Role models

Season of change: The importance of being a camp counselor

In Short

As the world changes, camps are finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain the best staff. While the pandemic has certainly exacerbated the problem, recruitment and retention rates amongst young seasonal camp staff have been in decline for several years now.

The truth is, I can’t remember anything about her except that I think she had long hair. She asked me, a new 14-year-old camper, to lead a short educational activity for my whole age group. I had never done it before, but she said she knew I could do it and that she would help. She wasn’t a particularly memorable camp counselor, but I never forgot how she made me feel, and I have tried to replicate that feeling of empowerment with my own campers, students and colleagues since. This story may be uniquely mine, but every camper and Jewish camp alumna has their own moment or role model that has helped shape them into the people they are today. Counselors are the linchpin of the camping experience and are key to making magic happen.

We at Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) have been thinking a lot about staffing camp. Happy and well-trained staff lead to happy campers who return summer after summer. These Jewish role models live with campers in their bunk, inspire them to see their own potential, and show them how to live Jewishly for the duration of their time at camp and beyond. But on top of the myriad of issues we have come to deal with during COVID-19, there is an existential crisis for camps regarding recruitment and retention of these essential seasonal staff. 

Attendance at Jewish camp as a camper gives children a network of Jewish peers and role models, enhances Jewish knowledge and increases their commitment to Jewish life. This impact is only magnified further when these young people come to camp as staff and have a formative Jewish experience of their own while creating these experiences for campers. For those who did not attend Jewish camp as a child, joining a camp community as a young adult staff member is an extraordinary on-ramp to a lifetime of meaningful Jewish connections, and an opportunity for camp communities themselves to diversify and bring in new perspectives that strengthen camp. While the broader Jewish community remains concerned about the affiliation and commitment of teens [and] college-aged and young adult Jews, the field of Jewish camp is replete with more than 15,000 of these highly engaged Jewish role models each summer. Deeper investment in this population is a major opportunity for Jewish camp to have a growing impact on the Jewish world.   

And yet, as the world changes, camps are finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain the best staff. While the pandemic has certainly exacerbated the problem, recruitment and retention rates amongst young seasonal camp staff have been in decline for several years now. With the visionary support of the Marcus Foundation, FJC convened a broad cross-section of the North American Jewish camp community last fall to examine the counselor experience and its many current challenges and opportunities. Working as an ecosystem with a shared belief in the importance and power of Jewish camp, we can move on from the structures and models that have been stagnating for years and reimagine a new and more resonant version of camp whose value proposition for counselors, potential counselors, and their families is stronger than ever. The needs facing the field are both urgent and important, and to make a significant and sustainable impact in the immediate and long-term future, our work moving forward will focus on the following areas: 

  1. Excellent Staff Experience – We need to build and enable excellent staff experience that creates the best possible conditions for each individual counselor’s success. This includes reimagining the staffing model, increasing staff support, setting the right baseline standards for the work experience and ensuring staff members are treated like the key stakeholders they are. 
  2. Attract & Retain Top Talent – We must remove barriers and amplify opportunities as a field to retain and recruit top candidates to camp. This includes ensuring all counselors are meaningfully and appropriately onboarded, compensated, rewarded and recognized.
  3. Talent & Career Development – It is time to boost Jewish camp’s performance and reputation as a place to develop and find top talent for the world beyond camp. This includes elevating on-the-job training and skills development, reimagining and personalizing the counselor job for individuals’ career aspirations, creating genuine opportunities for staff to advance those aspirations and making noise about camp as a reliable source of talent for future employers.

We are in the beginning phase of a three-year action plan that includes initiatives to reimagine staffing structures and compensation, enhance staff training and supervision, bolster counselor-focused human resources on the professional level and much more. 

Our initial action steps include providing much-needed resources to the field for summer 2022 through talent innovation funding. FJC awarded grant funding to 26 individual camps to pilot new and innovative staff recruitment and retention ideas in 2022. Grants were awarded for initiatives such as new staff positions focused exclusively on the counselor demographic, increased staff benefits and compensation, marketing efforts aimed at the parents of prospective staff and reimagined staff training.  

We are also excited to be partnering with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland to launch the Mandel Myers Fellowship program — a brand new college scholarship and leadership development program for college students from the Cleveland area who are counselors at Jewish overnight camp this summer. Knowing that camp counselors are also capable of being effective Jewish leaders within their own communities and beyond, this fellowship helps them connect the skills they develop at camp with their career goals. A $5,500 or $4,500 college scholarship on top of camp salaries offers many future Jewish leaders a meaningful opportunity that may have previously been financially burdensome or out of reach. 

When we reflect on all these investments, we do not know which of these experiments will work, but we are excited to try and are looking to scale what works in the field. 

Supporting the effort to recruit and retain strong seasonal staff for camp is critical in the immediate term, but it also plays a huge role in terms of our educator, lay and professional leadership pipeline downstream. So much of Jewish communal life depends on it. Ignoring the issues is not an option. Being a camp counselor is amazing. We are excited that as a field we are entering into a period of experimentation. This is truly a wonderful season of change. 

Julie Finkelstein is senior director of program strategy and innovation at the Foundation for Jewish Camp and works on initiatives that support Jewish camps and their leaders, particularly those aimed at enhancing the counselor experience. She earned an MBA from the George Washington University as a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and a BA in Anthropology from the University of Maryland. Julie currently sits on the board of Camp Tel Yehudah, where her own Jewish camp story began.