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

Your Work as Researchers and Practitioners Will Be Ever More Important to Help the Camping Field

Posted by: Joel Einleger

December 12, 2019

AVI CHAI Senior Program Officer Joel Einleger delivered these remarks at the recent conference on Jewish summer camps hosted by the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.

Thank you Jeremy, and thank you Jon and Joe for inviting me here today to represent AVI CHAI.  It’s really an honor to be here among all of you.

I arrived home from Israel on Friday, where over two weeks I participated in multiple discussions with experts about Israeli Jewish identity and what it means to be Jewish in a Jewish state, an important focus of AVI CHAI in Israel during the last decade.  How each segment of the population identifies Jewishly – whether they see themselves as Masorati, secular, religious Zionist, Chareidi, or crossing boundaries with other sociologist-designated groupings of Israeli Jews – is highly nuanced.  It was fascinating to learn of the ongoing shifts in religious and political attitudes that create new Jewsh identities.

Of course, the formation of these identities is taking place within a Jewish country, one that recognizes and largely operates in step with the Jewish calendar, even if many citizens may not actively keep Jewish traditions and customs.  One can’t live in Israel and not know when it’s Shabbat or chagim, even if you don’t recognize these days in an active way.  Even secular Israeli schools include the study of Jewish texts and incorporate programs that focus on Jewish identity.  Ultimately, Israel offers its Jewish citizens a petri dish to passively or actively participate in Jewish life, and to define their Jewish identify across a wide spectrum of options.

The backdrop of a modern, Jewish state, that helps foster the development of Jewish identity and offers a range of Jewish engagement, has no directly parallel institutional framework in North America…but the closest by far is overnight camp.  Camp is tantalizing: a Jewish Camelot, a Phoenix reborn each summer, a temporary society that gets renewed each year.  Where traditions of all kinds can take on oversize meaning, and where young adults can create a society based on the values that they learn there.  Overnight camps offer these opportunities because they operate in locations and settings typically removed from the outside world, on a schedule determined by visionaries and camp leaders.

But potential and success don’t automatically follow. The conditions for powerful Jewish-identify formation and supporting experiences are everywhere, but unless a camp’s Jewish educational agenda is prioritized in design and execution, results won’t live up to potential.  In fact, the very nature of camp can undercut a focus on Jewish and Israel education.  When all is said and done, camp is about fun.  That’s what parents most want for their children from the camp experience, with children returning from the summer happy and enthusiastic about newly-made friends.  As we know, that in itself is no small feat for a camp to achieve.  So for camps to also create Jewish experiences that have lasting impact takes infinitely more hard work, and teams of staff to train to help execute.  I truly salute those camp directors who recognize the potential for a powerfully Jewish experience and make that a primary goal for the summer.  In the end, all of us here believe it can make the difference in the Jewish trajectory of a child or staff member at camp.  But even when a camp can deliver that experience, one that excites and inspires campers and staff Jewishly, it needs to be recreated, revised and renewed regularly.

That was the motivation and vision that guided AVI CHAI’s strategy for supporting Jewish camps.  AVI CHAI chose to focus on two goals: first, to help enhance the quality and, hopefully, the impact of the Jewish educational experience at overnight camps, regardless of the the Jewish vision or hashkafa, and second, to help increase the numbers of Jewish children who might benefit from a quality Jewish camp experience each summer.  The programs we funded were typically developed in collaboration with outstanding practitioners and experts from the field.  And throughout the years that AVI CHAI invested in overnight camps, research helped guide our focus and our program choices, starting from the initial research we funded that was conducted almost two decades ago by Len Saxe and Amy Sales and captured in Limud by the Lake, a study that was repeated some years later to assess changes and progress in the field.

Research most often included formative assessments while we were getting our feet wet.  But as we expanded our portfolio of camp programs with goals to both inspire and train all levels of the camp hierarchy, from director down to counselor, we understood that evaluating programs in isolation was not sufficient, since camp staff responsibilities often overlapped, as did turf.  For example, shlichim trained by JAFI were running Israel education projects during the summer that required coordination with senior counselors who were trained as Cornerstone Fellows in FJC’s program.  The Cornerstone Fellows also considered Israel education as focus.  To remedy, we engaged a talented Jewish educator and former camp director, Aileen Goldstein, who for six summers spent a month on the road visiting at least a dozen camps.  She went there to unpack how the various AVI CHAI-funded programs intersected with each other on the ground, looking to coordinate among the staff responsible for planning or executing Jewish and Israel education programs, in the hope that the sum could be greater than the parts.  An added benefit from the annual, comprehensive program assessments came through increased collaboration by the different organizations that sponsor and train camp staff.  For example, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), the iCenter and JAFI today coordinate their training before the summer and often share Jewish educators for their various training programs.  And camp staff who participate in different programs learn to support and leverage staff in other camp programs.

I know that the last session today will be the role of research in camp, and, with all due respect, I wanted to add my perspective.  As important as research was to AVI CHAI’s work in the past, the need is likely to increase for the field in the future.  Program assessments will certainly continue, and the perceived successes achieved by the field are leading to more interest in Jewish camp as a platform to build on.  Can camp be the petri dish for Jewish innovation similar to the one that Israelis have through their own country?  Already, some camps have, or hope, to become the “shul” for alumni that they will set foot in; a place imbued with strong, personal Jewish connections that can remain relevant through life, a spiritual center lasting long beyond the summer.  More camps are testing these waters by creating opportunities to participate in Jewish life-cycle events and Jewish holiday celebrations at their campsite.

Enthusiasm for camping is also breeding more interest to use aspects of it to engage the whole family, so that summer Jewish experiences can be shared.  These “family camp” programs may operate during the shoulder season at traditional camps or run in parallel to the regular camp sessions during the summer.  Still other models propose the creation of dedicated Jewish family-camp sites.  While Jewish family camps are not a new concept – I went to one when I was 3 – the new models will need to be studied to understand how they can best capture and adapt the core Jewish experiences that make youth-focused camps successful and adopted by families, and how these camps can be sustained.

Another area for study: some years AVI CHAI learned from the Jim Joseph Foundation’s initial investment in specialty camps that these camps can attract a wider segment of the Jewish community.  We ultimately joined with them to incubate more of these camps through the leadership of FJC.  In total, 17 specialty camps were created, with most already successful and sustainable.  But many of the new camps offer only very short sessions, and the historical outcomes from Jewish camp that our community admires come from a time when that was typically an 8-week experience.  The trend continues towards shorter camp sessions overall, even in traditional Jewish overnight camps.  Research from the American Camping Association confirms many benefits from short sessions, but the impact may not be as ambitious as we hope for the Jewish community.  Are we expecting too much from these new camp models?  We will need help from researchers to evaluate this.

Aside from camp as a platform for innovation, we need to understand and share best practices about the work that camps are already doing.  This conference focused on some of the primary learning experiences that Jewish camps offer: learning Hebrew; connecting with Israel, and with Israelis; enjoying inspirational Shabbatot; and connecting through Jewish songs and music.  How can we even more broadly evaluate and understand experiential Jewish education efforts in our camps?  The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, called M2, has worked with a cross section of Jewish organizations to train their leadership in the theories and design of experiential Jewish education, and recently begun to work with cohorts of camp senior staff.  Research will be necessary to help camps test and confirm the educational approaches they will train their staff to employ over the summer.

So I believe that your work as researchers and practitioners will be ever more important to help the camping field and its supporters navigate new ideas and uncharted waters, and confirm whether they are achieving the goals that they expect.  Looking back, I feel truly honored to have worked with many of you on different projects, and learned a tremendous amount from you along the way.  My AVI CHAI colleagues and I greatly appreciate your contributions in developing the strategies for camping support that we followed, in the design of programs we funded, and for the successes of the field.

May you continue to provide wise guidance in all the areas that you work in the future.

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