This month’s AVI CHAI staff profile features Joel Einleger. You can ask him your own question here.
Joel Einleger is Senior Program Officer – Director of Strategy, Camp Programs at The AVI CHAI Foundation. Prior to joining AVI CHAI in 1998, he spent 20 years in the fields of marketing and finance in the business world, with his last position as president of a NY-based marketing company. He holds an MBA from the University of Chicago and lives in Riverdale, NY. Joel, his wife and two children have been campers or on staff at nine different overnight camps.
From where did your love of Jewish camp emerge?
I went to two different Jewish overnight camps growing up and worked at two more. I found the experience of being away at camp for the whole summer unbelievably liberating. It was an opportunity to be with friends, explore those friendships, and share in many of the peer-led Jewish experiences that I find so compelling to help develop at other camps today.
Do you have a treasured vignette from your camping days?
One of the most powerful experiences was in 1969, not long after the Six-Day War. Young Judaea’s Camp Tel Yehuda hosted a Maccabiah that gathered together the campers and staff from seven Zionist camps, representing every Zionist ideology and stripe of Judaism, for a day of sports competition. Arriving with Bnei Akiva’s Camp Moshava, and having grown up in a modern Orthodox world, it was such an eye-opener to be there for mifkad, the ceremonial lineup around the Israeli flag, and to sing Hatikvah along with 2,000 others. I had this amazing feeling of being part of Am Israel alongside other kids who didn’t necessarily look like my friends looked. I keep wondering how you can create those experiences nowadays to foster that strong sense of peoplehood.
How have camps evolved since then?
Recently, there has been much more consideration given to: How do you make summer camp something that’s memorably Jewish – not just to gather Jewish kids together, but to think more intentionally about the types of experiences campers could have? What can we do that’s going to make them feel a certain way, or take action on the experiences they have? There’s more sophistication in experiential education – which is very different than using textbooks to absorb, or materials to be memorized by the end of the school year, where you can easily measure how much knowledge is acquired. Camp measurements can be attitudinal: What do you want campers to know, feel, and do as a result of the experiences given to them?
The field continues to explore new horizons for experiential education. For instance, it takes a very thoughtful Jewish educator to plan out and understand how camp can play a complementary role with other forms of Jewish education campers are getting. If the camper is in day school, is there a way for the summer experience to support the day school learnings? Is there more content that can be shared for campers who go to congregational school? These are some of the questions the Nadiv program is currently exploring.
Why do you think the Jewish camping movement has been so successful?
What’s easy about camp is that it’s almost popular by default. There are no formal classes in most camps; it doesn’t look, or feel, like school; it’s an environment created for kids to spend time with friends, challenge themselves, and have a good time. But while kids are very enthusiastic about camp, what’s difficult is how to infuse Jewish values into a program so that it’s not only about fun, but also about much stronger Jewish identity-building. My sister went to the same camp that I did. Why did she make aliyah, and why has it always been a dream for me? Because we went to a Zionist camp where that was held out as a real and exciting possibility. I had as much fun as kids going to other camps, but underlying that, my camp understood its responsibility to inspire its campers and teach them about Zionism.
AVI CHAI is very fortunate that in the field of summer camping we can be narrowly focused on two primary goals: to help camps develop quality, intentional Jewish summer programs for their campers and staff, and to grow the number of kids who can benefit from those experiences. There are other generous philanthropists who have taken on other challenges in the field, and they help camps operate, fundraise, provide scholarships, offer professional staff development, and market camp to Jewish families. These goals are often complementary to or overlapping with AVI CHAI’s work. In many ways, it is a big gift to the field that others focus their philanthropic dollars on those needs, and a gift to AVI CHAI that we can be so effectively focused on helping camps deliver a quality Jewish educational experience.
Is there an experience from your time as a program officer that has been particularly impactful?
I had an “Aha!” moment when I visited a camp a number of years ago that had recently introduced some of the staff training programs that AVI CHAI funds in the field. The camp director was very supportive of the staff’s goals in each of these programs, but did not have the time to supervise them or let them shine in their roles. It became clear that success is determined as much by coordination and execution as about having a wealth of resources to use. Looking at programs in isolation doesn’t explain how things will work if you have a critical mass of them operating at the same time. You need the right chef to bring it all together.
Camp is a complex organism, where one really has to understand everyone’s role and the working relationships involved. Where else is an entire communal structure created anew for just two months each summer, runs 24/7, has citizens, workers, institutions and rules? Camps often recruit staff to return, but there are many staff who are new to camp or new to their roles there, and they must be trained to do their jobs well and to understand the existing camp culture. Because of the complexity, camp begs to be investigated as to how it all works and how adding or taking away something will change what can be achieved.
It became evident that the constellation of programs AVI CHAI created over time needed to be knit together for greatest impact. Many camps are offered an abundance of riches in programming help through Cornerstone and multiple Israel education programs. The challenge is how to blend these together most effectively into a good and tasty soup.
How has your business background influenced your work as a program officer for Jewish camps?
It has been very helpful in trying to understand the challenges that the camps are facing. Some of the complexity in effective grant-making may be addressed by understanding the mechanics of how camps operate, their relationships with boards, and the roles staff have within the camp. This systematic look – parts of which I was trained to do in the business world – has been very helpful in recognizing problems and sometimes suggesting solutions for them. Also, thinking through a business lens often helps in considering program sustainability approaches, whether we must focus on this from the start of a program or, given the AVI CHAI spend-down, if an existing program can ultimately be sustained through a fee for service structure or by bringing in other funding resources after AVI CHAI funding stops.
How do you think your Jewish background has influenced your work?
I went to Jewish day school for elementary and high school, started going to camp just before my bar mitzvah, and also spent three summers in Israel (subsequently, I’ve been to Israel at least 60 times!) So I’ve had the benefit of the troika of Jewish day school, summer camp, and Israel experiences. It was such a strong combination that even when I was working in the “real world,” I felt like I wanted to get back to the Jewish community. After many years working at the Foundation, one of my joys is still the privilege to sign off work communications with “Shabbat Shalom.” In a secular world (and even in a city with a large number of Jews), it’s a luxury to work and live in Jewish time and space. And to be able to think Jewishly is a real delight.