Day camp

The role of young teens in Jewish communal pipelines

In Short

There’s a transition that happens between "camperhood" and "counselorhood" at every camp, and in day camp that transition occurs in the early teen years. It’s a tricky time when young teens need support to understand their evolving roles at camp, and to envision a trajectory for themselves.

When you think about the Jewish journey of a camper attending Jewish day camp, what comes to mind? Where is their next touchpoint in the Jewish community? For some, the aspirational arc beyond day camp is indeed overnight camp, and for many, it’s not. Without investment, many former day campers will continue to choose options outside of Jewish life altogether. 

Long before the pandemic began, [the] Foundation for Jewish Camp and New York area day camps understood that the “in-between” ages of 14- to 16-year-olds at day camps were critical to talent pipelines. This age group, often referred to as CITs [short for counselors-in-training], is sometimes treated as staff and sometimes as campers. Usually a smaller cohort when compared to camper units or older counselors, they are often under-resourced and under-utilized by busy professionals who are inundated and rightfully committed to meeting the needs of their more densely populated age groups. But they also hold tremendous potential. 

There’s a transition that happens between “camperhood” and “counselorhood” at every camp, and in day camp that transition occurs in the early teen years. It’s a tricky time when young teens need support to understand their evolving roles at camp, and to envision a trajectory for themselves. That’s why four years ago, with generous funding from UJA-Federation of New York, we began piloting the Common Ground Fellowship for CITs in the New York area. In 2019, when we first began this work, we were pleased to host 60 teens at the fellowship’s kickoff event. This year, we’re working with more than 100. 

A few short weeks before camps on the east coast opened their gates, 100 of the youngest N.Y. area staff members came together for a day of experiential learning to grapple with their new roles at camp at the summer 2022 kick off to the Common Ground Fellowship. Now, they are embarking on what their camp directors hope will be a long and fruitful journey through the camp leadership pipeline.

The CIT years are a moment in the talent pipeline when young people go from being the recipients of care to being asked to care for themselves, for younger children, and for their peers. It’s the first time they’re being asked to participate in community care, and it’s often where we lose them. But if given the tools they need to be community-minded and socially responsible, we believe they’ll not only stay, but they’ll be the best counselors the field could ever imagine.

Inspired by medieval philosopher and scholar, Maimonides, and his framework of understanding tzedakah, or charitable giving, the Common Ground fellowship provides young teens the opportunity to build leadership and skill development while finding deep meaning in their roles as caregivers through the lens of communal responsibility. Understanding their roles in this way elevates their experience from just a job where they do what they are asked to a community-centered path that prioritizes helping others be able to help themselves. 

From rapid technological advances to the isolation caused by a global pandemic, this age group at this particular moment in time has needs unlike those before them. What’s been constant and certain is that the CIT years are a critical window for teaching the meaning of community care. Recognizing that day camp especially is not actually a bubble, and that they are also growing up in the world beyond camp, we are eager to show them how the community care skills they develop at camp can help them become leaders in their communities outside of camp, too.

FJC is actively seeking and implementing new interventions to help the field of Jewish camp come out on the other side of this pandemic with a new generation of camp counselors who are knocking down doors to stay in their camp communities and pay it forward to campers for years to come. We’re here to say that long-term, investing in an oft-forgotten age group is a simple approach to take right now to address staffing concerns. 

That’s why we were so excited to see so many former day campers at the Common Ground kickoff earlier this month. Young teens who’d learned to swim, play ball, sing songs and listen to their counselors with respect and admiration were so excited to finally be a part of their camp’s leadership pipeline. When asked what they had found most surprising as the kickoff day came to a close, they told us that they had never understood that being a leader meant being a guide. And if that’s what they’re walking into summer 2022 with, it’s already a success, and we’re humbled to be a part of it.

Jenni Zeftel is the director of day camp initiatives for Foundation for Jewish Camp and a former Jewish day camp director. She loved seeing and reconnecting with her own former campers at the Common Ground Fellowship kickoff event.

Tani Prell is the Chicago community director for 18Doors by day, a DEI and anti-racism educator by night and a former member of the Common Ground Fellowship’s educational faculty. Tani is passionate about the arts, Judaism and education and sharing those passions with others, including young teens at day camp.