As many of you heard at the Leaders Assembly, our third biennial conference in March, 41 summers ago, my mom and dad provided me with an experience which truly transformed my life. They sent me to Jewish overnight camp. Although I hadn’t been back to camp for 33 years, I have cherished my memories of camp and have lived a life based on those experiences and with those friendships.
This summer, in my new role leading the Foundation for Jewish Camp, I had the pleasure to return to camp – actually, to return to 40 different camps! I observed an incredible range, including visiting one of the oldest, Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, NY, and the five newest camps which opened this summer. I suppose I had the chance to make up for lost time… and just as I felt when camp ended each summer many years ago, I wish this summer didn’t have to end and that I could have visited even more. What a special experience to be able to learn the field today and to compare and contrast the camp experience through its many expressions.
Throughout my travels, as I met with camp professionals and lay leaders, schmoozed with counselors, and chatted with campers, four ideas or themes kept coming up: Inspiration, Diversity, Innovation, and Unity.
Many experiences inspired me this summer, but these truly stand out as examples of the power of the camp experience.
Camp Simcha in Glen Spey, NY, created by Chai Lifeline, provides a summer camp experience to kids suffering from pediatric cancer and other life-threatening conditions. If not for this knowledge, I might have mistaken Camp Simcha for yet another Jewish camp. But to me, the most moving fact is that of all of the many experiences Chai Lifeline has chosen to provide these kids, it is summer camp which has been prioritized and so lovingly provided and from which these campers derive so much happiness.
I also visited Morry’s Camp, which provides inner-city kids with an overnight summer camp experience along with year-round support and youth development programs, which would not otherwise be accessible to them. They benefit from the network of support and gain increased social skills, enhanced self-esteem, positive core values, and a greater sense of personal responsibility. While not a Jewish camp, Morry’s serves as an example of focus on mission, of helping at-risk, low-income population, of inspiring a next generation. And again, the fact that camp is central to Morry’s program is truly inspiring indeed, and further corroboration of the power and value of camp!
During my visit to Camp JRF in South Sterling, PA, while standing in the outdoor Beit Tefilah, the camp director described how each camper brought one rock from all around the camp, and placed their individual rock at the base of the bimah during the camp’s first summer. Each rock helped complete the foundation. Each camper made the difference. And a holy prayer space was sanctified by rocks from all over the camp grounds selected by each individual camper. Wow.
Perhaps one of the most exciting set of experiences this summer was visiting all five of the brand new specialty camps, which were initiated by FJC’s Specialty Camp Incubator funded generously by the Jim Joseph Foundation.
The URJ Six Points Sports Academy has created an outstanding program that couples sports skill training with Jewish values at a world-class facility – the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC; Eden Village Camp has set the standard for a holistic, environmental Jewish experience; Passport NYC, hosted by the 92 Street Y with support from NJY Camp, has shown that a camp community can be created in the heart of New York City; Ramah Outdoor Adventure has used the backdrop of the beautiful Colorado Rocky Mountains to inspire a new generation of outdoor-orientated Jewish experiences. Finally, I was fortunate to even find the trekking campers of Adamah Adventures at a campsite somewhere in northern South Carolina as they prepared their own dinner and chatted at the end of the day.
Amazing things are happening at long-standing traditional camps as well. I was impressed by the specialty programs developed within the New Jersey Y camp system, whether it be their upgraded, high-quality sports facilities and programming, their impressive Lynn B. Harrison science center, or their new state-of-the-art ceramics program led by a Bezalel Institute-trained artist.
The URJ’s Eisner Camp has instituted an innovative new tradition which links generations of campers. On the opening day of each session, the entire camp community gathers for a Torah procession and dedication ceremony, passing the Torah scrolls from the oldest campers to the youngest in a moving scene of powerful symbolism.
The universe of Jewish summer camp is a microcosm of our greater diverse Jewish community. I marveled at the many different, successful executions of Jewish camp today serving such a wide diversity of backgrounds — religious, political, ethnic, geographic. I celebrate the fact that we could visit — in the Pocono Mountains alone — Habonim Dror Camp Galil, Young Judaea’s Camp Tel Yehudah, Camp Moshava, Ramah Poconos, B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp, Pinemere Camp, and many other camps, all producing wonderful, engaging programs in their own unique ways that are consistent with their mission. And each one Jewish. We certainly can learn much from each other’s differences by sharing with one another.
The diversity provides campers with the chance to find the right fit for them, the right environment in which to thrive and express their Judaism. I had conversations with kids experiencing “their” camp in an environment which was right — and rich — for them. We need to continue to ensure a wide variety of choices are available from which today’s families can choose.
And yet, amidst the diversity, so much unifies the Jewish camp experience across movements, geographies, and even generations. Brandeis University Professor Amy Sales in the soon-to-be released update on the seminal research report “Limmud by the Lake,” reminds us that ten years after the initial Brandeis survey, and numerous positive changes to the operation and the field of Jewish camp, “Camp is still camp.” The singing, dancing, smiles, spirit, and laughter sometimes made it difficult to distinguish one camp from another; this holds true for old camps and new camps, private camps, girls or boys camps, and specialty camps. Camp still delivers an incredibly joyous Jewish experience.
I continue to be so moved by the pluralistic “big tent” of the field of Jewish camp. Everyone joins together for a common purpose and unites to create a model Jewish community. My visits confirmed that so much more unites us than divides us. Life-long friendships are being formed, communities are being created. The Jewish future is being secured by the Jewish camp experience.
In Canada, with the support of the Toronto Jewish Federation, Camp Moshava (Orthodox), Camp Ramah (Conservative), and URJ Camp George (Reform) gathered together at Ramah for a first-ever Unity Day. Organized by FJC-trained Cornerstone Fellows from each camp, participants were able to experience Jewish peoplehood and be a part of something larger than their home movements’ camps and communities. And I know that similar programs are held across the camp community – whether it is the Jewish Arts Festival in New England, or Yom Nate hosted by Camp Nesher for several camps in the Pocono Mountains, or others. These sorts of inter-camp, interdenominational programs are a model to be replicated and celebrated throughout the broader Jewish community.
My exposure to all of these camps as an adult offered me new perspectives on something I once knew so well, but from a very different vantage point. As a camper, I could have never known how much effort went into making each of my days at camp perfect. With this realization, I conclude my “back-to-school” essay, “What I Learned on My Summer Vacation,” with these four invaluable lessons:
Lesson #1 — It is not “magic”; it is intentional hard work.
I had the honor of representing FJC at a stimulating Yeshiva University Conference on the Jewish Future. Taking place in Orlando, we had the unique privilege of visiting Walt Disney World and exploring behind-the-scenes operations of the Magic Kingdom. To ensure that each visitor’s experience is “magical,” Disney personnel are all treated as members of the “cast,” committed to customer service and exceeding guest expectation. Disney’s intentional approach to customer service starts actually one floor below Main Street – underground – but flows to every single aspect of the operation. I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between the complexity and intentionality which goes into running Disney World and a critical community resource like summer camp.
Lesson #2 — It is “awe”some!
One week after my Disney trip, I had the opportunity to hike to the top of Aspen Mountain, some 11,200 feet high. The view (and the hike) took my breath away! As I hiked with Eric Phelps who leads the camping initiatives of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, we had the chance to enjoy the awe-inspiring scenery while we shared ideas about how to ensure that more kids in more communities benefit from the beauty and power of summer camp. Inspired by the majestic mountains, I felt ever-connected to FJC’s mission of significantly increasing the number of children at Jewish camps — an awe inspiring mission if I’ve ever heard of one!
Lesson #3 — It is about our future.
Upon leaving Camp Wise in Chardon, Ohio, I was struck by the phrase carved into the beautiful Magen David wooden archway over the driveway. It reads, “Our past paves the way to our future.” In over 155 camps across North America, tradition and innovation, happening every day at camp, are creating a strong, vibrant Jewish future. Each camp builds on its past, on its traditions, even as each evolves to meet today’s needs. But each is truly paving the way to a brighter future for our communities.
Lesson #4 — Pass it on.
My own experience this summer as a parent of two first-time campers brought this whole endeavor full circle. Just as I had been positively impacted by my camp experiences many moons ago, the next generation took their rightful place in that tradition. What had been passed on by my parents, my wife and I are passing on to our kids. And by hearing their colorful stories, listening to their new camp songs, and watching their glorious smiles, I know the joy of Judaism will live on.
Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO
Foundation for Jewish Camp