Hiddur: Deepening Jewish Experiences at Summer Camp

summer campBy Joel Einleger and Aaron Saxe

Think for a moment of nearly any activity you associate with Jewish camp. Whatever comes to mind, chances are that the experience is communal, engaging, and fun. Now, more camps increasingly recognize that any camp experience can also be a quality Jewish experience for their campers and staff – if designed in a thoughtful, intentional way.

Over the last decade, multiple investments by different funders have focused on developing the Jewish experience at camp, and camps now have a wide range of professional development and training opportunities with this focus available to their seasonal and year-round staff. The field’s enthusiastic reception of these offerings has shown a steady appetite for learning how to deliver a better Jewish program. Now, our three foundations – AVI CHAI, Jim Joseph, and the Maimonides Fund – are advancing this vision even further by helping camps look comprehensively and systematically at where and how they are delivering the Jewish experience, and introducing ways to do it better.

The result is Hiddur, a new program of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). Camps work one-on-one with coaches who are highly experienced Jewish educators to develop specific Jewish experiential learning outcomes for their campers, staff, and camp community. Camps can choose to address a number of different areas, including Jewish peoplehood, connections to Israel, Jewish perspectives on nature and environment, Hebrew language, social justice (tikkun olam), marking sacred time through Shabbat and Jewish holidays, spirituality and mindfulness, and personal ethics (middot).

Hiddur is our attempt to answer critical questions, as explained by Michelle Shapiro Abraham, a Hiddur coach: “When children leave camp, what five or six Jewish components from the summer will the camp want them to retain? What outcomes from these summer experiences would we hope to achieve? How do we train our staff to support those outcomes? Jewish camp experiences shouldn’t be siloed – how do we bring the camp’s Jewish values to life, in every aspect of the camp experience, blended with that camp’s overall culture? Hiddur is like holding up a mirror and giving the opportunity for camp leadership to think about what’s important to them.”

The first Hiddur cohort is comprised of eight camps across the U.S., representing geographical, denominational, and mission diversity: Camp Daisy & Harry Stein (Arizona), Herzl Camp (Wisconsin), Camp Judaea (North Carolina), B’nai B’rith Camp (Oregon), Camp Sabra (Missouri), Emma Kaufmann Camp (West Virginia), B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp (Pennsylvania), and Camp Tel Noar (New Hampshire). These camps have committed to a three-year process and each has formed a Hiddur team – including professional and lay leadership – to work with their coach. The pilot camps also are participating in a Community of Practice to share their progress and challenges, as well as to further develop their skills to effectively implement Jewish experiential learning. Additionally, camps will have access to Ignition Grants to fund new Jewish initiatives during the summer.

Camps want to grow and evolve their Jewish experiences for a variety of reasons. Hiddur offers space to learn, experiment, and analyze regardless of why camps are driven to do this. Tom Rosenberg, a 27-year veteran of the Jewish camp field and current executive director of Camp Judaea, says Hiddur “provides the opportunity to increase the camp’s intentionality about the type of Jewish education being provided in camp. It does it in a systemic way, weaving together enrichment of diverse components of camp, from Ivrit and Israeli music to daily middot and tefillah. As a pluralistic camp serving a pretty diverse Jewish population, we want staff to demonstrate that diversity so all our campers can learn the many flavors of Jewish life and practices of Judaism in the world. We want to reinforce that we’re all Jewish, and to create a stronger Jewish community worldwide.”

Another director, Efraim Yudewitz of Camp Tel Noar, explains how he sees Hiddur helping to integrate Judaism further into the camp experience. “Our campers love Shabbat. They love Israel Day. These are things we do Jewishly that we love. Then there are things they love about camp that happen more on a routine basis, that are actually also Jewish things, but we haven’t talked about them in a Jewish context. For example, what kids love the most, what keeps them coming back next summer, are the relationships – community, friends, role models. There’s lots of things we do to help foster those relationships. The way we treat and relate to each other in Jewish law – ben adam l’chavero – is a language we talk about in camp, but campers don’t understand it as a ‘Jewish’ concept. I want to help our kids understand and feel like the regular routine camp stuff is Jewish too.”

The Hiddur model is an unprecedented endeavor in our field – in terms of the length of the initiative, its collaborative funding structure, and who it involves. Hiddur involves camp directors, as well as the inner circle of camp leadership, both lay and professional. This makes it more likely that all of the camps’ desired changes will be implemented regardless of staff turnover, new priorities that arise, and other extenuating circumstances. Joe Reimer, Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University and a longtime consultant in the field serving as a mentor to Hiddur coaches, makes the argument, “When you bring the broader camp community, including staff, parents, and lay leadership, into the discussion, everyone can see how the enhanced Jewish mission of the camp is an asset to the overall vitality of the camp.”

We recognize that implementing this type of change effectively and sustaining it for the long-term takes proper planning. That’s why our foundations made Hiddur a three year investment, offering ample time for the coaches to work with the camp’s Hiddur team to assess strengths and weaknesses and plan for change. The cohort of camps and coaches will grow together, benefiting all involved. Yudewitz explains the important cohort dynamic: “We’re not doing it in our own bubble, but getting the guidance to be really reflective over a longer period of time about what’s working and what isn’t. It helps us stay on task, be productive, and also do it much better.” And the coaches themselves will be able to collaborate and learn from each other over this time period as well, helping to ensure that each Hiddur team receives the highest quality level of training.

As foundations that already have invested in Jewish camp, we believe deeply in the power of the immersive experiences it offers. FJC’s strategy of focusing intently on the Jewishness of camp experiences is potentially game-changing – for the pilot camps and for the entire field. Learnings and strategies that come out of this initiative will be shared with the broader camp community.

Our three foundations now are working with FJC to help the pilot group with strategy and execution, and we again are reminded that there is much to be celebrated in the world of Jewish camping. We hope this program will drive success one step further by advancing the ability of Jewish camps to enhance and more effectively execute their Jewish missions.

Joel Einleger is a senior program officer at the AVI CHAI Foundation.
Aaron Saxe is a program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.