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Jewish day camps – The entry into lifelong joyful Judaism 

In Short

Parents of campers at Jewish day camp reported their children building new friendships, trying new things and being joyful and happy.

It was the fifth day of camp. Shabbat was approaching and the kids and the staff were raucously singing and dancing in the shaded amphitheater, accompanied by acoustic guitar on the stage. There was one parent there — the Shabbat Queen for the day. She couldn’t help but get swept up in the moment, joyfully clapping along and explaining her amazement to the camp’s director that in just five days, it was clear her son had found a space where he could grow, be comfortable in his Judaism and have fun. That trifecta was something the family had never experienced before. 

I was that camp director. And in that moment, I truly recognized the role of Jewish day camp for young kids and their families. And in December, at our biennial conference, Leaders Assembly, I had the great privilege of addressing more than 100 day camp professionals and lay leaders,  representing 160 day camps and approximately 90,000 campers and staff. 

Over the past several years, the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges have forced all camp professionals to make complex and difficult decisions. Across the board, they have worked tirelessly to gather the information needed to weigh all the options and make decisions that are best for their communities, campers, families and staff. 

In 2020, the 100-plus day camps that decided to open paved the way for the field in understanding what running a camp in the time of COVID could look like.  Day camp professionals met the moment bravely and strategically, learning to operate in new ways that prioritized in-person connection and safety. 

Day camp leaders never slowed down, and the data from the 2022 day camp satisfaction insights survey shows that their efforts had a great impact. Of 3,500 parent survey respondents, 68% indicated that their camper spent five or more weeks at Jewish day camp, and 86% were either satisfied or extremely satisfied with their child’s experience there. Across the board, parents reported their children building new friendships, trying new things and being joyful and happy. And of the 1,000 seasonal staff members who completed the survey, more than 75% reported having someone at camp to turn to to help them through challenges. Even more agreed with the statement, “I have gained friendships while working at camp that will last outside of camp.” And truly, what could be more meaningful in today’s world?

That’s why it was so important to me and my colleagues at Foundation for Jewish Camp that the conference design of Leaders Assembly 2022 both serve and elevate day camps. With the help of a small and mighty committee of day camp leaders, we spent over a year selecting plenaries and breakout sessions with day camps in mind, ensuring there was time in the schedule for day camp leaders to gather and moments where they could see the power of the field when it moves as one, like at our celebration of FJC at 25 years at the Atlanta Aquarium. We made sure that in the Kikar, our community gathering place at the conference, day camp leaders could find vendors that had something specific to offer them, as well as a meet-up spot to debrief the experience with their fellow day camp professionals.

But for me, perhaps the most meaningful moment happened on the last leg of the conference, when a group of 20-plus day camp professionals went to tour the Marcus JCC Day Camp grounds. As we moved from one building to the next, we passed a group of singing preschoolers and their teachers. 

We heard a quivery adult voice question, “Do you remember me?” 

We looked up and saw that one of the preschool teachers had tears in her eyes. As our groups approached each other, she realized that she was face-to-face with her childhood day camp director, Lenny Kass, longtime director of Rainbow Day Camp in Milwaukee. He replied, “Of course I do,” as he and the teacher embraced. 

Growing up is a long and winding road for everyone and arguably more so during these complex pandemic and post-pandemic times. After concluding a conference that reinforced how important camp directors are, it was inspiring to come face-to-face with just one former day camper who had found herself in a new city, far from home, and had herself become a Jewish educator. 

For all the sessions, speeches and immersive experiences planned, I could not have imagined a better way to illustrate to day camp professionals the awesome power and responsibility they hold when young campers set foot on their grounds as tiny vessels. The impact is in the particular summer when day camp professionals connect with campers, and far beyond.

Jenni Zeftel is FJC’s director of day camp Initiatives and a former JCC day camp director. She holds an MA in early childhood education from Hunter College and spends most of her free time on adventures with her own tiny vessel, Violet.