From Crisis to Innovation at Jewish Camp

By Stephen Brand

Pandemics create interesting times for Jewish summer camps. At Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), we began this spring by rushing to figure out what thousands of campers could do virtually this summer. As an innovation consultant at FJC and a camp alumnus myself, I understand the importance of providing meaningful Jewish summer experiences remotely – and the challenges faced by the field in doing so successfully. As one director said during an FJC meeting: “Virtual is not what we do. We create intimate learning experiences that end with new friends, hugs and friendship circles with everyone holding hands.”  

So how might we innovate in a way that doesn’t attempt to replicate the irreplaceable experience of in-person camp, but allows campers and staff to connect in new ways?

Crisis breeds innovation. Life remains unpredictable. We are living in a world we couldn’t imagine 5 months ago; who knows where we will be in 12 months or even 3 years? These are the questions we are pondering at FJC, working with our community to imagine and build toward a strong and vibrant future.

With most overnight camps closed and void of campers immersed in Jewish learning, FJC considered the impact on college-aged counselors and camp staff as well. These dedicated professionals are the heart and soul of Jewish camp, and they consistently seek out opportunities for learning and growth to the benefit of themselves, their campers, staff, and the entire field. In this summer like no other, how could FJC innovate to support their desire to continuously evolve meaningful, inspirational and engaging camp experiences? How could we support and accelerate their process of innovation to move the entire field forward? The answer: FJC has joined forces with the field to create the Jewish Camp Hack-a-thon and the Jewish Camp Innovation Challenge.  

The Hack-a-thon will be a two week intensive innovation immersion experience designed for 18-25 year old camp counselors in cross camp/cross movement teams to explore how to keep camp staff engaged all year long, leading to more retention year after year. The participants, trained in a range of innovation tools, will scan the world for inspiration, interview stakeholders to understand challenges and aspirations, look at the situation through the eyes of the people we serve, and then learn how to pitch their ideas to camp directors who might launch these ideas at their camp and beyond.

Engaging this key age demographic has long been a challenge for camps — as has staff retention – and we are excited by the possibilities of the Hack-a-thon in a post-pandemic world. Virtual convenings like the Hack-a-thon have the potential to keep young adults involved in Jewish camp – and Jewish life – not just during the summer, but year-round. Additionally, during a typical summer, counselors rarely have a chance to interact with their colleagues at other camps – let alone in other movements. This initiative re-affirms our belief that every camp is connected. We are all part of the same community. When camps come together to share their unique ideas and individual experiences, all of us are enriched. We’re excited to see the innovative ideas sparked by this cross-camp and cross-movement collaboration. We hope to foster similar opportunities far into the future.

In a separate six-week experience, we will also bring together camp professionals, lay leaders and partners in the Jewish Camp Innovation Challenge.  Participants will work in cross organizational teams where they will design, refine, and test ideas that employ similar tools to build and create initiatives that will position Jewish camp(s) to thrive in our rapidly changing world.  Participants will be provided with expert mentors and design thinking and planning tools to refine their ideas, addressing challenges in operations, marketing, program creation and building Jewish identity.  At the end, they will pitch their ideas to a panel of experts who will help determine which teams may be eligible for funding to pilot and launch their initiatives over the next 4 months.  

As with the Hack-a-thon, the Jewish Camp Innovation Challenge creates a unique opportunity for cross-camp, cross-movement, and cross-field collaboration. Camp professionals are among the most innovative, creative, and dedicated people to serve the Jewish community, and we cannot even begin to imagine the groundbreaking ideas they will generate and impactful pilots they will implement through collaboration. 

While the ideas developed by both groups are unknown to us right now, we anticipate seeing initiatives that reinvent what we believe camp to be and will help the field continue to be relevant, forward thinking, and expansive. We’re excited to see what emerges out of the minds of the participants. Crisis may breed innovation, but the best innovations outlast the crises that inspired them. We have no doubt that the initiatives and pilots generated this summer will impact Jewish camp for years to come, and look forward to exploring the potential of virtual cross-camp convenings to build connection and inspire innovation year-round.

Stephen Brand is an innovation, entrepreneurship, strategy consultant and professor. He has taught engineers and business students in how to generate research and launch new ventures in a wide range of industries. He spent many summers at the URJ Eisner and Harlam camps as a camper, counselor, songleader and administrator and is very excited to use his expertise in innovation and entrepreneurship back in his summer camp roots. He has a master’s in Education from Harvard and a doctorate from Case Western Reserve University.  Stephen is a consultant at Foundation for Jewish Camp and is inspired by the FJC team of collaborators on these projects.

The piece is part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s summer series on innovation at Jewish camp. Visit to read more stories throughout the summer.