Overnight Camping at AVI CHAI: Deepening Connections to Judaism at Camp

by Joel Einleger

Overnight summer camps offer a goldmine of opportunities for building and deepening connections to Judaism and Israel. Camps are fully-contained and controlled laboratories for experiential education. In this unique environment, campers and staff can participate in new Jewish rituals and customs, meet Israelis who work as staff, and can explore their Jewish interests. Counselors and campers – who may only be a few years apart in age – develop strong bonds through living together. The counselors become role models, including modeling living Jewishly, as they guide their campers through the day and evening, during meals and in the bunk.

Still, not all Jewish camps recognize the Jewish education and Jewish identity-building potential offered through the summer camp experience. In contrast to institutions that provide formal Jewish education, like day and congregational schools, camps may not need to make the summer experience a Jewish one to successfully attract campers, and directors may consider their goals reached if campers have a good time and parents are satisfied with the happy stories and new skills their children bring home. Further, some Jewish families shopping for a camp may not realize that nothing need be sacrificed in the camp experience if Jewish growth and learning are also a part of it.

Even when camp directors and boards recognize the potential for the camp experience to be a formative, Jewish one, they may not know how to make it happen. Which programs are likely to be effective and fit into the camp’s rhythms? What special training might the staff need to run these programs? Which experiential techniques will be most effective to make a strongly Jewish impact? While the “magic” that makes Jewish camp memorable may resemble a staged performance that runs throughout the summer, it won’t occur randomly or without lots of training and preparation. Ideally, it must also be built around a Jewish vision and planned outcomes for what the campers and staff will learn, feel and do during and especially after the summer.

AVI CHAI focuses its funding in the field of overnight Jewish camps on programming that enables the camps to infuse the summer with positive and engaging Jewish and Israel experiences, as well as to help more children attend quality Jewish camps. The approaches in which we have invested include:

  • Training and inspiring camp directors, assistant directors and large numbers of seasonal staff each year to execute meaningful Jewish and Israel educational programs during the summer;
  • Helping camp professional leadership develop a coherent and comprehensive Jewish and Israel strategy and education program;
  • Supporting the field in its efforts to increase camp enrollment and capacity, and to strengthen the work and the role of the central advocacy agency in the field, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC);
  • Engaging alumni to support their camps and bring to life the Jewish learning and values gained from their own experience.

We have learned some lessons over time about how to do this work in a way that is most effective at animating the “magic” of a self-contained Jewish environment:

  1. Invest in people. Committed, passionate and well-trained staff are crucial to the quality and impact of the camp experience. This is as true in day-to-day operations as it is in integrating meaningful Jewish content and experiences that add to the power and joy of camp. That is why we fund programs such as the Cornerstone Fellowship, which offers Jewish educational training to exemplary returning bunk staff, and Yitro, which trains the next generation of camp leadership, who are now the assistant and associate directors (both are FJC programs). We have also funded training for staff with a variety of other responsibilities: helping activity specialists to incorporate a Jewish framework in areas such as theater arts, visual arts, sports and music (Kivun, program of URJ and Ramah) and training Daber Fellows (program of Ramah), who are tasked to raise the profile of Hebrew language at camp.
  2. It’s not just the camp director. While the camp director sets the Jewish vision and tone of the camp environment, the realization of that vision is oftentimes most successful when others at camp also play critical roles in its execution. For instance, our grantee program Lekhu Lakhem, developed by Jewish Community Center Association (JCCA), prepares overnight camp directors to see themselves as Jewish educational leaders. To increase the impact of this program, we then funded Chizuk, which identifies and places senior-level Jewish educators (Chizuk Fellows) at camps whose directors already participated in Lekhu Lakhem.
  3. Create – and coordinate – a holistic environment. In short, the magic of camp really comes to life when the staff can work together collaboratively toward shared Jewish educational goals that are woven seamlessly throughout the camp experience. Particularly as the Jewish education training options have grown in number and popularity for camp staff, this takes planning and coordination. As an example, in the area of Israel education, each year the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) recruits and trains almost 1,000 shlichim to work as counselors and activity specialists at Jewish overnight and day camps in North America over the summer. To increase the impact of Israeli shlichim and weave Israel education throughout camp, we fund programs that not only train the veteran shlichim themselves, but also aid in collaborations and planning between shlichim and American camp staff. Additionally, the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Israel History (co-funded with The Lillian and Larry Goodman Foundations and the Marcus Foundation) helps camps not only select and train an Israel educator at each camp, but also develop and implement an entire Israel education curriculum.

Through the strategies and programs mentioned above – combined with the others that make up our camping portfolio – we hope to enhance the Jewish magic of camp and realize those opportunities that make camp that special Jewish environment. To learn more about our camp programs, you can visit here.

Joel Einleger is Senior Program Officer – Director of Strategy of AVI CHAI’s Camp Programs.

Cross-posted on The AVI CHAI Foundation blog.