After two 15 year old boys performed a passionate, if not pitch perfect, duet of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” after a cabin of girls brushed their teeth onstage using guacamole for toothpaste, after a slew of performances both great and courageous got unanimous rounds of applause, after all the hot chocolate in camp had been consumed, after all that was the Bogrim (young adults) Coffee House on Tuesday night at Camp Kingswood, the chadar ochel (dining hall) emptied out. And when the campers and counselors had all left to go to bed, that’s when the real magic moment happened.
I stayed after the Coffee House on Tuesday to have a conversation with six staff members, all new to camp, all from outside the United States. Three Israelis, two Aussies, and a Brit. We had a wide-ranging conversation about their impressions of camp, the people, the environment, the Judaism. One Australian, non-Jewish staff member spoke with pride at the fact that she had memorized Birkat HaMazon and loved singing it at the end of each meal with her campers. One Israeli staff member talked about how amazing it is that the kitchen can produce almost a thousand meals a day and still have the food be delicious! But those tidbits were merely appetizers for the best comment of the night.
Sometimes when it rains, it pours. In my 22 years of spending summers at camp, I have found that this axiom is especially true at camp. The storms are bigger in the summertime, in the woods. Or at least they feel that way when you’re hanging out in a wood cabin, hearing the raindrops pound the roof while you play rafter ball with your buddies. In the case of Camp Kingswood, by the time I got to camp on Monday it had rained nine of the previous 12 days. After I left on Wednesday, that number has risen to 11 of the previous 14. Not to say that people weren’t having the time of their lives – in fact, rain days at camp can be so much fun! Unless you’re on swim staff. Then things get interesting. You play games indoors, you come up with rain plans for evening activies…like casino night!
It was at casino night that one staff member, a member of swim staff whose hopes of teaching swimming had been stymied by mother nature for more than a week, fell down and broke her arm. It instantly became an impossibility that this staff member would get to teach swimming anytime soon, or even lifeguard down at the lake. One could imagine this staff member feeling a bit down, needing a boost from her childhood friends. We are at camp, after all. But this staff member was in her first year at Kingswood, traveling all the way from England to work on swim staff at a summer camp in Maine. So when she finished telling me her story, I was sure this staff member would talk about how frustrated she was, how disappointed, how bummed or sad. But that wouldn’t make a very good blog post, would it?
We were going around the circle, describing our summers, and this staff member declared with a huge smile on her face, that one thing has surprised her more than anything else at camp: not once has she felt homesick. After the broken arm, she spoke on the phone with her mother. And she told her mom the same thing. Sad about the arm, thrilled to be at camp. Not homesick one bit. I had to ask her why? What about Kingswood makes her feel the way she does? Her answer? Everyone at Kingswood treats it like it’s their second home, so I do as well. It’s like having a second family. How could anyone be homesick here?
Of course, many people do feel homesick at camp. Especially their first summer. Especially young campers and new staff. But Camp Kingswood has given us all an aspirational goal: to make our camps feel like a home, and our community like a family. Camp Kingswood is lucky to have a staff member with an indomitably happy spirit, and that staff member is lucky to have Camp Kingswood – a camp that’s more than a camp. A camp that’s a home.
There was recently an article about how camps can help kids unplug from their everyday lives. We read it (online, of course!) while noting the irony that so many of our camps are “electronics free” but we – the directors, assistant directors, and other senior staff members – cringe at the thought of being off-line for even an hour during the summer. While we tout the importance of campers unplugging, we start to sweat the moment our e-mail goes down.
When did this happen? When did technology take over our camps? When did a handwritten list handed to a staff member make us appear out-of-date or disorganized? When did a photographer with a digital camera and Bunk1 access become a necessary position? We are in our late 30s and early 40s; while we are fairly computer savvy, we are still very much able to play the “I am older than cell phones” card with our staff. We remember calling home from a payphone and our parents exclaiming that we sounded “just like we’re next door!”
Don’t get us wrong – we aren’t scared of change; there are both good and bad things that come from more technology. We’re just confused. We recall a time, not so long ago, when camps were in their own bubbles. The “outside world” had little effect on our campers’ lives. Now, within five minutes of the recent Supreme Court decision on DOMA, we were celebrating and sharing the information with our campers and staff. And when a camper asked the details of how the Court voted, we didn’t hesitate to run to the internet to get him the information. And it’s not only about the outside world – it’s also about our camper families. We answer parents (including our own) about when photos will be up, what we’re eating for lunch, and why a child doesn’t appear to be wearing sunscreen. We e-mail parents en masse to keep them updated and we post to Facebook regularly (including from our cell phones when the power goes out!).
On the other hand, we expect that our campers will have no access to any of this technology. We require that all approved electronics are in airplane mode – and we are envious of those camps that have a “no screens” policy. But, at the same time, we wonder if sneaking in an iPad or liking a post on Facebook from a cabin a few steps from the office is really a punishable offense. How can we expect our campers to stop texting, updating, and chatting “cold turkey,” when they submit papers, complete college applications, and talk to their friends online the other eleven months of the year? And how can we, who pride ourselves on building and sustaining community, tell first year staff that they can’t be Facebook friends with kids one year younger than them who – just three days earlier – had been their best friend?
We used to say that we wouldn’t ask our staff or campers to do anything we wouldn’t do or haven’t done for ourselves. We are always happy to jump in to run a program, stay up late, wash dishes, or plunge a toilet. But ask us to give up our internet and we’re not sure we can agree. How could we know what’s going on in our world? How could we stay in touch with our families? How could we write blog posts like this? Hmmm – this has us stumped. Maybe we should check Google for some advice….
As we gear up for camp every year, there is so much work to be done. Schedules to be finalized, outfits to be tagged and folded lovingly into duffel bags, water bottles to be cleaned. I remember how practical it was, writing my initials on all of my white athletic socks, not just for camp laundry, but also because all 6 of my family members wore the exact same style and brand.
My camp prep begins in August. Once the campers leave, I return to my “winter” life – 4 days a week at The Davis Academy, a Reform Day School in Atlanta, and 1 day a week at the URJ Camp Coleman office. At Davis, I labbed prayer programming with middle schoolers and 3rd graders, helped work on exciting study programs, and began construction on an awesome interfaith program. During my 1 day at Coleman (referred to affectionately as “Yom Coleman”), I learned about year-round operations, met with leadership, traveled to Israel, and structured camp’s programmatic success 2013 (and beyond).
A few weeks before Leadership Week, many of camp’s programmers and unit heads gathered in Tampa, FL, to prepare for the summer. In addition to learning about important Jewish texts and their place in our work, we had the unique opportunity to join one of our congregations for a camp send-off Shabbat. Dressed in our finest Coleman attire, we spoke to the congregation about what we love at camp, with a focus on Shabbat.
Veteran and neophyte staff joined together in talking about values, singing, dancing, smiling, hugging, and, as my teacher taught me to say, “Our very best friend the Torah.” Much of what we spoke about was the intangible stuff that comes home with you from camp.
Our joint speech moved each of us and got us ready for summer. And we’d like to think that the members of that congregation got excited to fill their own duffels with the perfect physical things when they set out on their journey – and to fill their hearts and minds to prepare them for the long road home, after camp. You can’t put that Shabbat feeling in your duffel bag, but your camp is certainly going to put it in your heart!
As you would imagine, the staff at FJC has packed and unpacked a lot of camp trunks – as campers themselves, parents of campers, and of course, as counselors. This is no small task. Parents, I know that over the next few weeks you’ll be packing up your happy campers so I’ve come to offer some help (unfortunately, only via this blog, not literally).
By now, you have picked out your trunks (they may look big now because they’re empty, but just wait) and ordered your name labels. I spend weeks thinking about the piles of clothes hoping that if I wish it hard enough CampMinder or Bunk 1 will figure out a way to pack your bags for you, not just schedule a pick-up. But of course, that never happens.
First and foremost, be organized! If you really knew me, this would make you laugh – really, really hard. I don’t know how to be organized – except when it comes to packing for camp. So, here is the best of my advice and those from my colleagues, wrapped into a nice care package for my fellow parents out there:
- Live the list. I take the camp packing list and create an excel file, then I add all the “must-haves” my kids come home “needing” year after year. If it is your child’s first summer, talk to other camp parents about their kid’s favorite clothing items, games, bunk decorations, etc. that you may not think of or know about. Each camp has certain traditions and “nice-to-haves” that aren’t on the official packing list and some items that may be prohibited at one camp are all-important at another. (For example, my girls love their Crazy Creek chairs and other camps don’t allow them). I also mark down what items I send more of than the list asks for – somehow four bathing suits just doesn’t seem to be enough.
- Read carefully. Make sure you really read the list and the parent handbook before your start packing. Many camps only allow one-piece or tankini bathing suits for girls, or ask for special clothing for Shabbat. Make a note of your camps technology policy and plan accordingly.
- Label! Label! Label! There are a zillion different options out there – sew-in, iron-on, stick-on. Figure out what works best for you (confession – I just use a Sharpie– a black for most things and a silver metallic for dark items). Make sure everything including all shoes, sports equipment, and towels have a name on them. It is shocking that one sneaker can find its way into a Lost & Found bin, or that kids don’t recognize their lacrosse sticks when a camp director holds it up from the front of the dining hall.
- Talk to other parents. Seek out parents and ask about what their kids wear at camp. Many camps are in the mountains or by a lake, making mornings and evenings cool. We have seen many kids wear rain boots and Uggs to breakfast with their sweats and PJ bottoms. Some camps have post-Shabbat dancing with crazy costumes. That doesn’t mean run out and buy stuff – look around your house for fun wigs and crazy t-shirts, they always come in handy. Each camp is different so find out what clothes the campers at your child’s camp wouldn’t leave home without.
- Pack with your child. Make sure they know exactly what is going in the trunk and what isn’t. If there is a favorite item going to camp with them, make sure they know where to find it and drill into their heads that certain things need to come home. Also explain to them what isn’t allowed or if there are rules for certain items (such as electronics) that are going with them.
- Make it easy for everyone. At some camps, the trunks arrive early, counselors unpack for the kids and voila – your kid is ready to go the second they step off the bus. Others, you do the unpacking when you drop your kids off. Either way, a little pre-thought goes a long way. USE ZIPLOCK BAGS. I pack all the socks in one, shorts in others, t-shirts… This way, whoever is doing the unpacking has a little less work to do and nothing is floating around in the trunk. If your child needs a special outfit (Shabbat, banquet, whatever) pack that in a separate, labeled Ziplock bag so they know where to find it.
- Get sock laundry bags. These could be one of the best camp inventions ever. Teach your child to put their socks in a smaller laundry bag and put that right in the camp laundry. Then on laundry day, they are not sorting and pairing up socks with 15 other kids. (Perhaps they will use this extra time to actually write you a letter…)
- Under bed storage. Some camps suggest you bring under-the-bed boxes or plastic drawers. If you send them, pre-pack the boxes how you envision your child using them. I also pre-pack the shower caddy, toiletries, whatever I can. I show my kids what is where and how I packed the extras like soap, shampoo, shoelaces, and sunscreen (again make sure you are protecting the things in the trunk from leaks by using Ziplock bags).
- Batteries. Don’t forget to pack lots of these essential little items – and show your kids how to change the batteries in their flashlights and fans.
- WE WANT COLOR WAR! Pack a shirt in each color of the color war/Maccabiah/Olymics team that the camp has. This way your child doesn’t have to search around when color war breaks (I never had anything green and always ended up on the green team). I send some face paint, bandanas, and mustaches in different colors as well. Party City has a great section with all sorts of fun stuff by color if you want to send some extras.
- Costumes. You may be told to send your child to camp with a costume for a special event but I always also pack a white t-shirt and a Sharpie – instant costume for any occasion.
- Be organized! Organization really starts the day the kids come home from camp. Make a note of what got used and what didn’t. If half the sweatshirts are still folded just how you sent them or the socks are still paired up and white, don’t send as many the following summer. I make note of what I need more or less of and leave it in the trunks so I find it each spring (consider it a love note to yourself).
Well now that I’ve shared some packing wisdom with you, I think it is time to get off my tush and take this advice. Anyone want to come help?
The Davis Academy put on a play, “The Little Mermaid.” It was utterly impressive. The hard work of the kids – and the performing arts staff – was showcased in their acting and singing, the costume design, the makeup, and the gigantic mass of children (ages 5-14!) that sang in the chorus. A number of shows were put on over the course of several days for the entire Davis school community.
As I sat in the audience, I marveled at the kids. I normally only see them in Davis uniform khakis, logo-embroidered polo shirts, and the ubiquitous Davis hoodie. Watching kids transformed by the play never ceases to amaze me – at school or at camp.
I’ve worked at a number of different Jewish summer camps with different views of how to make the play an educational experience. At previous camps, plays were done in Hebrew – all in Hebrew! – or in English. Regardless of the educational mission, the kids are growing before our very eyes. Their time is spent in rehearsal – many hours after school for the school play, and many hours during their regularly scheduled camp program during the summer. The teamwork, mindset and hard work ethic that is built during these experiences, while still having to maintain grades at school, or maintain a neat living space at camp, helps them grow into multitasking adults.
The set design, directing, and producing of the play is the responsibility of the Drama counselor(s), people with experience that ranges from “I did this when I was a camper” to “I appear on Broadway on a fairly regular basis.” Not every play was ready to be presented for a Tony, but one constant remained: the shining of the kids.
At Davis, at Coleman, and at the other camps where I’ve watched plays, the kids sparkle on stage. Whether that is due to intricate sequinning of costumes, or the impressiveness of a voice (usually hid behind a siddur in Tefillah or masked by 600 other voices during a camp-wide song session), the kids are stars.
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.