Rebecca Leibowitz works at the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
It is my first summer at camp. I am 5 inches taller, 50 pounds heavier and 8 years older than the other first-timers in my cabin. I am not embarrassed by this because I am a Jewish camp late-bloomer, recruited by a college boyfriend to come work as a counselor at “the best camp ever.”
The decision to work at camp for the first time is not easy; my other summer option is an internship with an advocacy organization in Washington. DC – a real résumé building opportunity to pursue politics in the nation’s capital. To me, this makes sense for my future career. Camp, I assume, would just be another year away from the “real world.”
But, I am 19, and of course, I follow a boy to camp. The entire week of staff orientation, as I stand paralyzed with anxiety on the sidelines, watching Israeli dance choreographers and work-wheel enthusiasts prepare for the campers’ arrival, the only thing I am sure of is that I have made the wrong choice.
Just when I am certain that I can’t feel any more insecure, on the morning of the campers’ arrival, my boyfriend and I end our relationship, leaving me to fend for myself in a very foreign environment. I spend the next few days crying and doubting myself. I can hardly move my body, let alone lead my campers through ropes course and song sessions. My campers know camp rituals, legends, and ghost stories. I feel inadequate, as I try desperately to connect with the other staff who already have a lifetime of memories and inside jokes between them.
I have no choice, if only to save myself from further self-pity, to throw myself into the art of being the best camp counselor ever. Late bloomer I might be, but in this pivotal moment I am hell-bent on proving my worth to the camp community, to my campers, and most importantly, to myself. I quickly find footing through the structure of the camp schedule. I fear free time so I fill it with creative games and luckily my campers and fellow staff members welcome me into the camp community. The ultimate reward comes when the camp director personally invites me to stay for the next session. I accept on the spot.
That summer changed my life.
When I returned to college in the fall, I was transformed, filled with a new confidence. I continued to seek out as many Jewish leadership and programming opportunities as possible, wanting to continue to feel like I was in that same welcoming, ego-boosting, camp environment. I became the student president of the Hillel on campus and put all of the skills I developed at camp to work: time management, innovative programming, running meetings, and public speaking.
In my current role as a Senior Program Manager at Foundation for Jewish Camp, I get to work with camp professionals every day, developing and implementing programs geared to enhancing the business of camp. I feel I have hit the career jackpot!
I am a Jewish day school alumnus, Israel trip participant, and former youth group member. While all of these experiences play a significant role in my commitment to Jewish communal life, it was working at camp that transformed me into a Jewish leader. As a 19 year-old, Jewish summer camp created an environment where I thrived despite a dramatic teenage situation. My craving for the professional learning laboratory of camp brought me back for five more summers. Every leadership or professional role I have held alongside and after my time at camp has been influenced by the management and problem solving skills as well as confidence-building tools that I learned there. And as an added bonus, today, my best friends are camp people.
It is conventional wisdom that Camp Works. FJC has been a forerunner in the research that proves the long term impact on camp for campers, who are more likely to delve into Jewish ritual after a significant summer camp experience. What is less measured is how camp fosters personal and professional development opportunities for camp staff. Whether it is a young adult’s first or 19th summer, camp has the power of building strong Jewish identity, creating communal bonds, and creating powerful professionals. Personally, even though I didn’t have the opportunity to be a Jewish camper, I am grateful that I got my second chance as a young adult, and encourage others to do the same.