Developing Partnerships in Jewish Camping

Campers at JCC Camp Chi during their Special Olympics program in the summer of 2016; photo via JUF.

By Julie Finkelstein

With 10 Jewish overnight camps recruiting among the more than 300,000 Jews in the Chicagoland region and Southern Wisconsin, one might think that recruitment season would be spent trying to out-market, out-price, and out-schmooze each other to increase their numbers each year. But the professionals of the Midwest Camp Leadership Network choose to do things differently.

With decades of experience engaging Jewish kids and their families in transformative, immersive Jewish summer experiences, the directors from Beber Camp, Camp Interlaken JCC, Camp Moshava Wild Rose, Camp Nageela Midwest, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, Camp Young Judaea Midwest, Habonim Dror Camp Tavor, JCC Camp Chi, JCYS Camp Henry Horner and URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute see more in each other than just competitors.

From pluralistic to Zionist and Reform to Orthodox, these camps truly represent the breadth and depth of Jewish life today. Though the camps affiliate with different movements and offer unique programs, collectively, “the shared goal is getting kids to Jewish camp,” said Becky Altman, Director of Beber Camp.

As Rabbi David Soloff, CEO of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and one of the co-chairs of the Midwest Jewish Camp Directors group, puts it, “Collaboration has taken away the sense of internal competition between our camps, and instead elevates the entire field, allowing camps to focus on best practices in many areas.”

For many years the Midwest Jewish Camp Directors group included only the senior leadership of each camp. 15 years ago, the group began meeting three times a year to network and address common challenges and opportunities for Jewish camping in the region. Last year, with the help of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), the Midwest Camp Leadership Network (MCLN) was established to further expand the impact of the group’s collaboration and provides a framework for the group. MCLN is designed to include all members of the 10 camps’ year-round professional teams in shared professional training programs.

“We realized that if we want to be an excellent Jewish camp, we need to invest in all our leadership to remain relevant,” said Stefan Teodosic, Executive Director of Beber Camp and co-chair of the Midwest Jewish Camp Directors group.

The network convenes twice a year for training seminars and is in its second of its three-year span. With a goal to act locally and engage nationally, the new immersive cohort experience utilizes components from FJC’s signature national leadership initiatives, tailored and enhanced to meet the unique local needs and opportunities of these Midwest Jewish camps. Participating camps also have access to an advisor for 1:1 coaching and planning, and ongoing networking activities.

MCLN held its third training seminar which focused on handling difficult conversations with various stakeholders, including conversations with supervisory staff, camper parents, community partners, board members, and more. The workshop also included a session led by Rabbi Jessica Lott, interim director of the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience at Hillel International, exploring the unique needs and perspectives of Generation Z and their relationship to Jewish life.

This model of successful collaboration has the potential to improve professional networks as well as programming work in other areas of the country that have multiple Jewish camps. And this initiative has allowed the camps to find a real common ground and gain an appreciation for each other through their work together. According to Stephanie Wezelman, Assistant Director of Camp Interlaken JCC, “[her] team has taken something positive away from each of the sessions, implementing best practices into our year-round work. When all of our camps come together, we come out as a stronger whole.”

“The benefit or privilege to participate in something like this is a win-win because it is high quality, locally-based resource development,” said Soloff.

Through FJC’s efforts to strengthen Jewish camps one camper, professional, and camp at a time, the field of Jewish camp would benefit from seeing many more regional networks develop in the near future.

“As Jewish camping has become a professionalized career path which people aspire to pursue, the quality of the professionals working in the field continues to rise,” said Brad Finkel, Director of JCC Camp Chi. “MCLN is a model that allows different movements and camps to come together to better each other, ultimately helping to advance the field.”

Julie Finkelstein is the Director of Leadership Development at Foundation for Jewish Camp where she works on programs that support Jewish camps and their leaders across North America.

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