Where Vision and Philanthropy Converge, a Camp Culture is Transformed

by Brian Schreiber and Jeff Finkelstein

Im Tirzu Ein Zo Agadah

Much of the literature on the proven approaches to instill lasting Jewish impact in young adults point to earlier overnight Jewish camping and travel to Israel with peers. At Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC), the non-denominational overnight camp of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, we have not only found a way to integrate the two, but transform the camp culture as a result.


Seven years ago, we launched an initiative that integrated a month-long immersive Israel travel experience for our Counselors in Training (CITs) with continued leadership training the second month of camp. The travel is coordinated through the JCC Association’s Israel office, providing a direct benefit from our national system. One week of the experience is a joint leadership track with Israeli CITs from our Partnership2Gether region, Karmiel-Misgav.

The decision, motivated by the concern that an entire generation of youth was missing out on a foundational Israel experience during the “Matzav,” began slowly. The impetus began with a community teen trip to Israel in 2006, initiated through our Federation’s community shlichah. Emma Kaufmann Camp’s CITs represented more than a quarter of the cohort. Other CITs that summer remained at camp the entire summer for leadership training as had been the norm for generations. While the Israel trip ultimately returned back to Pittsburgh earlier than planned in the midst of the summer war with Israel and Lebanon, the CIT cohort that returned to camp created a new excitement about Israel engagement.

The Culture Shift and the Results

That fall, we used the “buzz” to revolutionize the CIT program. Our program would now integrate an immersive Israel travel and leadership experience as an integral element for all CITs.

Upholding our principles was challenging the first year. Calls asking “why we were forcing their children from the camp they loved into a war zone” were not uncommon. That summer, 23 CITs participated and came back to camp with even more excitement and energy than the previous cohort. The next summer, the program grew to 34 CITs. Fast forward to today, we have filled the 48 available CIT slots for the past five summers. Between 2000-2005 only a handful of teen counselors had traveled to Israel; since then, 335 CITs have participated in an immersive Israel travel and leadership experience. Of this group, nearly 90% of our CITs have returned to work at camp the following summer, a 40% increase since the program began. Virtually all the senior counselors, unit heads and program directors at Emma Kaufmann Camp today are products of the CIT experience, with more Jewishly committed, better trained, and higher performing classes than earlier CIT groups. They partner with Israeli shlichim at camp to execute Yom Yisrael and other Israel oriented activities.

A visible turning point for us occurred several years ago, when two dozen staff held an impromptu evening vigil for Gilad Shalit before he was freed from his Gaza imprisonment. None of the group members had even heard of Gilad prior to their CIT year. The CIT experience has become such a rite of passage at Emma Kaufmann Camp, that our nine and ten year-olds can articulate their future experience with their bunkmates down the road.

Lessons Learned

Two years ago, Amy Sales of Brandeis University, gave a lecture in Pittsburgh as part of a lecture series, “Conversations for a Jewish Future”. Amy discussed the idea of Surprise and Delight used in car manufacturing and marketing. The idea is that when we buy a new car, we expect to be delighted to have things that are standard. And we like a surprise. She pointed out the advent of the cup holder. When it first appeared, it was a surprise and was attractive to a buyer. Today, it’s a delight because we not only expect it, we expect many of them.

Our CIT program to Israel has gone from surprise to delight to an expectation – but we never stop thinking of improving upon the experience or developing new opportunities as an outgrowth of the CIT rite of passage. With Israel engagement better solidified into the camp culture, we are piloting a new cohort of eight 13 year-olds from Pittsburgh’s sister region of Karmiel-Misgav coming to camp and integrated into bunk groups. These kids will likely reunite several years from now in the Galil through a coordinated leadership development track of the CITs and their Israeli peers.

Today’s success stems from vision and philanthropy. The community shlichah when the program began, Leah Garber, now directs the JCC Association Israel office and has shepherded hundreds of CITs from Pittsburgh and elsewhere since the program began. Emma Kaufmann Camp added staff to improve the CIT experience, rebuilt the housing infrastructure for CITs at camp and has modeled other changes at camp through this experience. Philanthropy followed from a special donor who understood and believed in the program from its inception and created a $1 million endowment fund for the CIT experience as part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Centennial Fund for a Jewish Future. This Fund has secured over $20 Million in commitments to perpetually fund Jewish identity building programs for our community that includes Israel teen travel subsidies and needs based scholarships from our Federation.

The CIT year marks the formal transition from camper to staff. We have observed how impressionable young lives are transformed by their journey and are then applied back at camp. At the end of the day, the CIT program can only be as successful as the foundation of a strong Jewish overnight camp, and an ongoing intentionality to build Jewish community within and beyond the camp walls. We look forward to continuing to learn from these CIT alumni, to research how this and other experiences are shaping their Jewish identity as young adults, and even dreaming in future years of their children getting on that camp bus for the first time.

Brian Schreiber is President/CEO  of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsbugh and Jeff Finkelstein is President/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.