By Yakov & Estee Fleischmann
“We can’t handle that kind of volume!” the FedEx employee said.
For the first time in Camp Stone’s 50 year history, we were unable to open. But we didn’t just lock the front gate and say, “See you all next summer.” Our commitment to extraordinary experiential Jewish education pushed us to do more. We started by inviting the 45 most senior members of our emerging adult staff to come to Camp Stone with us to run a virtual program. Our program was called Indoor World, the name cleverly inspired by a very large covered but open air structure in camp that all members of the camp community would connect to. But how could we make the virtual experience an actual experience? We called the local Fedex office in Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania to send care packages to each of our campers and staff members participating in our Indoor World program. They were not equipped to deal with 1,250 care packages.
At Camp Stone, our tagline is “Where Nothing is Impossible.” So we went directly to the FedEx hub at the Chautauqua County Airport. On the loading dock we explained to the 15 FedEx employees the reason for our visit. Even if we could not bring our community together in person at camp, at least we could send Camp Stone to them. Even if summer had to be canceled, Jewish life would never be canceled. And then all of us, working as one team with one mission, put on the shipping labels and tracking numbers, and sorted our boxes of joy to send all over North America and Israel.
For us at Camp Stone it is all about the mission. This summer we were facing a very unique challenge – how do we create immersive experiences without being together? In any normal summer, transformative professional development for our staff is as much a part of our mission as creating meaningful experiences for our campers. We were determined that this summer would be no different. When we realized that we could not run camp safely this summer for our campers, we shifted our focus and created Indoor World.
Indoor World was a two week experience where we challenged our staff to bring all that is Camp Stone to homes around the world. We started with exploring what forms of media and connection our campers know and consume, and developed from there a myriad of camp-style opportunities for engagement. Each day there was bunk time, a night tochnit run by the Rosh Eidah (unit head), and a chavruta program with learning based on historical precedents from which we can take away lessons and meaning for our own times.
Who needs Netflix if you know the actors on the Indoor World YouTube channel? Waiting for the next “Tochnit” (activity) video to drop? You’re not the only one! Multiple daily challenges for individuals, bunks and families, with a leaderboard that was updated each day, created serious suspense, competitiveness and excitement around the great race. And staff around the world offered a full array of daily electives to choose from.
And then the special programs. Children and families around the world participated in our Chutz, sleeping outside in their backyards. Our Beit Midrash was as alive as ever with 30-50 kids meeting before davening each morning to learn mishnah and drink hot chocolate – and completing all of Masechet Taanit and participating in a siyum. And our Color War included all of the highlights of an in-person experience including a coordinated relay race with 20 challenges performed simultaneously from around the world.
In those two weeks alone, we had 85,000 hits to our Indoor World website and our Indoor World YouTube channel had 25,000 views. Our dedicated and exceptional staff created authentic connections with campers without a single camper on the premises. Being physically distant does not mean you cannot make immersive experiences and create meaningful connections.
And those 1,250 care packages? Each arrived at the home of a happy camper, filled with individually packaged items to be opened over the duration of the program. Some of the highlights included a personalized, handwritten Shabbat – O – Gram for each camper from a past staff member, Indoor World swag, and virtual reality goggles which the campers used to view videos of their beloved summer home. AND all of it was hidden behind codes, secret keys, locks, and ciphers, so that the campers could decode their box one step at a time. The box even contained a false bottom with an additional surprise for the very end of the program.
At this very unique moment of crisis, our mission called on us to step up for our camp community. If there is any lesson we have learned, it is that embracing an existence of destiny holds tremendous power. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik asks in his iconic Kol Dodi Dofek: The Covenant of Destiny, what is the difference between fate and destiny? Fate is uncontrollable, destiny can be directed. There he writes:
“Fear finds its instinctive expression in a common quest for protection through gathering together. The secret of individuals uniting into one camp in the face of peril is well-known to the animal instinct.”
We brought those 45 staff members to camp in the face of fear to remind our community of our common destiny. Our staff members boldly joined us to unite our community. Our vision, like Rav Soloveitchik’s, was “the vision of a camp-people that has ascended to the rank of a holy congregation-nation, bound together its fate with its destiny…” The drumroll of history places us in a setting, but our posture, our choices, our strength, and our agency can liberate us. By joining us in this effort to be active agents in the creation of our own future, each of us can transform these challenging circumstances into our destiny. If we come together making that choice, nothing is impossible.
Yakov and Estee Fleischmann are the Co-Directors of Camp Stone in Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania. They live with their five children in Efrat, Israel.
This piece is part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s summer series on innovation at Jewish camp. Visit www.jewishcamp.org/blog all summer long to read more!