Jacob is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholar program, Class 16 and is an advanced Ph.D. student in Jewish Studies and Education at Brandeis University. He is the director at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Jacob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For ten years now, shortly after Memorial Day I have made my way north to summer camp to serve as a member of the hanhalah (senior leadership team) at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. As a young division head, heading north on U.S. 51 through central Wisconsin, I felt the tensions and anxieties of the year flying off my shoulders as the rolling clouds beckoned me home. Today, a full-time employee of the camp tasked with taking responsibility for the health and safety of over five-hundred campers and two-hundred staff, while the anxiety might linger, the excitement for the upcoming summer is unchanged. May and early June are times for hammering out an endless series of logistical details and of great and profound dreams for the summer ahead. Before the dynamics and limitations of the real human beings who will fill the camp turn us into managers of the realistic, we spend concentrated weeks seeing visions of the possible defined only by the boundaries of our imagination.
Over the last fifteen years, Jewish summer camps have risen to a more significant space on the stage of the American Jewish community. Touted as one of the bulwarks against assimilation and intermarriage (in some combination with Israel trips and day schools), major philanthropic foundations, individual donors, and the organized Jewish community itself have come to recognize the power of the setting. And the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the AVICHAI Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the One Happy Camper “campership” (incentive, no-questions-asked scholarship programs for first-time campers) program that has spread across North America, and more have transformed the field.
As the cliché goes, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. The undeniable impact of Jewish summer camps have seduced us towards two impulses: to build capacity – more beds in existing camps, building new camps as quickly as we can – and to infuse as many Jewish experiences as we can with the flavor, techniques, modes, and, most importantly, results of summer camp.
I am skeptical as to the wisdom of either of these two approaches, while well aware that they will not be quickly derailed with such speed, excitement, and energy behind them. Nor do I worry that they will, in the end, lessen the impact of those camps that continue to transform our community. Rather, (and my suggestion need not exclude the existing attempts to leverage Jewish summer camps’ “moment,”) we are simply missing an opportunity to build on this momentum to do what Jewish education has never been able to accomplish: to invest our resources in developing a top-notch, fully developed educational sub-field.
If our camps can work to their fullest potential, as some believe, because of the mere concentration of young Jewish people in a given location, the role model dynamics between young staff in their late teens and their (somewhat) younger campers, the lack of parents, the weather, and a ton of fun, then let us build a camp next to every lake and do everything in our power to get every Jewish child to attend. If, however, summer camps are much more complicated entities, requiring increasing professionalization in terms of marketing, development, board relationships, financial management, communication, and more, then let us continue to invest (as the aforementioned philanthropies have) in improving the existing field and in learning more about how to do it well. And let us turn our attention to the great (as yet) unanswered questions around summer camp: How do they actually work? What do campers learn? What do we want our campers to learn? How do we teach staff members at all levels to function at their highest potentials, as role models, Jews, educators, and the other fifteen roles they play as camp counselors? Why do many camps provide such a powerful impact?
We have all heard the anecdotal stories of those exercising Jewish leadership who trace the development of those skills, in some way, back to their time at camp. There are chief residents, managing partners at law firms, management consultants, board chairs, and every type of Jewish professional who can point back to the skills they developed as a camper, counselor, or division head and proudly state that was the greatest training they ever received for transforming the world around them. Those stories, told by a new generation of campers and staff, are the dreams of camp directors as we approach another summer. Expanding and attempting to replicate those experiences, however, cannot be effective unless we understand more about the experience itself.
My dream this year, as spring turns into summer, is to find the full partners ready to take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about what we are already doing and to do it better: to develop a rigorous system of professional development and training that treats young counselors for what they are – future Jewish leaders; capitalizing on the wealth of knowledge in the field to theorize a robust agenda for Jewish learning and identification; and imagining what a “laboratory camp” might look like designed to answer these questions and produce cohorts of researchers and educators to investigate those answers and push the limits of the possible.