Jewish Camps: How is the Magic Made?

photo courtesy Blue Star Camps
photo courtesy Blue Star Camps

By Joseph Reimer

Many of us have become increasingly aware that Jewish summer camps make magic. Camps provide powerful Jewish bonding experiences that lead many youth to feel more passionate about their Judaism. Yet we are not exactly sure how this happens. There have been empirical studies that support the power of the camp experience. Yet there remains so much that we do not yet know about how camps make this magic or what it would take to make Jewish camps even more effective zones of Jewish learning.

In order to tackle these questions, The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) and The Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) partnered to bring together last month front-line practitioners, researchers and funders to gather for a day of conversation and consultation. Together the group asked: “What do we not yet understand about how summer camps exert their Jewish influence that, if we did, could lead to those camps becoming even more effective at promoting Jewish learning and living?” This week, February 17-20, we will be bringing together a smaller group of thought-leaders to reflect on these questions in an on-line blogcast: Jewish camps: How is the magic made?

Our recent convening marked an unprecedented step for the field of Jewish camps. Never before have campers directors, researchers with experience in this field and funders with an investment in Jewish education come together to jointly consider what we need to know more about to help this field grow. The premise was that if we can identify the most promising issues and questions, we would be able to formulate a program of applied research that will have the greatest likelihood of yielding actionable knowledge. To accomplish that goal could lead to building positive change in the field of Jewish camps based on a solid knowledge base.

We called this gathering a “Problem Formulation Convening” – an important first step in developing a program of applied study for Jewish camps. We believe that a problem well framed is half solved. But all too often researchers or funders formulate the problems they wish to work on without deeply consulting the professionals who will be called on to make the changes in practice. This time we did things differently and convened members of all three groups to speak together to see if they could together formulate the problems most worth studying. Everyone who attended was asked in advance to bring the questions that arise when they consider: How do Jewish camps exert their main Jewish influence and in what ways could they do so more effectively?

Through the course of the day three primary questions emerged that call for more research.

  1. What is the optimal length and frequency of Jewish camp experience for children of different Jewish backgrounds so that they will be positively impacted by their time at camp?
  2. To what extent and under what conditions does serving as a staff member at a Jewish camp become a Jewish identity shaping experience for young adults that might lead to their serving as future leaders of their Jewish community?
  3. What is the logic model or theory of change that leaders of Jewish camps can employ to bring about the organizational changes that will make their camps more effective zones of Jewish learning?

The first question about impact on campers reflects the trend in American camping towards shorter camp sessions and the realization that families make varied decisions about how long to send their children to any given camp. It could prove very helpful to have more research on how long does a child need to be at a Jewish camp for any lasting positive impact on their Jewish identity to take effect.

The second question about camp staff arises from the realization that thousands of young Jewish adults work each summer as camp counselors and we know very little about how that work experience impacts their future Jewish commitments. We would also like to know how the substantial investment in their training as camp staff could be framed to encourage them to see themselves as preparing to become leaders of their future Jewish communities.

The third question about camp leaders reflects the great work that the Foundation for Jewish Camp has been doing in training camp leaders. Yet we do not yet know why some camp leaders prove so effective as Jewish change agents while others do not. What are the critical factors that account for those leadership differences and how can we intervene at critical points to help camp leaders turn their camps around?

We view these three questions as foundational for future efforts to develop applied research as a vehicle for change in the field of Jewish camps. But the recent convening was only a first step. The next steps will be to take the conversation on-line to sharpen these questions and to see which others can animate research that can make a difference to practice at camp. We urge camp professionals, researchers, funders and other interested parties to join this generative conversation.

Joseph Reimer is an associate professor of education at Brandeis University and member of the FJC/CASJE design team for applied research for Jewish camps.