Filling a Gap: New Program is Training Jewish Outdoor Leaders

JOLTBy Deborah Newbrun

Where do nature, wilderness and trip leaders go to learn best practices and outdoor Jewish teaching inspiration for their Jewish summer camps?

A generation ago, Jewish summer camp song leaders across the country began to be trained in an innovative program by the best in the business. This song leaders’ training program, called Hava Nashira (held at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute) and which continues to draw attendees throughout North America, created a fertile ground in which song-leaders emerged after four intense days with new skills to lead and inspire Jewish summer campers. This provided the spark of an idea as I considered a gap in Jewish summer camp strength – Jewish outdoor leaders training.

Jewish camps run nature departments and outdoor travel programs all over the country, and yet training for Jewish outdoor educators across the country has no set standard for how Judaism gets infused with campers’ experiences in nature. There are national camping standards for safety, of course, but there are vastly different knowledge bases from camp to camp on how to travel through nature with campers and for teaching about nature in a Jewish setting. This impacts campers’ awareness of the rich set of connections between nature experiences and Judaism, which are so abundant that when triggered they can help to strengthen young people’s emergent Jewish identity.

For example, an outdoor leader at a Jewish summer (day or resident) camp may be a Wilderness First Responder, technically trained to address a physical emergency, but they likely don’t know how to lead campers in a guided session in nature on being a blessing, as our forefather Abraham was asked to be by God in the Torah. And, while a Day Camp Director obviously will know CPR and First Aid, they might not know how to lead a meditative hike with campers using Jewish text for reflection and conversation.

So, in May of this year, with funding from the Foundation for Jewish Camps and AVI CHAI Foundation, we convened our pilot group near Yosemite National Park for the first-ever session of Jewish Outdoor Leadership Training for summer camp employees – aptly abbreviated to JOLT. For five intense days, these camp and wilderness leaders from nine summer camps (who together reached somewhere btw 7000-8000 campers) found new connections to their Judaism and ways of teaching Judaism outdoors and on the camp trail.

JOLT honed the groups’ skills on practical wilderness leadership, like how to run a great hike, how to lay down safety rules on the trail, the ethos and pragmatics of Leave No Trace, taking care of camping equipment, and how to purify water. Our Torah teaches us that we are made of earth and a divine spark, so, importantly, a major part of JOLT was teaching the gathered leaders (interestingly, most were Heads of Teva, Nature, or Tripping departments) how to teach Judaism outdoors and on the hiking trail in a way to inspire campers and staff around the country all summer long.

Most of JOLT was spent outdoors, including, fittingly, a daylong trip that had to be squeezed in between lighting storms in Yosemite National Park. Leaders learned how to build their own kabbalat shabbat service outdoors, facilitation skills for activities that connected trees and stars to our sacred texts and heritage.

After five days, JOLT attendees gave the program high marks in their end of training evaluations. They shared how prepared they were to teach Judaism to others in nature: “Before coming to JOLT, I could not see a clear connection between Judaism and nature, but after just a couple of hours I could see and feel the deep connection … I’m leaving JOLT as an overnight trip and Jewish values counselor.” “JOLT has deepened my connections with Judaism and nature. It has given me the tools and confidence to make my nature and camp programs even stronger.”

Leaders also felt more practically prepared: “I came here with little and very basic knowledge of outdoor safety and education. I feel like I left here with a mini degree in the field.”

And, the first years’ attendees left JOLT ready to lead and with a cohort of colleagues to support them: “JOLT helped empower me to try new things and push myself … the culture and connections were constantly positive and empowering.”

Since the summer season started I’ve received emails and texts from several JOLT participants. One trained his entire summer camp staff in an activity he learned with us: Martin Buber’s I/Thou Moment, using a passage from Buber’s book about a tree. Another shared: “I planned and executed a solo hike for my staff at the start of orientation and it was such a hit that I’ve been asked to run it for several other departments in camp!” And, from a Day Camp Director: “Thanks Deborah, you and Becca have been with me all week, in my head as I run staff training.”

JOLT is a collaboration between Deborah Newbrun, the longtime former Director of Northern California’s, JCCA affiliated, Camp Tawonga, and Camp Tawonga’s current Associate Director Rebecca Meyer. Deborah built the Wilderness Department at Camp Tawonga and Rebecca has strengthened and deepened it.

JOLT’s creators and base are thus nationally recognized leaders in Jewish summer camp wilderness experience, and Camp Tawonga is the biggest institutional backcountry user of Yosemite National Park.

This innovative collaboration notably between two women leaders, filling the gap in Jewish Outdoor Leadership, is ramping up for its second year and seeking to expand past its pilot stage. Like Hava Nashira, it would be good to look back a generation from now and see that our Jewish nature, tripping, wilderness and teva teaching around the country benefited from consistent, focused training and inspired a whole generation of leaders to get ready to help thousands of kids create meaningful connections between Judaism and nature every summer.

Deborah Newbrun is a leader and mentor in the Jewish camping sector. A 26-year veteran of Camp Tawonga, where she served as Executive Director, she is also the co-author of “Spirit in Nature: Teaching Judaism and Ecology on the Trail.”