Family Camp Year-Round

img_7164By Rabbi Avi Olitzky

Summer may be over, but camp is still very fresh in our minds at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. In fact, it is because of “family camp” that one integral sphere in our synagogue is robust and thriving – and giving back, both in time and in dollars.

The Minneapolis Jewish community and Beth El Synagogue in particular, has a long camping tradition, founding some of the greatest Jewish overnight summer camps in the country – including both Herzl Camp and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. And for many years, a large majority of the children in our community attended camp. However, as participation in the Jewish community has become more and more cost prohibitive, we’re losing potential campers – and potentially engaged families.

I am grateful that our synagogue has been successful at reaching the unaffiliated – many of whom are transplants to the community and do not have a family legacy of camp attendance or allegiance. However, it was clear that we weren’t doing enough to engage these families. We wanted to find a way to develop young family engagement, engender an environment of strong religious identity, and cultivate a new generation of campers.

We looked again toward one of our community’s time-honored traditions – summer camp. Many camps offer some sort of family camp model, an experience to bring together families for bonding, sharing stories around the campfire, and having fun. But family camp at a Jewish overnight camp, like Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, also offers shared immersive Jewish experiences. Their impact reaches beyond individual families. These family camps provide an opportunity to inspire and nurture a broader sense of community amongst participants. It was here that we saw the potential for a chavurah incubator – an opportunity to bring a group of our young families together with intentionality, to create a new community for them, and for our synagogue.

To subsidize this substantive Jewish experience and the subsequent events over the following year, we secured funding from a Seeds of Innovation grant through the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as support from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. In doing so, we were able to gather an initial cohort of 16 families on Beth El’s “radar” with children not yet old enough to enroll in fulltime camp. These families were a diverse representation of our community – a combination of engaged and not engaged, inmarried and intermarried, Jewish by birth and Jewish by choice, Minnesotan and recent transplant. These families became what we eventually came to call, our “Ramah-vurah.”

Family camp served as a bookend experience – both launching and closing the pilot year. And during the course of the year, it was our intention to measure the following:

  1. Impact on enrollment in the synagogue early childhood program and preschool.
  2. Impact on participation in synagogue young families programming.
  3. Impact on enrollment in the Jewish Day School.
  4. The quantity of families registering for family camp (or regular camp) in subsequent years without requesting the full subsidy.
  5. The potential development of additional chavurot based on the initial Ramah-vurah.

Over the course of the year, the Ramah-vurah formally gathered for Labor Day, Sukkot, Xmas Day, Shabbat Dinners and home barbecues, not to mention group outings to local charitable benefits. But even more impressive were the organic outcomes of this group.

Families invited each other over for Break Fast, Passover Seder, and more. One family served as the realtor for another family to buy a new home. When members of some of the families experienced loss or illness, others stepped in to help out. From carpools to playdates to a Facebook chat with over 1 million messages, it is really remarkable how this experience has created a true community.

Our synagogue community has also reaped benefits. Of the 16 families in the first cohort, at least 14 families now come to synagogue every Saturday. In addition, one of those families recognized the growth and the need and donated an additional five high chairs to the synagogue, unsolicited. And further, as a result of this initiative, at least half of the families have switched their child to the synagogue preschool or the community day school – and this number is increasing.

This small investment has already transformed the synagogue. So much so, that it’s time to look at including this initiative in our annual budget. We’ve officially bucked the trend. Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park has scores of children running around until the mid-hours of the afternoon and families schmoozing until it’s time to close up. For us – and I know this could be true elsewhere as well – family camp has been a key catalyst to that evolution.

Rabbi Avi Olitzky leads the Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.