New Ways to Make Kids Excited about Camp

URJ & Ramah Service Corps Fellows
URJ & Ramah Service Corps Fellows

by Michelle Shapiro Abraham

What if you took a camp counselor – t-shirt and all – and dropped her in a synagogue? Instead of telling her to leave all that “campy stuff” at the door, invite her to bring it all in with her. Don’t stick her in a classroom on a Sunday morning to talk about camp for an hour, instead have her bring that “camp magic” year round to every activity and every kid in the building. Add a splash of “pied-piper” appeal and camp recruitment responsibilities and you have a Service Corps Fellow in action.

The Service Corps Fellowship asks the question, “What impact can a dynamic, excited camp staff person have on a congregation when he/she is focused on embodying camp in the community?” What can we learn from these Fellows about how to get kids interested in Jewish camp and build stronger Jewish communities?

Generously funded by an anonymous donor, the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Service Corps Fellowship places summer camp staff with at least two years of experience in synagogues for 4-5 hours a week during the academic year. Service Corps is a shared grant of the URJ and Ramah Camping Movements. Though each movement runs their own program, we share professional development programs, materials and learn from each other’s work.

Over the next two years, the program will ramp up from 25 Fellows in 2013-14 to 40 Fellows in 2015-16. URJ Service Corps Fellows are supported by camp professionals and a rabbi or educator in their assigned congregation and are charged with two main goals:

  • Cultivate an awareness of the power of camp in the congregation and encourage more students to attend Jewish summer camps.
  • Utilize best practices from Jewish summer camps including experiential education models, relationship building, and role modeling to engage students in Judaism and bring some of the “magic of camp” to congregational programs.

Though the data from year one is just coming in, we are now able to identify what success looks like and have a glimpse into a new and exciting approach to connecting children to camp and engaging them in Jewish life year-round.

Meet Jennifer. Jennifer is the one of the URJ Service Corps Fellows from URJ Greene Family Camp and is working at Temple Beth Shalom in Austin, Texas. Because of Jennifer’s work as a Service Corps Fellow, Temple Beth Shalom saw 36 campers attend URJ Greene Family Camp last summer and 50 kids enrolled for this summer, 15 of which are first-time campers. So what did Jennifer do? How did she (and other Service Corps Fellows like her) have this impact on camp enrollment with only seven months in the community? Wearing her camp T-shirt, Jennifer welcomes families each Sunday morning to Religious School. During the second half of the day, she helps teach chuggim (free choice activities) and includes camp lingo, activities and fun camp give-aways. She gets to know the kids and talks about how much she loves camp. When parents want to know more, she calls them and keeps in touch. She encourages students to join her at the URJ Greene Family Camp prospective camper weekend and spends time with them while they were there. She helps run a Camp Shabbat at the congregation, and takes part in other congregational programs (all in her camp T-shirt). In short, Jennifer is fully integrated as the congregation’s “resident camp counselor.” Jennifer is not alone – many of our Service Corps Fellows have become important parts of their communities and had a significant impact on camp numbers and student engagement with Jewish life.

We know from preliminary data that congregations that have been successful with Service Corps had a level of readiness before the Fellow started. Congregations that applied to this program were open to the idea of promoting camp and integrating experiential education. In most cases, at least one person on the professional staff spent time during their summer serving as camp faculty. Many ran a “Camp Shabbat” during the year, invited camps to do recruitment programs during the Religious School day, and integrated “camp-style” learning in to their education program. In addition, many of these congregations already offered some level of scholarships to help families with the expense of camp.

However, even with a congregation’s previous commitment to camp, Jenn and Service Corps Fellows like her have been able to have an impressive impact on camp recruitment numbers – an impact that all of those other efforts were unable to accomplish. So what is unique about the Service Corps approach and what can we learn from it for camp recruitment in all our settings?

First – by walking around in a camp T-shirt and being known as “the resident camp person” we believe our Fellows put camp on the radar in a deep and meaningful way. There are a lot of things competing for attention in a congregation – the very presence of a Service Corps Fellow seems to keep camp at the top of that list. Since the Fellow is in the room, camp and “camp-style” learning is often a topic of conversation and considered in program planning.

A second reason for the impact of the Service Corps Fellow program might be called the “pied-piper” effect – children want to follow the young adult who is fun, welcoming and engaging. If they like their Service Corps Fellow, and their Service Corps Fellow says “follow me to camp,” (or “go to the camp I went to”) they are much more likely to go. When you add to this fun activities and good times with friends, you have a perfect mix to attract new campers and engage kids in Jewish life.

Lastly, is the relationship-building that our most successful Fellows have been able to cultivate. Camp staff are master relationship builders. They know how to build community in the first five minutes of bringing their kids together in a cabin and how to make “friendships that last a lifetime” in the short eight weeks of summer. When we, through professional development and support, tap into that knowledge, there is a powerful outcome. Service Corps Fellows are talking to kids and parents, working with teachers, and creating friendships as they go. When this relationship is seen as what “camp people” do, families are drawn to the larger summer experience to get more of the same.

These successes suggest some interesting approaches for camp recruitment in all of our communities. Can congregations tap a young adult already on their staff – such as a teacher or part time youth advisor – to become the “camp person”? If they embodied the camp spirit and talked openly about their love of camp, could we see the same results? Are there ways to frame existing youth group or family-based programs with camp language and branding and thus put camp on the radar for more of our families? Are there tools of relationship-building from camp that we can use in congregations and schools to build our community and help people feel connected? As we continue the Service Corps program and learn from both our successes and our challenges, we will continue answering these questions and identifying new ways to connect our children to powerful and immersive camp experiences.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham has worked in the field of Jewish education for over 20 years. Her work focuses on blurring the lines between formal and informal education and brings her to camps, congregations and national organizations. Currently she serves part time as the Senior Program Manager for Camping for the Union for Reform Judaism, in addition to her work with the Foundation for Jewish Camp and other independent consultant positions.