Renew Our (Summer) Days of Old

by Jeremy J. Fingerman and Skip Vichness

Chadesh Yamenu K’kedem. Renew our days as of old.

As Jews, we can’t help but have these words roll off our tongues at this time each year as we experience the emotive and reflective liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But this year they have taken on new meaning as we, the lay and professional leadership of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the only organization dedicated solely to nonprofit Jewish overnight camps, also pause to reflect on the just completed summer.

During the hot months of July and August our Jewish papers, Google Readers, and colleagues spoke of organizational layoffs, budget reductions, and overall diminishing resources. But we experienced something completely different as we visited dozens of Jewish camps across North America; nonprofit Jewish overnight camps are flourishing! With new camps opening their doors for the first time, and established camps having record numbers of children in attendance, these summertime Jewish communities are blossoming and kids are happy as ever.

So what is going on at these camps – up in the mountains, on the beach, on a college or boarding school campus, in cities and on rural roads? Jewish camps are taking a page from the Machzor (High Holiday prayer book) and turning to the old and making it new again. Or in contemporary parlance, they are innovating.

In the long history of Jewish overnight camps, going back more than 100 years, camp staff and lay leaders have excelled at preserving the traditions and rituals that create warm summer memories while making each camp season fun and new. Contemporary camps, individually and as movements, are staying relevant to the modern camper and their families through a reinvention of programmatic offerings, state-of-the-art facilities, and communications strategies.

Examples of this abound. B’nai B’rith Beber Camp, Camp Alonim, Camp JRF, Camp Judaea, Camp Ramah in California, Camp Solomon Schechter, JCC Camp Chi, and Surprise Lake Camp have all made sustainability and environmental education a focus of their program. URJ Camp George is working with the Leo Baeck Day School on a new model of Jewish education; intended to link education in camp and school, Rabbi Noam Katz has joined URJ George as the Dean of Jewish Living for both institutions, providing children with a year-round congruent experience. In order to promote the arts and engage young people in Jewish learning through theater, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin hosts the Northwoods Ramah Theater Company; this unique program creates performances by collaborating with campers and using material ranging from ancient texts to contemporary literature. Recognizing that utilizing social media is becoming an increasingly important marketing tool, many camps are successfully using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and regularly blogging, including Berkshire Hills Emanuel Camps, Camp Livingston, Camp Poyntelle, Camp Tawonga, Camp Yavneh, and Capital Camps. Things like protecting the earth, education at camp, drama productions, and marketing are of course not new – but these camps are taking them to the next level and giving them a new face for today’s camper families.

Of course camps still have vibrant song sessions, but the songs are sung to new melodies. There are still activities, but they take place in updated facilities. There are still lifelong friendships being made. There is still ruach (spirit) all around. The key to maintaining this atmosphere of meaning is finding a balance between new and old.

Throughout this summer of constriction, gloom, and hand-wringing, the staff and leadership of the Foundation for Jewish Camp felt acutely the benefits of innovation as we celebrated the inaugural summers of five new Jewish overnight camps. Born from the recognition that today’s parents and campers are seeking a different type of summer camp and with the visionary support of the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Specialty Camp Incubator was launched. These new camps – Adamah Adventures, Eden Village Camp, Passport NYC, Ramah Outdoor Adventure, and URJ Six Points Sports Academy – sprung from the imaginations of seasoned professionals and inspired entrepreneurs alike who all shared the same dream: to introduce Jewish camp to children and families looking for a new kind of summer experience. These specialty programs provide the opportunity for children to hone a particular skill or talent while learning about and experiencing Judaism over the course of a summer. Exceeding all enrollment projections, the camps served hundreds of Jewish campers in their first summer, 70% of which had never attended a Jewish camp before!

These camp innovators took something old with a long track record of success – instilling a sense of Jewish identity and community through 24/7 immersive experiential education – and combined it with a new idea: a full-scale specialty program that enabled parents to chose a Jewish experience instead of a secular one.

Through the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Incubator, the directors’ innovative spirits were augmented by the support of the Jim Joseph Foundation and the partnership of the Union for Reform Judaism, the National Ramah Commission, and New Jersey Y Camps, among other important Jewish organizations to adapt the traditional camp model to the changing demands of Jewish families. At a time of contraction and pessimism, these new collaborations stand as a shining example of what is possible within our community and gives us even more reason to be optimistic about our future.

As we begin 5771, and think back on 5770, the vibrancy of the more than 155 nonprofit Jewish overnight camps that dot the North American landscape illustrates a critical message and sounds a shofar-like call to the whole of the Jewish community: don’t be afraid of change – welcome, embrace, and renew the old.

Jeremy J. Fingerman is CEO and Skip Vichness, Chair, Board of Directors, of Foundation for Jewish Camp.