AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

AVI CHAI’s Camping Work: A Retrospective

Posted by: Deborah Fishman

December 30, 2019

By: Joel Einleger and Deborah Fishman

As AVI CHAI approached sunset over the past year, our staff have been sharing lessons learned from our grantmaking in this series on our blog and in eJewishPhilanthropy. We published this piece about a strategic approach to field-building in the Jewish day school field. We now turn to overnight Jewish summer camp, the other arena in which we focused, and share how we approached building the camping field.

In 2000, AVI CHAI was investigating a possible new area of investment, overnight Jewish summer camp. Our first step in this area was to fund a research study to identify the challenges of the field and the philanthropic opportunities. Conducted by researchers at Brandeis University, the research study highlighted opportunities to deepen and broaden the camps’ Jewish impact, principally by preparing directors and staff to advance on their personal Jewish journeys, to deepen their work as Jewish role models and to implement innovative new programming. The researchers also imagined a growing population of campers to benefit from the enhanced programming.

We realized that implementing this vision would require a partnership among camps, the then-fledgling umbrella organization Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), and funders. Twenty years later, the dream has become reality. The field has grown in number of camps by 20% to 164 and in number of campers by nearly 25% to 80,000 since 2006. Today the field benefits from an ecosystem of programs supported by dedicated funders such as the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the Marcus Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Maimonides Fund and others. Fortunately, the nascent FJC that was created by visionary lay leaders, Rob Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner, has blossomed into an effective central advocacy and execution organization, and is well-poised to continue its leadership. For our part, AVI CHAI focused on the Brandeis study’s recommendations to train staff to deepen Jewish engagement and create the capacity for camps to recruit additional campers.

Programs to Enhance the Jewish Experience at Camps

In focusing on the Jewish experience, we worked with FJC, Ramah, URJ, the JCCA and other organizations to develop a suite of programs that addressed the multiple levels of the camp hierarchy. Two programs for directors and assistant directors – Lekhu Lakhem and Yitro – have inspired and taught skills to over 130 camp directors and assistant directors to envision, clarify, and prioritize the Jewish educational goals for their camps. Cornerstone, a program for camp counselors now funded by Crown Family Philanthropies, the Marcus Foundation, and the Morningstar Foundation, trains from the bottom up, creating elite teams of seasoned counselors each summer to develop and execute existing or new Jewish programming. There are now more than 5,000 Cornerstone alumni. We also funded programs to address unique needs and goals for the various camp movements such as Ramah, URJ and Young Judaea. These programs trained activity specialists, gap year students in Israel and senior Jewish educators to serve camps that did not have year-round educational staff.

In building the field, we recognized at an early stage that a strategy to help train so many full-time and seasonal staff to design and execute coherent Jewish educational experiences could easily generate confusion and overlapping responsibilities among staff trained in different ways by different organizations. So we put an early emphasis on collaboration. Sometimes this was achieved through formal programs – for example pairing the leader of the summer shlichim delegation with the head of the Cornerstone Fellows within the same camp to plan each team’s work and support each other. But at a higher level, the best results were achieved by encouraging collaboration among the multiple organizations that train staff to anticipate potential overlaps in authority or roles, and find ways to jointly train their staff together before the summer. As one example, over time, Israel education has become more important and prominent in many camps. Today, Israel education programs are developed by organizations that coordinate their work carefully with other program providers, and often jointly train professionals in the process.

Today, there is a far greater emphasis within camps on the Jewish education that they are uniquely positioned to offer. Camps approach these Jewish missions with intentionality, and their trained staff are adept at creating the environments and experiences in which these missions will unfold. However, this outcome was not inevitable. In fact, the additional programming required that camp staff work far harder than was necessary to satisfy the primary expectation of most parents and campers that the kids have a great time in camp and return home with new skills and enthusiasm about newly-made friends. If camps had simply met these needs, they would likely have succeeded in their recruitment and financial goals. Nonetheless, directors and staff embraced this additional challenge of how to effectively use the 24×7 camp bubble to generate powerful Jewish experiences that can have lasting impact. We should all be grateful to camp management and staff who recognized the opportunity and accepted the responsibility. All these staff understood that for some campers, camp may be the only place where they will have opportunities for this sort of Jewish engagement.

Expanding Enrollment

A second area of focus for AVI CHAI’s work in camping was growing the numbers of children who could enjoy an inspirational Jewish summer in camp. We funded an interest-free Building Loan Program to help the camps expand and enhance their facilities, not just to accommodate more campers, but to hopefully allow the camps to better compete with local secular private camps that enroll Jewish campers. This program has already been continued by the Maimonides Fund. Because traditional camps may not appeal to everyone, we also followed the lead of the Jim Joseph Foundation and joined them in funding new camps through FJC’s Specialty Camp Incubator program. Each camp typically focuses on a specific activity, skill or hobby, including sports, science and technology, surfing and oceanography, cooking and farming, and builds a summer experience that weaves intensive training in that area of interest around Jewish values, practices and traditions.

The investments we made during AVI CHAI’s final years anticipated our exit, choosing to seed programs, ideas and resources that could be helpful to the field for the future. The Hiddur pilot program enabled experienced Jewish educators to work as coaches over three years to help camps take concrete steps to further enhance their summer Jewish experience. The relatively new M2 organization developed a pilot to teach the principles and requirements of experiential Jewish Education to pairs of senior leaders from camps. And over the last three summers, FJC collaborated with dozens of Jewish educators who had developed programs and activities for a wide range of ages, and tested them in different summer camps. The most effective and popular of these programs will be on a recommended list for camps looking to create more opportunities for Jewish education during the summer, with descriptions of each program’s goals and outcomes.

Where Jewish camping looked like an unpolished gem almost two decades ago, it has been honed and brightened through the work of many. The field is filled with talented and creative professionals who are eager to do more and learn from each other. We are confident that these passionate professionals, supported by FJC, other umbrella organizations and a committed group of funders will continue to make Jewish camps a vibrant part of Jewish education and Jewish living for the future.

The story of Jewish summer camping is not only an inspiring example of effective collaboration among funders, non-profits and professionals. It is also an instructive story of how foundations can rise above funding individual programs and think about building a field with the individuals, institutions, resources and ideas needed to enable our communities to thrive now and in the future.

Joel Einleger is Senior Program Officer – Director of Strategy, Camp Programs for The AVI CHAI Foundation. Deborah Fishman is Director of Communications for The AVI CHAI Foundation.

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