Seeding the Jewish Future

by Jeremy J. Fingerman

One of the hottest topics of today’s Jewish communal conversation has been success of experiential learning experiences, and how synagogues, day schools, and others can transform their programs to embrace this trend and be even more effective. On the eve of Tu B’Shevat, Jewish Arbor Day, it is very appropriate to ask what we as a community can learn from this holiday and Jewish camping.

The Gemara in Taanit (23a) teaches that Honi HaMagel was journeying on the road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked him, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied “Seventy years.” Honi then asked him, “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied, “I found carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me, so I also plant these for my children.”

While this coming summer will celebrate the milestone 110th season for Surprise Lake Camp in New York and Tamarack Camps in Michigan; those trees planted many year ago continue to provide us great lessons in the ways we effectively engage Jewish youth.

In 2011, FJC released new research, CAMP WORKS: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp and The AVI CHAI Foundation released Limud by the Lake Revisited. For the first time, we are able to provide systematic and quantitative evidence that summers at Jewish camp create adults who are committed to the Jewish community and engaged in Jewish practice – the cornerstones of a vibrant Jewish future. This research shows that camp works, yet as a field, Jewish camp refuses to rest on its laurels. We at the Foundation for Jewish Camp will not be complacent; we must refresh and renew and lead the innovation within the field and beyond it.

Based in part on this research, our new strategic plan sets our course for the next five years. We remain firmly committed to our focused goal: to significantly increase the number of children experiencing the transformative power of Jewish summer camp. To do so, though, we know we operate in an ever-changing world and we must remain flexible, resourceful, and entrepreneurial in order to continue to serve the Jewish community in a high-performing, meaningful way.

I want to highlight just one of the innovative projects that is planting trees for the next generation. In 2006, we provided the first seed funding to create a communal-based program to provide incentives for more families to try Jewish camp for the first time. Over the last five years, a total of 33 communities and over 30 other partners have participated in the One Happy Camper program, and thus far over 30,000 kids have experienced Jewish camp as a result of these efforts.

In 2011, Columbus, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia “graduated,” to self-funded programs, introducing new and increased support on the local level for Jewish camp initiatives, and creating sustainability in the long-term. This year, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Middlesex, New Hampshire, and Palm Beach have also reached sustainability. All of this success is the result of the hard work of federation professionals acting as ambassadors for Jewish camp and local philanthropists who made an investment and commitment to support the camp enterprise in their community.

Initially Honi could not relate to the zeal that someone might have to plant for the next generation, but for those of us who have been touched by camping, it is hard not to connect and share that passion. Our push forward is to empower more communities to join us in passionately planting now for the future. Today’s Jewish communities need and value camps for their role in generating and leveraging more passionate engagement. Working together, we can and we will create a stronger, more vibrant Jewish future for generations to come.

You are welcome to join in the conversation by speaking with your Federation, Synagogues, or join in directly at our biennial Leaders Assembly next month. Jewish camp is a utopia where planting those trees will create sustained model for a committed next generation.

Jeremy J. Fingerman is CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp.