It’s hard to believe that we’re now less than 50 days away from the start of another summer! Many campers have been counting down the days with excitement since they returned home from camp last year. “OMG I get to be a CIT this year!!” is one example of a recent Facebook post. And, to be honest, there were many more exclamation points than that.
Indeed, Facebook and other virtual spaces are used more and more by kids, parents, and alumni to connect with one another and build Jewish community. But camp works in part because it gives kids opportunities to feel connected to something larger than themselves. This connection can happen, and increasingly does happen, for more than a few weeks each year.
We recently posted something on our Facebook page that asked folks to complete the following sentence: “Camp Alonim is where I _____.” The range of responses was extraordinary, as was the range of respondents – campers, staff, parents, and alumni. Here is what some of them said: Camp Alonim is where… “I found out what makes me Jewish.” “I started my first band.” “I learned to love Shabbat.” “I feel safe leaving my kids.” “I met my first boyfriend.” “I cowgirl up!” “I developed my Jewish identity and danced!” “I want to be right now.” “I am home.”
Because a picture can be worth a thousand words, we also recently ran a photo contest during which folks shared all sorts of images on our Facebook page that they felt best represented camp. Sprinkled throughout this blog post are some of the pictures that were submitted.
At this point, you might be asking yourself: why all this talk about Facebook when camp is about unplugging from electronics and getting away from the always-on world in which we live? I think the answer is best illustrated by the following story. A few days ago, Jamie, who was one of our teen program advisors last summer and who currently is studying abroad in Israel, posted on Facebook that she just “casually ran into her children” at the Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv. The “children” to whom Jamie was referring are her former campers (by the way, don’t you love how staff refer to the campers as “their kids”?). Jamie shared a surprise reunion with some of her teens, which generated “likes” and “comments” from campers, staff, parents, and her other “children.” This chance encounter in Israel involved generations of camp, and the connection and reconnection extended further than it ever could before.
The connection has to start somewhere. For many kids, camp can be the first link in a lifelong connection to deep, meaningful friendships and active communities infused with the joys of Jewish living. Much of my job as a camp director is to help that first connection form, and then to help incubate all sorts of budding connections so that they can grow and thrive for a lifetime.
As I write this, staff members are being hired to “give back to camp;” parents are searching for white Shabbat clothing; alumni are reuniting with camp friends to celebrate life’s simchas and to support one another when life throws its curve-balls; and new and returning campers are counting down the days until summer. It’s community. It’s connection. It’s camp! And, when it comes to camp, there’s no such thing as too many exclamation points.
This third in a series of four blog entries, “Why Camp?” will examine some of the benefits that Jewish residential camping can provide for children based on the four part mission of Camp Tawonga. To read part one, click here. To read part two click here.
Part 3: Tikkun Olam- a partnership with nature
It is fitting that Earth Day was recently celebrated since a huge part of a camper’s experience of going to camp is being outside, going on adventures with friends in the outdoors and learning to love the natural world with all the benefits it provides.
At Camp Tawonga and countless other camps, simply being there is a literal breath of fresh air. Campers leave the city and suburbs, where they spend 90% of their time, far behind and arrive at a bucolic, peaceful oasis where many of the other goals this blog series has highlighted are allowed to blossom and flourish. Removed from the constant pull of technology and returned to a comfortably rustic style of living, children can connect to more timeless truths. They can appreciate a refreshing dunk in a natural body of water and marvel at the beauty of a sunset, produced not by special effects but simply by the gentle brushstroke of the creator.
Beyond simply enjoying being outdoors, an experience at camp can help campers connect to the deep and ancient Jewish traditions of shomrei adamah (guarding the earth) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). When campers go with their bunks on backpacking trips in the incomparable backcountry of Yosemite National Park, they not only forge deeper bonds with each other but also learn from our staff about the wilderness ethic of “leave no trace” as a way to take care of all places they visit.
Campers also learn that nature is not something that can be taken for granted. More than twenty years ago, Tawonga led a fight in the national forest that surrounds our camp to hold off aggressive logging companies and preserve the land for generations to come. Campers help our maintenance staff with forestry and fire suppression work to learn about responsible management methods.
Campers will come home unconcerned with a grass stain on their shirt and some dirt under their nails. Campers will tell their parents about their most spiritual moment at camp, often not at a formal prayer program, but rather on a solo sit at sunset, spread across a ridge overlooking a valley side by side with their bunkmates, silently staring in awe at the majesty of creation laid out before them, and contemplating their place in it.
What a camp experience can help a child realize is that we are not apart from nature, but rather a part of nature and that there is so much to be gained from engaging in outdoor experiences.
As the Foundation for Jewish Camp shared with the community earlier this year, “Think Outside, No Box Necessary!”
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is the director of Camp JRF in South Sterling, PA.
When I tell people that I’m a camp director, they often ask me what I do “the rest of the year.” I respond that I spend my time recruiting campers and staff, planning programs, raising money, and preparing for the summer. I also work closely with our board and, especially as we work towards an expansion, spend what feels like an inordinate amount of time thinking about engineering, septic systems, and township approvals.
While all of this is true, I’ve begun to think about changing my answer. I’m thinking about telling people that during the rest of the year, I reap the benefits of what we have sown over the summer. Why the change? Because in both happy moments and more challenging ones over just the past few weeks alone, I have been blessed to see just how true this is.
First, there were the campers and staff members who, when the father of their long-time camp friends passed away, came from far and wide to sit by their sides, lead shiva minyanim, and comfort them during this challenging time. Then there was the rabbi who, when mentioning important people to him during a speech, talked of the two other rabbis with whom he spends a week on our faculty each summer, noting that they are, for him, the “camp friends” he didn’t have in childhood. At our annual spring teen retreat, there was the graduating high school senior who, with tears in his eyes, told younger participants that the thousands of dollars he has spent and the thousands of miles he has flown over the years were far more than “worth it” for the experiences he has had and the deep friendships he has made. And there was his friend who, bringing tears to my eyes, talked about the ways in which he has become more comfortable in his own skin since he first arrived at camp as an anxious ten year old and how, when he isn’t always able to remember how far he’s come, his camp friends step up to remind him.
A counselor once stood up during an orientation session and asked how and when we will know if the work we do has an impact. I responded that, in fifteen years, we’ll be able to see the myriad ways in which the camp experience is reflected in the good work our campers are doing and in the good lives they are leading. The staff member looked shocked and a bit disappointed; he wanted faster and more quantifiable results. But the work we are doing is about quality, not quantity. And it’s about the long view, not just about what happens today. It’s true what they say: camp works. It works not only in creating committed Jews but in creating bonds and connections that help make better people.
So, what do I do during the rest of the year? Forget all of the planning and fundraising and logistics and details … I sit back and revel in the ways in which our joyful and welcoming Jewish youth community transforms lives. And then I jump back into the work – excited, energized, and blessed to be part of making this happen for yet another summer.
Stefan Teodosic is the Executive Director of B’nai B’rith Beber Camp and the Perlman Conference Center in Mukwonago, Wisconsin.
There are two things that I am most proud of in my career as a Jewish camp director. The first is that I have never had a camper go home early due to homesickness. We have several strategies to work with kids, we create deep partnerships with parents and we use a non-cookie cutter approach to every situation. We match this with extremely well trained staff that are supported by higher level professionals. Every summer we help kids in their most difficult times and we take pride in helping them gain the independence that comes with making it through a homesick summer.
Camp is all about kids and a blog about homesickness is right in the wheelhouse of the Director’s Corner. However, it is the second thing that I am most proud of that will take center stage today. I take an immense amount of pride in the fact that I have never turned a family away from a Jewish summer camp experience for financial reasons. I philosophically believe that it is my responsibility to help families make the best choice about their children’s Jewish summer camp experience. I serve as an advocate for Jewish summer camps first and then help parents make an informed choice about enrolling their child in Beber Camp. This is one of the most impactful Jewish decisions that they will make for their children and a real fit is critical to unlocking the magic of a summer at camp. Once a parent has identified a true fit, it is my responsibility to make sure that their child has access to that experience.
As camp directors, we have several resources at our disposal to help parents make sure that camp is a reality regardless of their financial situations. We have excellent confidential processes for determining financial need, we have access to outside scholarship support, we raise funds internally through annual campaigns and we work out payment plans to spread out costs. Each family is different, and much like working with our campers during the summer, there is no cookie cutter method to a successful financial aid process. Finances can be a difficult topic and many of our families have negative feelings about the process based on previous experiences with other organizations. We approach the financial support relationship with the same level of customer service that we do when we are recruiting campers and working with kids during the summer. The strong partnership that we create during this process serves as the bedrock of a relationship that will play out over the next several years.
Camp is one of the best values available in the Jewish community and while there is massive return on investment, the absolute cost of a summer is still high. We don’t view the Jewish camp experience as a luxury, and since we want parents to share this philosophy, it is incumbent on us to make camp a financial reality for all families. That said, every camp that is committed to this philosophy needs to raise significant dollars to deliver year in and year out. If you have a passion for strengthening Jewish identity and positive youth outcomes, donate to the scholarship program at your camp alma mater. If you didn’t go to camp as a kid, but realize the inherent value in the experience, support your local Jewish summer camp. If you believe in camp, but didn’t go as a child and don’t live anywhere near a Jewish summer camp office, call the Foundation for Jewish Camp. I am sure that they will be happy to help you get started in supporting the field of Jewish camp.
Every dollar counts and you can be sure that your donation will positively impact a camper’s life this summer. I was a camper who received scholarship money and my passionate belief that camp should be affordable for all families stems from this fact. Due to the generosity of the Jewish community, I was given an experience that profoundly impacted me and led me to become a Jewish camp director. So, please consider a gift to a Jewish summer camp, as you never know how far your donation just may go.
Jamie Simon and Aaron Mandel are the director and assistant director (respectively) of Camp Tawonga in Groveland, CA.
This second in a series of four blog entries, “Why Camp?” will examine some of the benefits that Jewish residential camping can provide for children based on the four part mission of Camp Tawonga. To read part one, click here.
Part 2: Creating a Cooperative Community
“The friends you make become a part of you.”
These words are sung as part of the classic camp song “Stars in the Sky.” Ringing out from the voices of children around the Camp Tawonga dining hall, they speak to some of the most profound benefits that camp can provide for children: friendship, connection to others and the skills needed to participate in community.
When a child first comes home from camp they’ll talk excitedly about how high they climbed on the ropes course and show off a lanyard or a friendship bracelet made at the art studio. These material takeaways from camp are exciting and important but as the passage of time fades them away, the more permanent truths of camp emerge: the friends.
The weeks and years at summer camp teach young people some very important skills about how to live together in a group. We emphasize this through the “group centered” camping model to which Tawonga subscribes. This model allows our counselors to deeply get to know each of the campers in their bunk and the group as a whole, as they are not asked to also double as activity specialists. Their only jobs are supporting the campers and leading the bunk. The counselors are trained in camper management, building the group, leading bunk discussions and facilitating consensus-decision making.
Spending these weeks together in such close community forms a bond between camp friends that is unlike any other. The mere weeks spent together at camp create a bond between friends that far surpasses that which is formed in the endless months of school. Why is this? It is because the time at camp is a time where you are living for more than yourself. You are part of a group, in good times and bad, your failures and successes interwoven with those of your bunkmates in an intricate latticework of solidarity.
The world we live in is a communal one; to have successful and fulfilling lives almost everyone needs to participate in various communities and groups. As noted journalist David Brooks said, “Creativity is not a solitary process. It happens within networks… when talented people get together, when idea systems and mentalities merge.” Friendship plus group skills is a simple equation for success. Beyond the skills to simply succeed remains that timeless truth of camp, friendships that last a lifetime. We have seen countless friends who met at camp standing hand in hand under the chuppah together, sharing a freshman dorm room in college or calling each other for parenting advice, tapping forever into that sense of community and camaraderie that is such a treasured part of camp.
Joel Yanofsky is the author of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.
We figured we were all set. The fellow at the music store near our house assured my wife Cynthia that someone on staff could give my then 12-year-old son, Jonah, guitar lessons. But when she added that Jonah has special needs, he quickly retracted the offer. “We don’t do that,” he said. There was nothing particularly new about this response. Jonah has been disinvited to more than his fair share of parties and had play dates cancelled at the last minute with lame excuses. It doesn’t take long, as the parent of a child with special needs, autism in Jonah’s case, to internalize the word “no.” You’re continually coming to terms with the things your child will probably miss out on. Things other parents take for granted: like finding your child a guitar teacher.Meanwhile, that “no” inside you thickens like a callus. Still, when the rejection comes from outside, especially from someone who doesn’t know your child, the hurt is mixed with an element of surprise. The sting feels fresh all over again.
Of course, the word “yes,” when you do hear it, also comes as a surprise and is all the more gratifying for it. We’d thought about sending Jonah to summer sleep-away camp for a few years, but with no real success. Then, last year, we met Josh Pepin, the director of the Montreal chapter of Camp B’nai Brith and that all changed. Jonah spent a week at the CBB sleep-away camp, an hour’s drive north of Montreal, and the experience was so good, he intends to return this summer for two weeks.
To hear Pepin tell it, his accepting attitude is just part of the camp’s longstanding tradition of diversity, of integrating all kinds of kids. “If you look at the mission of CBB, our special needs program fits it perfectly,” says Pepin, a big, gregarious man in his thirties, who you can’t imagine saying no to anyone, “Our idea is that kids, no matter their background, or where they come from, what language they speak, what socioeconomic background they come from or how they function, deserve a summer camping experience. I’m no professional in the special needs milieu, but I know we have to keep integrating special needs kids. Not just for them but for all our campers and our staff. Kids like Jonah are such a beautiful part of our camp.”
Pepin never went to sleep away camp himself, not as a camper – “I’m a mama’s boy,” he confesses – but when he was 18, he lost a bet with a friend and ended up as a counselor at CBB. He continued to work there summers for a decade, met his best friends, and also his wife there. After taking on a few other jobs in Montreal’s Jewish community, he came back to CBB as director in 2010. Along with the emphasis on diversity at CBB, Jewish identity is paramount for Pepin. “That’s why we exist,” Pepin says, “to offer kids opportunities that they may not otherwise have if they don’t go to Jewish day schools or belong to a synagogue. As camp director, I consider myself an informal educator. And I have an opportunity, here, to shape young Jewish minds and identities.”
He also gets the chance to say “yes” a lot more than “no.” For which my family is grateful.
Incidentally, we found a guitar teacher for Jonah. He also turned out to be Jonah’s shadow at CBB last summer. I’ll be writing more about him and about the importance of shadows in an upcoming blog.
Miriam Shwartz is the co-director of JCC Ranch Camp in Colorado’s Black Forest.
We’ve just passed the 10,000 feet mark on my flight back to Colorado. I’ve spent the last week at camping conferences in New York and New Jersey and although I am exhausted, I am also invigorated and enthused about getting back to the office and planning for this summer’s camp season. My head is full of ideas to share with my camp team, as well as hard questions that we must answer in order to push our camp to the next level.
Over the past few days I attended some 40 hours of seminars on a variety of subjects related to the running of a stellar (Jewish) camp program, but here I want to share with you some of the learning that I took away from the very last presentation that I attended before heading out. It was given by Molly Barker, the founder of “Girls on the Run,” a national program that empowers girls through the act of running and reflection. I hope that you will find meaning in this message and are able to take away something to incorporate into your own work and/or family life, as I intend to do myself.
Here is the message that resonated with me–
At our core, each of us has a divine spark, an energy that is uniquely our own. This might be referred to as our neshama (soul) in Hebrew. All too often along our life journey, our inner spark is diminished by those around us as and by society as a whole, which then can give way to negative self-talk. What we must do and strive for is to find space in our lives where all the “should’s” and “ought to’s” that we are served by others and by ourselves give way to our own inner power. In other words, we must find the strength to not let others define the spirit that is our self.
Here are some principles to live by from Molly and “Girls on the Run:”
- Acknowledge and devote time to your own gifts and talents.
- Surround yourself with others who balance and compliment you.
- Embrace the ebb and flow of life.
- Create intentional space for your work and personal life.
I believe that these principles are really lived out within the camp environment. Often I hear staff and campers say that they love camp because it is a place where they can “just be themselves.” At camp, both campers and staff are able to get in tune with their core essence, their neshama; we are able to provide a place where individuals feel that their inner spark is not only acknowledged, but is nourished to shine. Although there are a lot of great skills and take-homes that camp affords, I believe that this is perhaps the most important skill of all.
Molly Hott is the director of 92Y Passport NYC, a Jewish overnight camp based in New York City focusing on fashion, film, music, culinary arts, and musical theater.
A very close and longtime friend read my first blog post and reminded me of a piece I had written years ago that I only shared with some of my nearest and dearest … my camp friends. There was a point in my life and career when I couldn’t imagine living without camp but couldn’t configure how camp would fit in my life as an occupation. There were so many positive experiences that connected me to camp, to my friends, my personal growth and acceptance and with all of those experiences came great emotion. From that great emotion came:
Molly Hott, June 27, 2008
Camp is where I learned to be me
And where I let you know, it’s ok to be you
Camp is where I learned to make friends
And where I learned to be a friend
Camp is where I learned how to make my bed
And where I taught others about the importance of hospital corners
Camp is where I saw my first remembered sunset
And where I shared my first remembered sunrise
Camp is where I learned to hold hands confidently
And where I shared the importance of having a hand to hold
Camp is where I cried myself to sleep missing home
And where I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe when I had to leave
Camp is where I saw my first starry night
And where I shared the sighting of my first shooting star
Camp is where I sang and cheered until I had no voice left
And where I learned that my voice would never really come back
Camp is where I learned to respect, my counselors, my campers, my friends and myself
And where I learned about disciplining my staff, my campers, my friends and myself
Camp is where my sister and I became friends
And where I learned that my friends would become my sisters
Camp is where I learned to try everything and anything
And where I learned my strengths and weaknesses
Camp is where I learned that tears of joy can overwhelm you at any time
And where I learned that those tears turn to the greatest memories
Camp is where I learned to laugh until it hurt
And where I learned that laughing is the best medicine
Camp is where I learned to live with others and share common space
And where I learned that wearing the same thing every day is cool
Camp is where I learned how to separate my laundry
And where I learned that I would come home with none of my own clothes
Camp is where I learned I would sleep my deepest and most comfortably
And where I learned that waking up next to your friends every morning is treasured
Camp is where I learned about music and how to change the words to every great song
And where I learned that singing at the top of your lungs anywhere at any time with camp friends is acceptable
Camp is where I learned to love my counselors, my campers and my friends for who they are
And where I learned that each of these people would somehow remain in my life forever
Camp is where I learned about tradition, culture and spirit
And where I learned that these things can change but still remain the same
Camp is where I learned that there is no greater place to be
And where I learned that there is no greater experience for a child, an adult and for me
Camp is where I learned to be me
And where I let you know, it’s ok to be you.
To read this back, almost 5 years later and know that my feelings remain the same is amazing. My relationships remain as strong if not stronger and my love of camp and the experiences it has enabled me to create continue to develop way beyond my wildest dreams…
Stefan Teodosic is the Executive Director of B’nai B’rith Beber Camp and the Perlman Conference Center in Mukwonago, Wisconsin.
My mentor once told me that you could run camp in a parking lot if you had the best staff. I agree completely and it is the individual staff member, as well as the Jewish community, that make camp transformational rather than merely transactional. Jewish camp staff are the role models celebrating camper successes, providing a supportive shoulder to cry on, helping in activity areas and sitting with our kids during Shabbat services. As a field, we realize the connection between staff and mission delivery and recognize the need for a hyper-intentional staffing processes to ensure successful outcomes. Each year, Jewish camp directors prepare their staff to make the most of these opportunities through intentional year round training strategies.
Most people think of staff training as the week before the kids get to camp, full of bonding, programming and planning. While this week is critical to a good summer, Jewish camps begin preparing their staff much earlier to maximize the potential for a transformational summer experience. The field is at a place where slipping into transactional territory is not an option and we are all working with year round staff training best practices. A cornerstone of these best practices is a strategic, mission based staffing continuum that starts as soon as we wrap up the previous summer! This staffing continuum includes the following phases:
- Staff selection: intentional selection of the best staff includes a cultural fit with the camp and the decision whether a staff will truly be able to embody the mission day to day, as well as experience with kids, specialty skills and Jewish background.
- Expectation setting: expectation setting includes the forms that they sign with their contract and the conversations that you have once they have accepted the position. They need to be explicit and supported by multiple touch points leading up to their arrival at staff week.
- Face to face staff training: staff training week is a wonderful opportunity to take the expectations that we have pre-set to the next level. It is also a time to immerse the staff in the camp culture and bond them as a skilled team around shared goals.
- Evaluation: over the course of the summer, the staff need to be supported and evaluated based on their performance with the goal of continuous development all summer. Hopefully, the evaluations are both informal and formal, with the latter directly connected to the job description, interview process and expectation setting.
The best for-profit companies in the world use similar staffing processes to drive the best product results. We are holding ourselves to the same rigorous staffing standards as we realize that Jewish camping is a critical vehicle for delivering the overall goals of the Jewish community. Our non-profit statuses are just legal frameworks that permit us to not pay taxes based our missions and do not determine the way in which do business, including staff training. Jewish camps operate with a high level of intentionality, we achieve our missions AND we offer our staff a transformational experience as well. They participate in the most impactful, highest skill building, spiritual, life changing job they can do in their formative college years. They positively impact children’s lives and gain skills on par with those acquired in non-camping internship/job positions. They are the key to delivering our mission of world class child care, spectacular programming and unapologetic Judaics.
Jewish summer camps are constantly looking for ways to maximize mission delivery AND differentiate themselves in a marketplace filled with competitors, substitutes and alternatives for disposable dollars. The field has appropriately rallied around the concept that concentrating on the core principals of selection, training and evaluation is the right course of action. Investments in facilities and “wow” programming are important to the success of Jewish camps and I am not advocating for running things out of a parking lot by any means. However, the investments that we make in training our staff each year have the highest rate of return for our campers experiences, our staff development and the long term outcomes that are core to the mission of every Jewish camp.
Josh Levine is the director of Camp Alonim in Brandeis, CA.
One of the reasons I am delighted to be one of the regular bloggers in The Canteen is that at Camp Alonim, where I grew up and where I’ve been the director for the past three years, our canteen is a favorite spot. It’s where mail and packages are distributed each day. It’s where the campers go each night for their bedtime snacks. It’s where the boys and girls in each age group get to hang out together one more time before they wish each other a “laila tov” (good night) and go their separate ways. Mail, food, and being with friends – can you see why it’s such a popular place?
The Camp Alonim canteen, as a physical structure, is just a simple shed, really. It’s made of river-rock about four-feet high, then wood, capped by a shingled roof, with a large window built into one wall and a side door. It’s just a normal building – there’s nothing innately special about it. It’s what’s been done with it by human beings – it’s what we make of it and bring of ourselves to it – that makes it special. Its exterior design, which is best described as a groovy homage to Noah’s Ark, was painted years ago by staff members who wanted it to be kid-friendly and welcoming. The interior, which is not visible in the pictures posted here, is a dense swirl of people’s names and the years they were at camp. It’s a privilege to be old enough to get to “sign the canteen,” and it’s something which campers look forward for years. (“Why do you want to be CIT?” we ask in interviews. “Well, among other things, I want to finally sign my name in the canteen!”) Campers regularly crane their necks to locate the names of their counselors, and their counselors’ counselors. In doing so, they both feel connected to and aspire to a tradition that’s larger than themselves.
The Camp Alonim canteen is more than just a place at camp. It reflects a legacy that has been passed down from one generation to another, its timelessness magnified by its being re-created and re-fashioned by each successive iteration of camp citizens. It’s an example of something ordinary that, because of the visible and less-visible contributions of the community, has been made holy. It’s what countless individuals have called home. It’s alive. In other words, it’s Jewish.
This online canteen, as a virtual edifice, is just a simple website, really. It’s based on an HTML template and its data is hosted on servers somewhere in the cloud. Blogs can be about anything. This blog is, of course, already special because it’s about Jewish camp! But, this blog has the potential to be even more special because of the community that arises in, around, and through it – the community that can make it “camp.”
At Alonim, the canteen is a hub for mail, food, and friendship. My hope is for this online canteen to be a hub for all sorts of communication, mental nosh, and community building – in the posts themselves, in the comment threads, and perhaps beyond. “Camp” can happen in cyberspace, too – if we let it. A canteen isn’t a bad place to start.