Harry Chapin is one of the singer-songwriters whose music has provided the soundtrack to countless summers at Camp Alonim and many other Jewish camps over the years. In one memorable tune, Harry spins a lament about the meagerness of his guitar – his “monophonic symphony,” his “six string orchestra.” How about adding a bass, lead guitar, drums, and some strings – wouldn’t the music sound much more full that way? “Maybe I just need a group to help me do my stuff,” sings Harry.
As a camp director, one group that helps me “do my stuff” is my cohort of FJC’s Executive Leadership Institute (ELI). Barely a year after we first gathered to begin our learning together, my fourteen fellow directors and I recently reconvened in New Jersey along with the fantastic FJC faculty and staff for the first time since the summer. The room was filled with hearty hugs and warm feelings. And then, once again, we got down to work. We continued our skill-building in the areas of board development and fundraising. We updated one another on the various “summer change” projects we each initiated at our camps – from what worked, to what didn’t, to what’s next. We pored over various aspects of budgeting and financial management – the toolbox both for managing a budget month-to-month and for using financial data to communicate organizational priorities and health clearly and effectively. We learned new ways to recruit and retain campers and families – from postcards with QR codes that can be scanned to link to an online summer photo or video, to online marketing efforts that are increasingly common in the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds, to year-round efforts to connect kids and their families with each other and with camp’s joyful Judaism. We shared what we do, and had a friendly competition about how many of our ideas we could share with one another. “You wrote 131 retention ideas on your giant post-its? Ha – we have more!” Brainstorming led to “a-ha” moments and then the increasingly antsy feelings of “I want to go home and get started!”
Some of us are technically “competitors” – some are even in the same geographic markets – so why has the spirit of collaboration been so palpable since day 1 of ELI? It’s because we all believe in the value of Jewish camp to change lives, we all believe each kid in this world is unique and might find his/her true “home away from home” in a different place, and we all know that despite the ever-improving products we’re offering, the majority of Jewish kids still don’t attend Jewish camp!
As important as ELI has been for learning best practices and refining our nitty-gritty skills both as “mayors” of our seasonal outposts and as year-round executives with multi-million dollar budgets, it’s that community that FJC has created that has made ELI such a worthwhile endeavor. The job of a camp director can sometimes be a surprisingly lonely one, even during the summer. Now, because of ELI, I have a cohort of colleagues across the country, each of whom is committed to excellence for their camps and any of whom I would feel comfortable calling to discuss an issue.
But it’s even more than having an expanded rolodex and the comfort of knowing I can use it. This summer, my fellow ELI Fellows joined me at camp. Not physically, of course, but the next best way. I could ask myself: How would Terry warmly welcome the waves of first-time parents and campers? How might Lewis make a necessary change and communicate it to stakeholders? How would Anne exhibit consistency when everything seems to be descending into chaos? How might Noah listen to this camper or that staff member who might need some special attention? Would Melissa be satisfied with the level of intention shown to our teen programs? I believe leadership is most effective when it is by example – and because of ELI, I had with me the examples of fourteen other stellar camp professionals with whom I could empathize imaginatively throughout the summer.
ELI has reminded me that I alone am more than a “monophonic symphony,” and it has taught me that we each need a group to help us do our stuff. “And we would play together, like fine musicians should. And it would sound like music, and the music would sound good.” Thanks, ELI 3. Thanks, FJC. And, for what I’m sure won’t be the last time: thanks, Harry Chapin.
- Josh Levine, Director of Camp Alonim in Brandeis, CA