The following blog post is the first in a series written by Jewish camp professionals, representing an array of camps and movements, expressing their perspectives regarding the past, present, and future of Jewish summer camp.
On my first day as a camping professional I drove to the Olney section of North Philadelphia, walked into the entrance and climbed the rickety stairs to the nondescript office on the second floor. Nobody answered, and after wandering in a confused and anxious state, I sat down at the top of the stairs. Cells and e-mail had yet to become de rigueur, and I was 15 minutes early. When the director did arrive 105 minutes later, he was unapologetic and surprised at my being there. He never told me that we started the day at 9 AM, but I assumed…
He had been a director since 1959, and in truth, his 10:30 AM arrival was a recent change. For all but the last two years, he would get to the office after 1 PM, sometimes later. This was understandable, because he was a camp director of another generation; a leader of an agency by night (and summer), and a teacher of high school mathematics by day. And until my hiring, he was the lone “full-time” professional, with a part-time bookkeeper and a trusted spouse to fill out the team. There was no computer in the office. No fax machine. No web site. And, in all honestly, few discernible problems.
Families chose the camp for its good reputation, and despite drops in enrollment recently, there was no palpable pressure. Board members appeared two or three times a year, and when they came, it was more about a meal than anything else. But despite the lack of technology, the straightforwardness of the director’s approach to the “key things” were working (it was always about being appreciated by ‘the Moms,’ making sure the ‘JCCs don’t forget us in January’ and ‘getting the staff contracts out early’). Some cabins at camp looked like donated motel bungalows (they were) and the fundraising strategy consisted of contribution cards for memorials, but the camp was mostly fine and the director was a legend.
I took over the camp five years later and changed as much as possible as fast as I could. My job description, like many of my peers’, became nuanced with “experiential educator,” “Jewish communal leader,” “strategic planner,” fund resource developer,” “marketer,” “social networker,” “staff developer” and more. We looked like a robust agency, we added dynamic young professionals, we responded to trends, we evolved the program and culture, and we felt really good about how hard we worked year-round, almost bragging about the long hours, the miles and miles of travel for camper and staff recruitment and the complexity of our work.
And in 2010, looking at my former camp (I resigned in 2008) and many more like it being run by similar kinds of amazing people using similar kinds (and ever-growing) sorts of tools and strategies and systems and tactics, sensing the struggle to keep pace in a down economy amidst tremendous competition and negative population trends, I think: did the “old days” actually have it somewhat right? What would it look like if our directors started to come in a little later, what if they shed some of the demanding responsibilities thrust upon them, what if they turned off the phones, stopped writing and reading the “tweets” and let the summer program flow more slowly? What if they all moved their offices to Olney (or their own version of it), paid $240/month in rent (maybe that’s not as ridiculous with the markets being so down), required their staff to flex their schedules so they could tip the work/life balance scale in their favor, and shut down the constant “Countdown to Camp” mentality that runs them all ragged for 316 days a year (all for the 49 with the kids)? What if they don’t carry a BlackBerry or iPhone, and what if they actually buck the trend of Millennials that admit to going to bed with that little thing on their nightstand (more than 80%) and get some sleep?
Just a thought.
Aaron Selkow is Vice President of Program Services and Director of the Merrin Center for Teen Services at JCC Association. In that position, he uses his skills from a 15-year career as a camping professional each and every day, including in his leadership of JCCA’s Camping Services. Aaron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.