By Greg Kellner
Last week, in eJewish Philanthopy, Aaron Saxe described the risk and outcomes of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Incubator camps. In 2013, I experienced this “risk” first hand when I embarked upon a journey to be the founding director of the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, the Reform Movement’s first science and technology specialty camp. Like any startup, there were late nights, moments where the task seemed impossible, and ongoing navigation of stakeholders. While the risk was great, the reward has been even greater. For three summers, I have experienced the personal impact of specialty camp. Each summer, parents tell me that 6 Points was made for their child and campers tell me that they have found their home and their people at our camp: their Jewish people and their science people.
Reflecting on this experience, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Foundation for Jewish Camp as well as the Jim Joseph and Avi Chai Foundations. The URJ has had the privilege of being a part of all three Incubator projects, first with the opening of 6 Points Sports Academy and then 6 Points Sci-Tech to follow. For the summer of 2018, we are grateful that the FJC will be working with the URJ to once again incubate two new camps: an arts camp in the mid-Atlantic and a second science-tech camp on the west coast.
When we first started Incubator 1 with 6 Points Sports Academy, we did not know if it would resonate with our communities. When we began the journey once again, we wondered if a Jewish science camp could be successful. Both camps exceeded all expectations with more than 70% retention of campers (the national average for specialty camps is 50%) and 60-70% of parents telling us that they would have never even considered a Jewish camp if it weren’t for the specialty. In the Talmud, Rabbi Isaiah di Trani, teaches us that we see further when we stand on the shoulders of giants, and for me, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and my fellow URJ camp directors are those giants without whom success would not have been possible.
The success of our Incubator camps came from the mentoring and support of the professional staff at the FJC led by Michele Friedman, the Director of New Camp Initiatives and Jay Frankel, Director of Field Operations. As a new camp director I was given access to the best and brightest minds in the camping world with direction in areas of programming, finance, Jewish culture, leadership, operations, and more. Because of the vision and support of FJC, our camps were operating at a level of excellence from day one. I also was guided on a daily basis by my URJ camp colleagues who have directed camps across north America, many of whom had between 20 and 50 years of camp directing experience. I knew that at any moment, that I could call any one of these camp directors, and they would help me meet any challenge and were rooting the camp’s success every step of the way. The professionals within our camps and the FJC lift up one another so that standing on one another’s shoulders we can create Jewish spaces where children can grow, thrive and find a place to call their home.
In 2015, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ, challenged our movement’s youth leadership to grow our camping system from 16 camps to 20 camps by the year 2020. It is because of our wonderful partnership with FJC and the tremendous support of Reform congregations across North America that this vision is well on its way to becoming a reality. The rabbis, cantors, and educators who support our movements camps and believe in the power of camp are our partners in changing lives through their work in our congregations that continues each summer from coast-to-coast at 16 (soon to be 18) sites in North America.
As we begin our fourth summer, I want to express my deep gratitude to FJC, the Jim Joseph and Avi Chai Foundations, the URJ camp directors and our many partners in our synagogues for believing in us and taking the risk; a risk that to me was all reward!
Greg Kellner is Director of the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy.