I often wonder if all roads lead us to the place where we are supposed to be. I don’t mean this to sound quite as philosophical as it might come across; I merely mean that there are so many moments in my life that are meant to be. The Chinese have an idea about this: it is called the red thread. This is the notion that when a child is born an invisible red thread connects the child to their past, present and future. As time passes all that is fated to be will happen.
I have a special place in my heart and soul for this thought. It started when I was 14 and a family who was Jewish asked me to babysit their adorable little girl. April had been adopted from Korea two years earlier and she and her parents were in the process of adopting her sister. I was babysitting for their family when little sister Jenna arrived and I continued to babysit for them through high school and well into college. The fact that their children were Asian and Jewish was something I noticed in a celebratory way. I loved the combination of the Korean masks that they had in their house and the menorah that sat right by it. It all made sense to me and seemed perfectly “normal.” I remember the girls going to Korean camp and having their bat-mitzvahs and recently have been blessed enough to watch April stand under the chuppah with her new husband. Asian and Jewish … it just seemed to fit.
Fast forward 20 years and my husband and I are talking about the choices we have in child getting. I have to be honest, for me the decision to adopt was very easy. I had this great example and well, it seemed to me that all the work in trying to have a child biologically was not really worth it if there were children who needed a home and we needed to be parents…. So adoption was the route we took… For my husband and me, this meant going to China in the winter of 2005 and adopting our Madeline Rose Hai Yan Chaya Shifra Nowack.
Fast forward seven years. I consciously chose a place to work that had a good deal of racial diversity for the Jewish community. And let’s be honest, racial diversity and American Jewry do not always go hand in hand. So, I chose to work at Camp JRF because there were other kids who looked like my daughter. There are kids of many races, and many different family styles at Camp JRF so I knew our daughter would fit in at this camp as much as she could in any place where most of the people look nothing like you. I was not prepared for Amy though.
Amy is a stunning 15 year old girl who was adopted from China in the 90s. She is part of the chalutzim, the early families who went to China when things were not as open as they are now. Amy is a smart, easy going girl who never really seemed phased by much at camp. A kid from the Midwest who never got caught up in the drama. So when she walked into my office and closed the door and started to cry I was shocked. She told me how I was the only one who could understand: someone had said something rude about Asians in her presence, not even connecting that she was Asian since, as this person said, “Well I mean you are Jewish…” And she was upset. Not even because her feelings were hurt but because she did not know how to feel. I looked at her and thought: “Oh …. This is that moment… When the red thread brought you to my office…”
We spoke for a while and we tried to solve all the racial issues of the Jewish community. We came up with the idea that nothing was going to be solved for a while. We spoke about how stupid people can be and how confusing things are and how even in the safest of places, like camp, reality is always there.
When Amy went back to her bunk she was better. Nothing was solved, but she knew she had a place to come to when she felt a bit weird about all of the stuff.
I, however, shut the door to my office and cried. I cried for all the kids who look different in one way or another and we as a Jewish community don’t remember that they are part of us. I cried for the moments when someone says something in front of me about others and assumes because I am Jewish I am going to agree with them. I cried because, truth be told, this was exactly what I had feared, that my decision to adopt our daughter and raise her Jewish would somehow leave her on the outside. Then I composed myself and celebrated. How great is it that my daughter can look to older campers and see someone who looks like her. That in her Hebrew school class there are three Asian Jewish girls – not all adopted. That the world gets smaller every day and that there are places all over where she can feel comfortable.
Mostly, I celebrated that the red thread had lead Amy to my office and Maddie to our home and that somehow this puzzle of race and culture and religion was going to be okay.
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.
I have been fortunate to be on faculty for something called The Cornerstone Fellowship for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. And one of my favorite moments at Cornerstone is the first meal when everyone is gathered in the dining hall, finishing up their dinner, and a staff member gets up to make announcements. There is a phenomenon at Jewish summer camps to create a ritual around the announcements at meals and each camp has their own unique way of marking the moment.
Some camps repeat everything said by the person making announcements. Some camps bang on the tables. Some camps do all their announcements in Hebrew. Some camps start with birthday announcements that include a room full of people cheering and singing until said birthday-kid ‘skips around the room.’ My favorite, though, is the camps that, upon hearing the word “announcements” bust out into a quite annoying chant about announcements being akin to an unfortunate form of death.
It is that cheer, and that moment, that I look forward to at the end of the first meal of Cornerstone every year. Why? Because we always put a first time staff member in charge of making announcements at the end of the first meal. Whereas us veterans know how to handle the crowd (and avoid saying the dreaded ‘announcements,’ opting for other less lampoonable synonyms), the new person invariably makes the big mistake, launching the room into a good 45 seconds of uncontrollable mayhem. Rookies.
But truly, hazing is not the real reason I love that moment. I love that moment because of all the wonderful things that come from spending a summer at camp, I think one of most important is the instilling of self-confidence. Would a random eight year old kid, in a room with 300 other kids, most of whom are older strangers, stand up on a table and shout silly songs about announcements at the top of her lungs without inhibition? Only at camp. Would a twenty year old jaded college student, majoring in mechanical engineering at an Ivy League school, eating lunch at a conference in a room with 300 other 20 year olds, most of whom are strangers, stand up on a table and shout silly songs about announcements at the top of his lungs without inhibition? Only at camp. And Cornerstone.
Returning counselors are the “cornerstones” of their camp. Each spring, these staff members from Jewish camps varying in denomination come together from all over North America for a several days of professional development consisting of learning not only from the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s seasoned faculty, but also from each other. Fellows share “magic” and ideas between camps, creating a new type of camp community. Over the last 10 years, nearly 1,600 fellows have participated in the transformative experience of The Cornerstone Fellowship. This year’s program will take place May 19-23, 2013 at Capital Camps in Waynesboro, PA.
After months of anticipation, I arrived in a slightly damp and chilly Israel for the annual training of summer shlichim (Israeli counselors) and the annual training of Union for Reform Judaism Israel Educators. I arrived a few days early with a busy schedule in mind: Shabbat with a former Israeli co-counselor who is like family, observance of Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day).
While I was in Israel, I saw a number of things. I ate all of my favorite foods. I watched a ridiculous and humorous McDonald’s commercial while watching TV with my “family.”I swayed with thousands of people in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Rabin (Rabin Square) to commemorate the somber memorials of Yom HaZikaron. I sang, danced, and shouted with glee with thousands more in downtown Jerusalem on the very next night, Yom HaAtzmaut.
The transition from Zikaron to Atzmaut, tempered by the horrifying news of a pigua (terrorist attack) in Boston, really struck me. How can you be so sad, mourning thousands of Israel’s fallen in the very place where Rabin was assassinated, and then, in just one day, transition into singing and dancing outside of City Hall in Jerusalem?
The answer came at the Israeli staff seminar. The delegations from the different camps, chosen from a large applicant pool, are excited to teach about Israel. They have stories, histories, interests, and life experiences that are uniquely their own. Uniquely Israeli, but also uniquely individual. Each person is different. And just like they each bring their own experience, they also represent the full life and times of Israel. They remembered their own family members and friends on Yom HaZikaron, celebrated their country on Yom HaAtzmaut, and talked about how to share their stories with their campers over the course of the summer. Memory and joy for the whole country and people of Israel is important. So too is the ability of each shaliach/shlicha to share those memories and those joys with their campers this summer.
The answer is that the transition from Zikaron to Atzmaut became MY transition, too. Because I’ve lived in Israel, loved in Israel, eaten in Israel, commemorated in Israel, and learned in, from and about Israel, those stories and transitions are mine, too.
Israel is for all of us at Jewish summer camp. My hope is that those memories and joys will become the memories and joys of the campers who receive them this summer.
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.
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.
Sheira Director-Nowack is the associate director of Camp JRF in South Sterling, PA.
As a Jewish camping professional for the past 20 years, I have been cheer-leading, encouraging and convincing parents of the benefits of sleep away camp for their children. I have been proudly telling people how almost all of my wedding party went to camp with me (and there were eight bridesmaids…don’t ask); that when my father passed away (I was 15), the first people at his funeral were my camp friends and they made sitting shiva a less awkward experience for such a young person. These young women and men changed my life. They taught me about being proud of who I was/am, they lived through the struggles of adolescence with me and I am VERY proud to say I keep in touch with the 30 women from my age group in camp.
At 40, I am now the proud mother of the most amazing 8 1/2 year old ever to walk this planet (no bias there of course) and she will be going to sleepaway camp for the first time this summer. I mean, she has been at camp her whole life: she learned to walk at camp and when we adopted her from China, the whole camp and all the parents of our campers cheered. The Jewish camping community has been a constant in helping me and my husband raise our daughter. This summer though, it will be different… She will be living in a bunk, away from us, for the first time. (By “away from us” I mean less than a mile from my camp house…) This has been a HUGE learning experience!
I think to all the parents over the years who gave me their child’s specific regimen of face washing as I smiled and told them it would all be ok. To the parents that tried to explain every detail about their child to me so we could encourage their son to swim or their daughter to enjoy art. I think to the parents of a child who had special needs and going over their child’s medication regimen for like 40 minutes while I wrote the information down … even though it was all given to our medication distributor and our nurses. I think to the parent who had to ask me for financial aid to try to give their children a Jewish experience in an otherwise not so Jewish world. I think of all the hopeful moments when parents wished that this camp experience would help their child become a better person, a better Jew, a better anything, and I am humbled.
Truth be told, I am petrified for my daughter and for our family. My husband and I waited for three years to adopt her from China and now someone else is going to be taking care of her for the summer? Someone who might not know that she likes ketchup on her hotdogs and BBQ sauce on her chicken nuggets? Some wonderfully intelligent young woman (who I interviewed and hired!) who might not be aware of what “that face” looks like… the one right before she starts to cry. WHAT AM I DOING?!?!
Then the other part of me comes into play… the part of me that is THRILLED for her to come into her own surrounded by loving and caring Jewish values. The part of me that knows that the people she will meet will influence her to become someone more than who she already is. She is going to learn to LOVE to be in a Jewish world, share her identity, her interests, and her ideas with other kids. She is going to gain more independence, learn about others and herself and have influences that I could never provide her. She is going to have strong young men and women to look up to and to role model. She is going to learn to brush her own hair, make her own bed, clean up after herself, pick her own food, laugh at what SHE thinks is funny, roll her eyes at the people in charge, dance in the rain and ignore the adults as she giggles with her friends because of something RIDICULOUSLY silly that someone said.
The notion that others will have an effect on her is what I think I get a tad nervous about for a moment. I think to the gorgeous little girl who they put in our arms in an orphanage, and I am teary-eyed about her growing up. I mean, I knew it was going to happen but it seems to have gone EXTREMELY fast. The reality is that someone once told me everyday your children are growing away from you and into themselves. This step into the sleep away camp world is just a more concrete way of seeing that. I think again to all the parents who are crying as they roll out of camp. I think to how happy I am when they leave and we are just us…the camp world…ready to do all these incredible things for children…and I think perhaps I have been a tad hard on them. I think that I am going to have more patience and more unconditional love to my fellow mommies and daddies who really just want their most precious and loved child to just be ok.
I think the most important lesson I have learned in this is that we are all always growing. I trust my camp sooooo much. However, I will never again think that a parent is giving me too much information, I will never again wonder why Mr. So-and-So is calling me for the fifth time this week, I will never again giggle inside when a parent tells me they only got three letters this week from their daughter or tells me that the counselor looks awfully young and am I sure she/he can handle their child. I have made myself a promise that I will share with all of you: I will not call myself everyday to see how my daughter is doing (as I am the person who speaks to all the parents); I will not ask her rosh eidah (unit leader) if she is washing her hair; and when I see her at breakfast in some outfit that looks like she got dressed in the dark, I will not cry … well at least not in front of her….