Should We Be in the Camp Business??
Im Tirtzu Ein Zo Agadah, if you will it, it is no dream. Herzl’s words resonate with the journey Camp Daisy and Harry Stein — formerly Camp Charles Pearlstein — has experienced over the past 25 years. In this blog, I share a case study of how our camp went from good to great since many of you are also trying to get your organizations to be great and maybe there are lessons here you can transfer to your meaningful projects. In general, we aimed really high, we were bold and then attracted great talent, went through healthy processes of visioning and were also lucky. The momentum kept building and today we infuse the lives of 400 children every summer with joy, community, wonder and a high impact positive Jewish experience.
I moved to Arizona in 1993 to serve as the Director of what was then Camp Charles Pearlstein. The camp is one of a handful that are owned and operated by a congregation, Congregation Beth Israel (CBI) in Scottsdale. It is really the only resident Jewish summer camp in the Southwest. The camp did not own the land, but rather the congregation had a lend lease arrangement with the federal government to use land in the Prescott National Forest, which meant there were some inherent limitations.
In addition to serving the congregation, the camp serves Jewish youth from across the Southwest. With minimal financial support from the community, the congregation bears the financial risk along with shouldering the liability inherent in running a summer camp. The camp has a capacity of close to 180 campers at any one time. For years, the camp struggled to be self-sustaining. As the director, I was often in the congregation’s board meetings where people asked whether we should be in the “camp business.” Such a query called to question not just my livelihood, but more importantly, it put something exceedingly efficacious in jeopardy. Should we be in the camp business??
After four summers as director, I left the position but my work was far from complete. Years passed and I served on the CBI Board as a lay leader and I was the Camp Committee Chair for the same camp I had once directed. Monumental tasks lay ahead, especially figuring out how we could own the land and secure the financial future of the camp. While an executive committee member at CBI, I participated in the Wexner Heritage Program (Phoenix 09). As one of the leadership assignments, we had to complete a case study on a passion project and what we saw as challenges and opportunities. I recall feeling that there were so many facets of the camp that presented both, so I chose the camp for my case study. I also recall thinking that the obstacles were so great but so important to ensure that the camp remain a fixture in the Southwest. I was optimistic that we could get the right people in place and make it happen.
CBI’s rabbis, lay leaders and other staff recognized the importance of camp as well and started to focus on the larger tasks at hand. Without realizing it, we collectively started a process that embraced some of the key concepts of moving from being good to great, specifically:
- Level 5 Executive Leadership — A quiet determination took form and lay leaders and clergy alike acted with humility, put aside egos and personal agendas and came together to focus on the larger goal of making the camp great. The result was an atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration that led to establishing an extraordinarily strong camp committee to serve as passionate stewards.
- First Who Then What — With an eye toward getting the right people on the bus, we tapped a thoughtful, passionate, driven leader, Robin Roeder, to serve as the chair of the camp committee. She helped to gather a team that has become perhaps the most productive committee at CBI — it has been remarkable to watch what has happened in five years.
- Confronting the Brutal Facts — A group of key stakeholders laid out facts and articulated a vision for the future. We engaged a JCamp 180 mentor; having a third party with no agenda other than guiding us through a difficult exercise was invaluable. People raised concerns based on the history and challenges the camp experienced, but the task of laying out the issues and, more importantly, envisioning what the journey to greatness looked like, was liberating and powerful. Through that process, we introduced a vocabulary of purpose and determination, of optimistic dedication to ensuring the camp would not just be adequate or okay but that it would be recognized as a premier camp known for its warm Jewish community and outstanding staff and programming.
The congregation benefited from an Act of Congress that included a land swap, which enabled CBI to purchase the property. This was a game changer because donors were often uneasy about contributing to projects when the congregation did not even own the property underlying the camp itself.
After close to two years in the Wexner Heritage Program and inspired to do something to honor his parents and make an impact on a vital institution for Jewish life in the Southwest, one of my Wexner classmates, Jay Stein (Phoenix 09), stepped up and endowed the camp. We renamed it in honor of his parents, Camp Daisy and Harry Stein (CDHS), and it now has a stable financial base.
The team enlisted a consultant and developed a strategic plan and core values for the camp. Beyond the lofty aspirations to create a thriving Jewish community, we articulated a mission statement for the camp: to create sacred communities of living Judaism that endow children, youth and adults with a positive Jewish identity, personal growth and self-esteem and life-long friendships and role models.
We also defined our core values: Kehillah (community); Hachnasat Orchim (welcoming guests); K’lal Yisrael (unity of the Jewish people); Tikkun Olam (repairing the world); Kavanah (spirituality); and B’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God). The mission and core values are guideposts to take the camp from good to great.
From 2013 to 2015 enrollment increased from 303 to 426 campers. The camp has a talented team of professionals, led by Camp Director Brian Mitchell, who are committed to making CDHS the premier camp in the Southwest.
CDHS was just selected to be part of the first cohort of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Hiddur Initiative. As I sat in their first meeting and thought about the road we have traveled, I was gratified to know that we are absolutely in the camp business. Our journey echoes Herzl’s famous words, Im Tirtzu Ein Zo Agadah.
Marc Lerner, WHP Alum (Phoenix 09), has been a lifelong lover of camp. He served as Director of what is now Camp Daisy and Harry Stein in Prescott, Arizona. After working at camp on the professional side, Marc has been deeply involved in similar work as a lay leader, serving as Chair of the Camp Committee for several years. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and three children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.