12 Hebrew months. For Av, they grow rose bushes to signify both the thorns of adversity – commemorating the mournful fast day of Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month) – and the comfort of the rose bud – representing the celebratory, traditional Jewish day of love on Tu B’Av (the 15th day).

This living breathing “calendar” illustrates the creative, intentional Jewish learning made possible at camp. In addition, for this week in particular, the garden presents an important reminder for the challenging times in which we find ourselves: even the most heartbreaking and difficult circumstance carries within it the promise of renewal.

I felt the sharp duality and contrast represented by the rosebush while visiting camps in southern California last month. In particular, walking quietly through the Camp Hess Kramer site in Malibu, which had been consumed and destroyed by the wildfires last November, I could feel the pain of all those who are deeply connected to the area’s camps, Hess Kramer, Gindling Hilltop, and JCA Shalom. And yet, imagine the great comfort in visiting those three camps, each operating so successfully on rental sites only seven months later, creating intentional and joyful Jewish experiences almost without missing a beat.

Renting part of a college campus, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps found ways to create a central outdoor gathering place, separate and distinct from the rest of campus. Nearby, they’d made a secluded (and powerfully emotional) prayer space with sacred remnants recovered from the fire-ravaged Malibu sites. Makeshift signage displayed in the cafeteria reminded all that this college campus had been transformed into their special summer home.

When long-established models aren’t taken for granted – and when we are open to exploring new approaches – benefits accrue for all.

No matter the thorns that may snag our best-laid plans or tear at the fabric holding us together, may we find hope and comfort in the promise of renewal – communally and personally – by remaining open to change and growth.

And may we each find inspiration and strength in the resilience, agility, and creativity demonstrated by all of our camp communities – especially by the camp professionals and lay leaders – dedicated to continuing their (and our) holy, vital work.

Jeremy J. Fingerman is CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC).

Originally published in Northern New Jersey’s The Jewish Standard; reposted with permission.