Mensch making

Accountability, kindness and faith in relationship

In Short

As adults, when we talk about being kind, it is hard not to first think about superficial niceties like a simple “hello,” sharing a smile, saying thank you or offering a compliment. And while these are all great things to put out into the world, it’s important that we broaden our understanding of and appreciation for what kindness is.

For years, George’s favorite superhero was Batman. Until he met Ben. Ben didn’t have a cape or cool gadgets, but he braved the one thing that George couldn’t dare face on his own – the hand dryer at camp. You’ve probably used one; they are loud. And for George, that meant the bathroom was a scary place. Ben noticed and would wait outside until George was ready to wash his hands and then cover his ears while he dried them. It’s doubtful that his teenage camp counselor was aware of the impact that this small gesture of kindness had on his camper, the gratitude his family felt, or that he had earned himself his own Lego minifigure at George’s home. But to his parents, it was clear that Ben’s act of kindness contributed to George’s sense of safety and belonging during his first summer at Jewish camp, and they were thrilled that their son felt seen and supported.

As adults, when we talk about being kind, it is hard not to first think about superficial niceties like a simple “hello,” sharing a smile, saying thank you or offering a compliment. And while these are all great things to put out into the world, it’s important that we broaden our understanding of and appreciation for what kindness is. It’s the foundation of relationships and is tethered to our accountability and commitment to each other. We weave a tapestry of commitments in each of our relationships. These commitments can be found in every call or text to a friend, in who is going to do the grocery shopping this week, in every word we speak, in how and where we spend our time, and with whom we choose to spend it. Our commitment to others requires constant choices and decisions, which can be challenging in a world of many options and distractions. What we choose to focus on, what we choose to put in front of us, and who we choose as company are all reflective of the commitments for which we hold ourselves accountable.

In the case of Jewish camp, an intentional culture of kindness lays the groundwork for the building of community, lifelong friendships and an environment where children can develop into the best authentic version of themselves, and younger adult counselors take on a commitment to teach younger campers. How do camps do this? What is the secret sauce? We think it has to do with centering on belonging, accountability to an inclusive community, and kindness. This past year, with the support of the John Templeton Foundation, Foundation for Jewish Camp conducted a landscape survey of the field of Jewish camp. Through this research, we learned that the virtues most important to camps are relational — those that enable campers to relate to each other well and build inclusive communities together. In fact, 84% of camps reported that they focus on kindness “very often” at camp and 74% said teamwork was a central value. This is in contrast to less relational virtues, like humility, which only 15% of camps say they emphasize very often. The American Camp Association even hosts an annual Camp Kindness Day, an event highlighting the practice of intentional kindness that happens every day at summer camps. This July, campers at participating Jewish camps took actions including creating paper chains and communal art filled with ways they show up for others, conducting interviews for ways their community shows kindness to each other at camp, and collecting and organizing food donations.

So, what really is kindness? How do we get more than superficial niceties toward deep kindness? How is it best nurtured in an immersive Jewish context? And how can it lead our next generation of youth to be accountable and committed to each other and to making the world a better place? These are the questions we will answer next. With appreciation for a generous grant from the Templeton Foundation to further our research, over the next three years FJC will work with a small group of camps to identify, refine and design best practices in character virtue development of adolescents and young adults, then evaluate their impact on the minds, hearts, and behaviors of campers and staff.   

For years, we in the Jewish community have accepted on faith that Jewish summer camp plays a significant role in the socialization of North American youth. We know it is a place where young people form their moral and spiritual identities and gain values and skills to contribute positively to the world. But this still leaves us with a big question of “How.” How can we make sure that the virtue of loving-kindness is taught, caught and sought by our children? It seems obvious that camps provide a unique opportunity to deepen character and strengthen virtues, build connections with each other, form a sense of belonging and become mensches (people of exceptional character) who have a positive impact on the world. But what do we really know about camps’ efficacy or process? And how can we learn from it? 

We are excited to explore what it is about the mission, culture and infrastructure of Jewish camps that allow them to be ideal laboratories for character development. We know that camp’s impact goes far beyond a time of the year, location in the woods, professionals, peers or program. Diving into the inner workings of these intentional counter-cultural, idyllic, holistic communities is the key to unlocking the science of mensch making for our larger Jewish educational enterprise.

Nila Rosen (she, her) is director of learning and research at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. She is passionate about cultivating healthy and resilient individuals, communities, environments and organizations that are deeply connected and intentional. Nila holds an M.P.H. in epidemiology in maternal child health from the University of California, Berkeley and a B.A. from Oberlin College in English and writing. She can be reached at nila.rosen@jewishcamp.org

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow (he,him) is the vice president of innovation and education at Foundation for Jewish Camp. He has a deep love of irreverent, relevant and revealing Torah and blogs religiously at saidtomyself.com. He can be reached at avi@jewishcamp.org

Aimee Lerner (she, her) is the marketing director at Foundation for Jewish Camp. She enjoys watching her child’s collection of counselor-inspired Lego minifigures grow along with his community, Jewish identity and sense of self each summer. She can be reached at aimee@jewishcamp.org.