by Rabbi Jason Miller
New Brunswick, NJ – As Jewish camp leaders once again convened at Leaders Assembly, the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s biennial conference here in New Brunswick, there was a lot of networking taking place – both in person and via social media. The dozens of ad hoc camp reunions taking place in the hallways of the hotel also materialized into an exchange of best practices for these Jewish camp professionals. The hot topic this year was the use of technology, both in the back office of the camp operations and front and center for campers, their parents and alumni.
What role all of this new technology plays for the Jewish summer camp industry was hashed out in breakout sessions at the camp confab in what were termed “Hot Topics” and also discussed in the “Shuk” where the companies that provide this new technology were camped out. “Do you keep your camper registrations and medical forms in the cloud?”, “Who manages your alumni Facebook page?”, “Have you started Instagram or Pinterest accounts,” and “Which online service do you use for staff background checks” were just some of the questions overheard at the conference.
While many don’t typically associate high tech with the camp world, which for generations was thought of as a low tech industry, there’s no question that camps have come to depend on the latest support applications in the technology world to run their camps efficiently, effectively and safely in the 21st century. After all, while one of the core missions of the overnight summer camp experience may continue to be allowing our youth to unplug from their electronic gadgets for several weeks each summer, the camps charged with that mission must be run like businesses. And that means using the best technology to manage everything from security, registration, financials and medical information to social network engagement, summertime communication and alumni relations.
In one “Hot Topic” session, Sacha Litman, the founder of Measuring Success, demonstrated the importance of using “Big Data” to help camps with their year-round engagement efforts. Big corporations, he explained, have been using “Big Data” for many years and in 2014 summer camps need to utilize the same data tools to acquire new campers and maintain existing relationships with both current staff and the valuable alumni who are now positioned to donate and send their children or grandchildren to the camp. These data measuring tools have been available to camps for years, but most didn’t know how to put that data to good use for philanthropic or camper recruitment and retainment purposes. Litman’s plea that camps focus on engaging their campers twelve months a year rather than in the traditional camp recruitment season was a theme echoed throughout the 3-day conference, which ended Tuesday afternoon.
Read the rest of this article on eJewish Philanthropy.
One of the greatest things that kids learn at camp is how to do things for themselves, from scratch. Campers learn how to build a fire, make a pottery bowl, shoot a basket, pitch a tent, and maybe even to tie tzittzit on a tallit. By creating something from nothing kids are better able to understand what goes into a final product and how something works. They are able to better appreciate the final product because they had a hand in making it possible. In the hustle and bustle of the school year we often forgo the experience of creating items from scratch for the easier path of ready-made items. Pre-tied shoelaces, pre-made meals, and most likely a fire that starts with an electric starter on the stove make our lives easier, but we miss out on the novelty of enjoying something we have created from nothing.
When it comes to stocking your pantry with snack foods, you can (and often should) take the easy road of buying pre-made foods, but every once in a while it can be such a valuable experience to take the time with your kids to make some favorite snack foods. Kids often don’t give much thought to the type of flour used to make their favorite crackers or whether or not there are preservatives in their favorite candy (there probably are), so making these foods from scratch gives them an opportunity to engage with their foods in a new way and gives you an opportunity to get some healthy “grow food” in their bodies.
There is a Jewish concept that there are certain mitzvot (commandments) that we are unable to appoint someone else to perform in our place; we must do them for ourselves. This is quite similar to why it can be so valuable to create handmade, homemade item. When we engage with our food and our surroundings in an organic, hands-on, ground-up sort of way we see everything in a whole new light. Check out this recipe for homemade cheese crackers to begin to open yourself up to a whole new world of from-the-pantry snacking!
Homemade Cheese Crackers
Makes about 30 crackers
4 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cups whole grain spelt flour or while whole wheat flour
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon onion or garlic powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons milk, plus more for brushing
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
- Combine the cheese, butter, flours, onion or garlic powder, salt and 2 tablespoons of milk into the bowl of a food processor or mixer. Pulse or mix until the dough forms a ball.
- Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface. Roll it out until it is a square about 1/8 of an inch thick (or a bit thinner).
- Brush the dough with additional milk.
- Using a pizza wheel or knife, cut the dough into 30 squares. Using a toothpick, prick a hole in the center of each square.
- Place the squares on the baking sheets, leaving about ½ an inch between crackers
- Bake about 15 minutes until the crackers are just slightly brown around the edges.
- Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack.
The call came the other day from our son Jonah’s sleep-away summer camp. Registration was almost completed and we hadn’t signed him up yet. Was there a problem? I explained the delay was because our son was on the autism spectrum and there were additional details that had to be worked out – about how long he would be staying, about the availability of a shadow for that time period, about the cost. I was tempted to go on from there to my usual rant about how much more complicated things were when you’re dealing with a child with special needs, but I refrained. You see, after my last blog post called the “The What-if Moment,” about how I sometimes imagine how much easier our lives would be if my son did not have autism, my wife, Cynthia, strongly suggested I might want to be a little less of a grouch in future.
Her request reminded me of an interview I did some years ago with the novelist Richard Ford. He told me that his wife challenged him to write about a happy character for once. The result was Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Ford’s three wonderful but hardly cheery novels, The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and Lay of the Land. I’m guessing the Bascombe trilogy just left his wife shaking her head. “This guy is supposed to be happy?” she was undoubtedly thinking. Even so, Ford tried. And so will I.
In fact, after last month’s blog, I was reminded of an event I did in a library a few years ago. I was discussing my book about Jonah and during the Q&A, an older woman prefaced her question by saying she didn’t mean to be cruel, a sure sign she was going to be. I braced myself, but still her remarks stunned me. Do you ever wonder, she wanted to know, if you would have been better off if your son had not been born? For example, she added, your wife and you would have had more time for each other. Or maybe, she went on, you could have written more books. Like I said, I was stunned and speechless. Which is when the audience, bless them, came to the rescue. After the woman had gone on for a while longer, they basically shouted her down. I never really got to give her a good answer, but I thought about her question later and I wished I’d had the chance to respond.
I could have told her about the little things I’d miss – the fun I have making up crossword puzzles with Jonah, one of our new pastimes, or listening to music with him in the car. Or the way he chooses bedtime to conduct his own Q&A, asking his most profound and challenging questions like this recent one: “Daddy, why does there have to be yuck in real life?”
I could have also mentioned the lessons I’ve learned from Jonah – about being different, about working hard, about living in the moment. Even so, the cliché about my son making me a better person hasn’t turned out to be true. The fact is he’s a role model I will never quite live up to. He constantly amazes me with his imperviousness to embarrassment and the judgment of others, with the sheer delight he takes in everything from meeting a new person to dancing to eating a brownie. And, of course, there’s the big thing I would have missed if Jonah was not my son – fatherhood. I was over forty when Jonah was born and I never expected to have a family of my own. Before Cynthia and Jonah, I was lonely for a lot of my adult life. Since I became a husband and father, I can’t recall what loneliness feels like. There’s no way to say this without sounding utterly sappy – and without being utterly honest – but Jonah gave purpose to my life.
After the recent death of the actor and filmmaker Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day), I came across a small scene he did in Judd Apatow’s movie Knocked Up. Ramis’s work was an early influence on Apatow and Apatow cast him as Seth Rogen’s father, letting Ramis improvise most of his dialogue. While Rogen, who has just gotten a woman he hardly knows pregnant, is practically pleading for his father’s scorn, Ramis can’t contain his delight. “You are the best thing that ever happened to me,” he eventually announces to his slacker son. “Now, I just feel bad for you,” Rogen says, giving the scene its punch line. But it’s Ramis’s unequivocal, automatic declaration that still stays with me. In fact, I wish I could meet that woman from the library again so I could tell her I feel the exact same way about my son.
Teachers, curricula, grades, rulers, pencils, erasers, chalk, markers, handouts, hands up, heads up, mouths shut, black boards, white boards, smart boards, and (all too often bored) students: the ingredients of formal education. If we were to reject these in the name of awaking our children to the joy and splendor of Jewish life, we would be relegated to the realm of informal education. But calling it informal seems too limiting. By calling it informal we are defining this mode of education by what it is not, as compared to defining it by what it is. That is why I prefer to call it experiential education. But, what is experiential education? In general the core of excellent experiential education is plainly put: excellent education. But if experiential education does not follow the recipe of formal education, what is its secret in ingredient?
So even before I get started I want to say that I believe assessment, evaluation, and accountability are crucial to the educational project, but here I want to explore what positive things happen in the educational kitchen when we take away the grades and remove the perception of judgment. With this move away from presumptive hierarchy, the weight of the education needs to be born out on the shoulders of the relationships. It is only when the educators meet the students’ basic needs and achieve a mutual trust that we get cooking. In an environment where we are giving grades we need to be transparent, otherwise we run the risk of being unethical. How can a student be held accountable for something that they did not know that they were going to be tested on? In experiential education, the deepest learning often happens when educators help students get out of their own way in the service of their learning. We often need to use obfuscation and trickery. Being transparent often destroys that magic. Obviously this manipulation can be misused, but if we maintain that trust, the process will yield future revelations and breakthroughs in learning.
It is interesting to think about this aspect of education in the larger context of revelation. When the People of Israel were about to receive the Torah at Sinai, the Torah says, “And Moshe brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood under the mountain.”(Exodus 19:17) What does it mean “under the Mountain?” On this, in the Talmud Shabbat 88a, Rabbi Avidimi ben Hama ben Hasa said that this teaches us that the Holy One raised the mountain above them like an inverted cask and said, “If you accept the Torah, good; if not, this will be your burial.” So our experience at Sinai was less an intimate moment under the chupah, and more, a carjacking. Rabbi Aha ben Yaakov noted that accepting the Torah under duress presents a strong challenge to the obligatory nature of Jewish law. How can we be held liable for a contract that we were forced into? But Raba said that they accepted it again in the days of Purim, as it says in Megilat Esther, “The Jews fulfilled and they accepted.” (Esther 9:27) Why the doubling of language? This means: they fulfilled what they had already accepted. The fulfillment of the added laws of Purim demonstrated that they accepted the laws of Sinai from thousands of years earlier. The difference being that this time there was no duress. It was not only that there was no God to push them into it, in the entire book of Esther there is no reference to God. God is hidden.
The story, and the holiday of Purim, seems to be a theater in which we are exploring what is hidden and what will be revealed. Esther’s name and identity are hidden. When will they be revealed? We explore this with all of our customs of costumes. The fate of the Jewish people is unknown. When will that be revealed? We explore this with our community gatherings and of course our eating. There would be no story of Purim if all we had was transparency. Purim seems to be a holiday of delayed revelation.
I am not arguing that formal education is bad. I happen to love it and it has a huge role to play in education, but it is clearly not the only way. We need different ingredients to meet the needs of different learners. The delayed revelation of Purim points to a secret ingredient of experiential education. What does the world look like without a judge or judgment? The absence of God made it possible for Esther to be a true heroine. If there was transparency, Esther would have never learned the nature of her commitment to her community. We see many aspects in camping where it is a child centered institution free of judgment because the adults are hidden and there are no grades. The joyous Judaism and the freedom of camp hide the highly organized and intentional program. If we had to be transparent about our intention to make another generation committed to our future we would not be successful. As we read in Megilah, “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16) It is only at the end of the story of Purim that the hidden became clear, but boy were they glad.
The Jewish Funders Network has named the Foundation for Jewish Camp as the inaugural recipient of the Shapiro Prize for Excellence in Philanthropic Collaboration, for being the first funder collaboration to advocate for, promote, and strengthen Jewish camps on a wide scale.
The new prize recognizes alliances of forward-thinking Jewish funders who collaborate to achieve broader impact in their chosen fields of interest. It was presented Sunday at the annual JFN conference in Miami Beach.
Until FJC was founded in1998 by Elisa Spungen Bildner and her husband Robert Bildner, Jewish camps ran independently or within their religious movements. The Bildners envisioned collaborating with other funders, and received support from The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and The Wexner Foundation.
The creation of FJC expanded support for the field and brought long-term vitality to more camps and their programming.
Read the rest of this feature on eJewish Philanthropy.
Purim’s getting close, so we’re sharing some camp-themed costume ideas for you to enjoy!
One of the most delicious memories of camp is s’mores roasting over a fire, so why not dress as one? Your toddler will be so yummy in this S’more Costume!
Channel your inner counselor! Get dressed up as your favorite madrich or madricha with these colorful whistles. Bonus: You can use them in place of a grogger during the Megillah reading!
Continuing with the counselor theme, how about adding a backpack to round out the costume? This cool tye-dye Jansport backpack will also be perfect for carrying and delivering mishloach manot, or Purim food gifts.
Round out your counselor costume with this Columbia Bora Bora sun hat. It may not necessarily be sunny this Purim, but it sure will get you in the mood for summer (and of course, summer camp!)
Share your Purim fun with family and friends! Send this Purim gift basket full of kosher hamatashen, adorable masks and other fun activities.
We hope you enjoy our camp-themed Purim picks, and chag sameach!
ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival is the largest festival of its kind in the country. We present films by and about people with disabilities and share the lives, stories and experiences with the broad NY community, featuring in over 30 locations throughout NY and in 14 additional major cities nationwide. The festival was started and is run out of the JCC in Manhattan and supported by UJA Federation, yet it is not specifically a Jewish festival. It presents films from across the spectrum of disabilities and is as inclusive as possible. So why is this festival being supported by the Jewish community?
I feel this festival connects in a few ways. The first and most obvious is the concept of Btzelem Elohim that we were all created in the “image of god,” and therefore, everyone is equal. All humans. But more importantly, over the years I have realized that the festival is part of a social movement. Creating inclusion and equal access for people with disabilities is the new Civil Rights Movement. The Jewish community was so involved with the Civil Rights Movement, because we know what it feels like to not be included.
Jewish camps got their start in order to create a place where Jewish kids can feel included. One of the wonderful qualities of camp is that everyone can find their place in this mini-utopia. There is always the kid who is “different” and does not fit in but in an inclusive environment like camp, being different is acceptable. We are all different and should all be included.
ReelAbilities use great films to foster social change and believe that this will lead to a more inclusive society. We will be including some of our short films (Reel Encounters) in the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s conference. Reel Encounters includes family friendly short films on a diverse selection of disabilities.
ReelAbilities is running in New York from March 6-11 at the JCC in Manhattan and in over 30 locations throughout NY followed by 14 additional cities throughout the year. For more info check out www.NewYork.ReelAbilities.org
Today is Share the Word to End the Word Day. The word “retard” that is.
It was once acceptable to use the words “mental retardation” as a clinical description for people who had below average IQ’s and had delays in adaptive skills. Nowadays, the r-word has a significantly negative connotation as it has often been used on playgrounds and in school hallways as a put-down. Even adults have used it, and still use it, in conversations when referring to something or someone as being an idiot or idiotic. Due to the incredible misuse of this word and the hurt that it causes, we now use “intellectual disability” as a replacement.
One of the purposes of today, is to ask people to pledge to remove the word from their vocabulary and to discourage others from using as well. The r-word must be replaced with RESPECT, respect for people of all abilities. It should also be replaced with what we call “people first language” (a child with autism, a person who is hard of hearing, a person who uses a wheelchair, my brother, my bunkmate, my friend). A person’s disability should never be what defines him or her; it is only a part of who that person is. As we continue to move in the direction of inclusion for children with disabilities at Jewish camp we will break down barriers and allow children and adults at camp to learn what makes us more alike than we are different and why the words that we choose to use even in jest, must always be respectful and must always put people first.