The “Jewish” at Camp: It’s Leader-Powered

Mission driven culture 2by Deborah Fishman

Over 700 Jewish camp professionals and devotees gathered for the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly this week. With the tagline of “One field. Moving Forward,” the conference featured an impressive array of speakers and skill-builders inside and outside the camping world, and even an Israel night with David Broza. A myriad of attendee-suggested and peer-led “hot topic” sessions addressed issues from “Living Jewishly All Year” to “What’s Your Israel Connection?” to “Institutional Collaborations to Strengthen Staffing.”

One thread I was particularly keen to pursue was the question of: How are camp leaders shaping what is “Jewish” about Jewish camp, and what has been the resulting impact?

In the skill-building workshop “Building a Mission-Driven Culture,” Lou Bergholz of Edgework Consulting offered a framework that can shed light on the process of creating a camp’s Jewish mission and culture (see image above). He maintained that while the strongest cultures feel natural, a culture actually needs to be intentionally designed through structuring spaces, activities, and experiences that result in a true blend with a camp or organization’s mission. The leadership, he suggested, has an unequal responsibility to advance the culture’s development. In addition to design and leadership, the final piece of the equation is the other people – including campers and staffers – who are impacted and can impact the culture.

At AVI CHAI, we have a similar understanding of how a Jewish mission-driven culture is powered by leaders. Our work in overnight camping includes programs such as Yitro and Lekhu Lakhem that inspire and train camp directors and assistant directors. The programs develop all three prongs of the culture equation: participants’ leadership skills, how they work with others at camp, and their ability to design summer programming that is infused with Jewish and Israel education.

In order to better understand how these leaders are now shaping the “Jewish” of their camps and what the resulting impact have been, I spoke with several conference attendees who have been engaged with AVI CHAI programs. Here are some big ideas I heard through these conversations, along with accompanying videos in which they tell their stories in their own words:

A stronger Jewish focus impacts not only the campers, but also the staff: Beth Kanofsky of Camp Harlam describes how she has brought more intentionality and Jewish values into her relationship with her staff. This has both strengthened the staff members’ Jewish identities and also allowed Jewish content and values to permeate consistently through the camp experience rather than just at specific times.

Knowing who you are Jewishly as a camp: Joel Bennett explains how over time Beber Camp has not only incorporated more Jewish values and experiences into the heart of camp, but these elements have also informed a strong understanding of what the camp stands for. This includes being able to clearly articulate what the camp is and is not to potential families and to refer families to other camps when there is not a good fit. Joel feels that this clarity of Jewish mission has benefited his camp and community.

First we touch, then we teach: Eli Zevin of Camp Alonim discusses the importance of camp providing activities that are strong connection points into Judaism. He explains how over time his camp expanded from its popular tradition of Israeli dancing as a way into the Jewish community to adapting a myriad of additional touch points that include Jewish content – such as sports, cooking, and even a radio station.

Creating Jewish values and rituals even in the routine elements of the camp day: Sam Bloom describes how his camp has adapted a Jewishly-infused bedtime routine that has become a highlight of his campers’ experience.

The inspiration from these leaders surely not only energized those at the conference, where networking and Jewish geography abounded, but also will continue to move the field forward – until the next Leaders Assembly brings it together again.

Deborah Fishman is Director of Communications at The AVI CHAI Foundation.