By Aaron Hadley
Typically, we spend 10 months of the year planning our summer at Camp Ben Frankel. While each year is different and special, we have a baseline understanding of which programs, activities, and experiences will give campers and staff an incredible summer. But this year is anything but typical. After our Board voted to approve the recommendation to cancel camp in early May we suddenly had weeks to completely reinvent and re-imagine camp.
Camp is so important to our campers, staff, alumni, and families. Many of our campers and counselors hail from places with small Jewish communities; for them, Camp Ben Frankel IS their Jewish community. Camp is the place where they form their sense of Jewish identity, become immersed in Jewish values, and connect with Jewish people their own age – setting them up for a lifetime of Jewish engagement. We couldn’t just let a year go by without any camp experience.
We began to experiment with virtual programming. We drafted creative problem solvers to help us innovate in this new online environment. The process was like a combination of a tv writer’s room and a friendly version of Shark Tank – someone would pitch a proposal to the group, everyone else would give it feedback, and we’d emerge with the best ideas. While this isn’t the summer any of us planned for, we wanted to make it the best summer of 2020 we possibly could.
In working to re-imagine camp from the ground-up, we were guided by one seemingly simple but incredibly important question: “Can we reinvent camp but still preserve the camp magic?” This led us to a related question: “what is camp magic?”
One of our camp songs mentions “friendship, fun, and excitement,” and while the magic of camp can’t be fully captured in these three words, they represent the basic important elements that we needed to occur in any of our online activities. Each one had to enable campers – even in an online space – to create and maintain friendships. Each program had to be fun and compelling, with an element of “wow.” And perhaps most importantly, the experience had to be interactive, and not passive. We didn’t want CBF Online to feel like watching a show or video. We wanted it to feel like being part of a camp community.
We never anticipated just how personal, interactive, fun, and social the online format would be. Activities such as Bob Ross-style painting, sports broadcasting, creating a podcast, cooking, making music videos, and more have been incredibly successful. In fact, having virtual camp this year has given us the opportunity to engage talented working professionals from all over the globe who – in a typical year – wouldn’t be able to commit to working at camp. Our campers are learning from a screenwriter in Hollywood, an NBA coach in New Orleans (who got his start at Jewish camp), counselors from Israel, and Ari Shapiro from “All Things Considered” – just to name a few!
Of course, a significant portion of camp magic takes place outside of structured activities. There’s nothing like sharing experiences with friends and bonding with bunkmates. We wanted to recreate this experience virtually as well, which led us to implement an optional unstructured hour-long lunch hangout. Campers can sign in, eat lunch, and socialize with bunkmates and counselors. It’s gratifying to see the way genuine friendships are forming and growing right before our eyes. Campers keep telling us, “It feels like camp.” Additionally, we can now invite whole families to enjoy Kabbalat Shabbat services with their camper, giving us a new level of socialization, connection, and community.
Once we’re living in a post-pandemic world (hopefully soon!), the online format can help us augment camp experiences and make camp more accessible to a greater number of people. For example, we could host camp reunions or Winter Camp sessions to keep our community engaged year-round. We could engage a potential camper who may not feel ready for overnight camp by suggesting they attend a summer online. Not only would the “risk” be lower, but they’d come to camp the following year already knowing other campers through their virtual experience.
We have the potential to widen our net to provide a Jewish community for all kinds of campers from all over the world; we have new campers from coast to coast who say that they can’t wait to attend our in-person camp next summer. We also have new campers whose special needs may have precluded them from trying our overnight camp – now we’re working with their parents to find a way to welcome them at our physical camp in 2021.
While closing camp was a situation we never could have anticipated, virtual camp has enabled us to explore new ways of reaching – and even growing – our camp community. When in-person Camp Ben Frankel re-opens next year, we’ll be grateful to return to our familiar “camp magic” – and excited to leverage the new “camp magic” we acquired this summer in support of our community.
Aaron Hadley is the Director of Camp Ben Frankel, traditionally an independent overnight Jewish camp. He formerly served as Chief Operating Officer for Camp Kesem National and Assistant Director for Beber Camp.
The piece is part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s summer series on innovation at Jewish camp. Visit jewishcamp.org/blog to read more stories throughout the summer.