(Pictured) Some of the most influential Jewish experiences are happening in the woods, on the lake, and in the cabin – so too are some of the most impactful professional development opportunities.

Last Shabbat I danced Israeli rikkud with 300 teens on the banks of the Delaware River in New York. A week later I joined a different set of campers in song and prayer deep in the woods of Yosemite National Park.  I baked challah a few days earlier with a cabin of middle school children in rural Wisconsin, and just up the road I studied what Judaism has to say about independence around July 4th while riding a pontoon boat out on the lake at sunset with a group of counselors.   I love Jewish camp.

My coast-to-coast Jewish camp tour is sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, where I am privileged to serve on the faculty for their Cornerstone Fellowship, a leadership program for veteran bunk counselors and their senior staff supervisors.  Now in its 11th year, cohorts of Cornerstone Fellows from nearly 60 Jewish camps are given the opportunity to network and idea share with 400 of their peers from other camps and learn from expert educators – in order to see themselves as Jewish educators in their own communities.  Fellows are tasked with mentoring younger staff members and implementing new Jewishly contented programming at camp during the summer.  As an advisor for the program, I get to visit eight of these camps and to support the Fellows in their professional growth as they successfully execute their visions.  

Much research has been done about the impact of camp on Jewish identity and future Jewish affiliation, including on the lives of young camp staff.  Young adults are regularly the recipients of resources, attention and a whole lot of worry from the Jewish community.  The Jewish camp field, and Cornerstone specifically, similarly invests in these 19 and 20 year old staff members, but differently – instead of treating these young adults as passive participants and recipients of Jewish experiences, camp challenges them to be producers of Jewish life for themselves and literally thousands of other young Jews.  The Cornerstone Fellows across the country are “in the trenches,” creating high quality, meaningful and incredibly fun opportunities for others to engage Jewishly every day.  

It’s not often that the Jewish community so heavily invests in its direct service program providers, but selection for programs like Cornerstone shows a staff member that their camp believes in his or her capacity as a leader today and in the future.  Fellows begin to see themselves as more than just childcare providers, but at change agents and leaders. At each camp I visited, Fellows were starting to think about camp from a big picture perspective and beginning to understand their parts in making camp work. They also were starting to articulate how their camp experiences would translate to their real world career trajectories – very often entire cohorts of Fellows return in subsequent summers to serve in roles with increasing levels of supervisory responsibility at camp, and at least one fellow from each camp expressed serious interest in working in the Jewish community in the future. Programs like Cornerstone are not simply camp staff retention tools, but mechanisms to invest in our most promising talent for the future of the entire Jewish community.

It is personally meaningful to be a small part of the transformational work happening at Jewish camps across our country this summer.  My first job was as a Jewish camp counselor, and in many ways it’s because of the investment my camp director made in me that I continue to work in the Jewish community today.  

We know some of the most influential Jewish experiences are happening in the woods, on the lake, and in the cabin – so too are some of the most impactful professional development opportunities.  And, just as many of us work to bring the magic of camp programs into classrooms and sanctuaries, we should work to bring Cornerstone-like development opportunities to all of our “front line” professionals and invest in them wherever they may work.

Julie Finkelstein is the Program Director at Slingshot, where she supports innovative Jewish organizations and their leaders across North America. Julie earned her MBA from the George Washington University as a Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class 23), where she developed change management strategies at Johnson & Johnson’s headquarters, traveled to and created marketing strategies to advance a social change organization in Ghana, and consulted for Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. She is currently a faculty advisor for the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Cornerstone Fellowship. Julie got her professional start with Hillel: at Maryland Hillel, where she now sits on the Board of Directors, and at Hillel’s international offices in DC. Julie can be reached at julie.finkelstein@gmail.com.