A Swede, a Brit and a Latvian walk into the Leaders Assembly’s bar…

Courtesy Foundation for Jewish Camp

By Daniela Greiber

David was first a chanich, then a madrich and for the last 10 years, has been the Director of the Glamsta Jewish camp in Sweden. Sasha and Mina came from the Szarvas international camp in Hungary. Josh was the only Brit, representing RSY-Netzer, an international progressive Jewish youth movement. Tina came from Poland where she heads Atid, the main Jewish community summer camp. Ella joined from Germany where she founded the Russian speaking arts camp JArteck and Oleg came from Latvia where he heads camp Olameinu, serving youth from the three Baltic states.

This diverse group of European camp professionals were supported by the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe to attend the Leaders Assembly which brings together more than 800 camping professionals to the biennial conference of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) in Baltimore, USA. The atmosphere at the conference was very reminiscent of the special ruach that is created at summer camp. I should know – as a teenager, I was also a groupie, not missing any of the Hashomer Hatzair machanot in Chile during the late 70s and early 80s, before making aliyah. Jewish youth movements were huge in Latin America and the UK in those years, and many of my colleagues in the Jewish communal world in Europe and Israel today are graduates of those frameworks.

Some initial reflections following the conference:

1. Theres comfort in numbers: Four years ago, Sasha was the only European at the Leaders Assembly. This year, our group counted as part of a global delegation of 27 professionals from Europe and FSU. We were recognised and graciously welcomed as a distinctive group. Among our American counterparts, colleagues were happy to meet again, and badges helped members of program cohorts find each other. For our delegates, coming to the conference as a group was extremely helpful, we often sat together at sessions and meals; we consulted each other, occasionally translated and explained missed references and context, we have a shared experience to build on for future conversations. We also had tailored group sessions to process what we learnt. Reflecting on the impressions and experiences of the European delegates will help RFHE explore ways of supporting European Jewish camps to deliver richer Jewish experiences.

2. Tzarat rabim, chatzi nechama (Shared sorrow is half a sorrow): It is comforting to see that 80% of the issues that concern camp professionals are the same wherever you are – while Jewish camps in America have the infrastructure, professional staff, budgets and lay leadership, the successes, pressures and challenges are in essence very similar to those experienced in Europe. Coming to this conference acknowledges that “I am not alone dealing with this issue; somebody has dealt with this before and might be able to help. Now I know who to ask.”

3. Inclusionstill a long way to go. Issues of gender bias and sexual discrimination that are central to the current discourse in camps in America are only slightly referred to in European settings. Perhaps even more troubling, given the extensive legislation and years of experience integrating children with special needs into schools, the provision for campers with special needs is patchy and varies from country to country and camp to camp. We still have a long way to go.

4. Paid or voluntary camp leaderswho are they? In contrast to our American counterparts, by and large, Jewish camps in Europe are staffed by local volunteers – mostly young people who grew up attending their camp with a strong identification and motivation to give back. This is true in community camps and youth movement camps. Professional full time Camp Directors are rare in Europe and they usually are responsible for everything from logistics to recruitment to programming and content. However, issues of team retention, professional development and motivation that were extensively covered at the conference remain all too familiar to European camps.

5. Connecting with other funders. While the European delegates met and interacted with their peers, I also had the opportunity to connect with long term supporters of Jewish camp who generously shared their expertise and knowledge while showing deep interest about Jewish camps in Europe. As a result of these new connections, our American colleagues have referred queries they receive from camps in Europe to RFHE and we continue to learn and share. They advised the Foundation to keep asking the same sort of questions they have asked themselves over the years – not to rush or re-invent the wheel but to take time and learn the field, visit camps, have many conversations and ask many questions: What do the parents want? Where are the best training programmes? What would it take to keep the senior team involved? What is the role of the Jewish camp in the educational eco- system in European communities? Consulting other funders, attending the Leaders Assembly and selecting the participants for the European delegation are initial steps in RFHE’s learning process and we have now begun gathering more systematic data about Jewish camps in Europe.

Some European Jewish camp facts:

6. Europe is a diverse continent. In Sweden, Poland and Greece where Jewish communities are smaller, there is one central camp and often this is the only opportunity for youth from isolated communities to be part of a significant Jewish experience. In countries with larger Jewish population like Germany, France, Hungary and the UK, thousands of youngsters participate in a range of different camps, some associated with local and international youth movements and others unique to their local community. There is tremendous dedication, creativity and experience in these camps. They have a lot to learn from each other and their leaders have a lot to teach colleagues around the world.

7. Szarvas is probably the largest international Jewish camp in the world. Based in Hungary, it welcomes close to 1,000 campers from over 15 countries during 4 summer sessions running camp-wide sessions in English and separate programmes in multiple languages for each country delegation.

8. Short sessions. Most sessions in European Jewish camps last no longer than two weeks and very few camps have their own facilities. This means that most camps can’t justify employing full time staff, which in turn has implications for the level of training and professionalization.

9. Jewish character of the youth camps. Probably like in the USA; most Jewish camps mark Shabbat and use some Hebrew. In some camps the Jewish character is central to the camp’s mission and in others it is less marked. Some camps are connected to local communities where youth activities take place during the year and for others it is the only opportunity for the campers to have an immersive Jewish experience.

There is a lot of work to do…

10. Bringing home the inspiration – While most of the European delegates were inspired by the Leaders Assembly and will recommend others to attend, they were also very eager to think of ways to continue the conversations with their European counterparts and create their own community of practice. They told us they are keen to incorporate more Jewish educators to pre-camp training programmes and to camps. Some were also dazzled by the conference merchandise – “We have to get a new camp logo and print it on the camp shirts!”

11. Creating meaningful Jewish experiences – Jewish camps in Europe (as in the USA) have the potential to deliver the best Jewish experience for madrichim and for campers. It is also very easy to deliver a fun experience with very little content – campers are happy and parents are happy. RFHE is keen to find ways to support European Jewish camps in deepening the Jewish content of their programmes and deliver rich Jewish experiences that are relevant and meaningful.

12. When professional development is not enough – RFHE is deeply aware that professional development does not replace Jewish education. Training programmes, experts and communities of practice can enhance knowledge and skills of the team and the Jewish content of the camps, however often the youngsters delivering the programme know just a little bit more than the campers. Creating experiences that inspire the team and the campers to take back home the magic of the unique Jewish bubble shaped in camp remains the challenge faced by all those involved in Jewish camping.

13. How far does the camp mission go? Is it the camp’s responsibility to connect its graduates to the local community? Is it the camp’s job to build links with local Jewish schools, synagogues and community centres? To what extent is summer camp regarded as part of the communal infrastructure with the potential to inspire the next generation of communal leaders?

With so many uncertainties surrounding the future of the Jewish communities in Europe, there is great potential and vitality in European Jewish camps – communal bodies and funders are ideally placed to welcome the opportunities that camps offer for strengthening Jewish life.

Daniela Greiber is responsible for the Jewish Education Programme at the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe, based in London UK.