Dec 042019

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.

May 062019

By: Joel Einleger

Cross-posted here on

After supporting a wide range of Jewish education programs and institutions through the mid 1990’s, AVI CHAI’s Trustees narrowed the focus in North America almost exclusively to Jewish day schools and overnight summer camps, which research had confirmed offer the strongest Jewish educational outcomes and promise. We have found that focusing relatively narrowly in philanthropy allows for a deeper, more comprehensive approach to increasing the potential impact of a field. We also learned that focus generates an additional and less obvious benefit: staff become more deeply knowledgeable and thus better partners with our grantees.

Our camping experience is a case in point. AVI CHAI’s specific goals were to help these camps provide powerful Jewish educational experiences for their campers and staff, and to increase the numbers of Jewish children who benefit from a camp experience each summer. We were lucky that AVI CHAI’s interest in the field coincided with the establishment of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. While not an exclusive beneficiary of our camping grants, FJC quickly became a key partner in our work, helping to coalesce various Jewish camp movements and independent camps into a field. Independent of FJC, we funded many projects at other organizations and also partnered with other foundations working in support of Jewish camps. Through this work, our foundation’s staff grew to play the role of expert thought partner with our grantees and co-funders.

So how can foundation staff deeply invested in a field help grantees do their work better?

Share what you learn from a unique wideangle view. A foundation’s perch provides an extraordinary information-gathering vantage point that becomes more valuable when shared with others. Foundations routinely receive grantee progress reports, and their staff may visit more sites, observe more programs in action, and meet more people in the field than many practitioners and field organizational staff have the opportunity to do.

Foundation staff have even more opportunities to help when participants in funded programs intersect and interact in their work. The overnight camping field is now blessed by the multiple investments in staff professional development and training made by AVI CHAI and other funders. The rubber hits the road during camp season, when various trained camp staff – counselors, unit heads, program specialists, Israeli shlichim and others – will work to engage campers and staff. Coordination is very important. For six consecutive summers, we engaged an exceptional Jewish educator to visit multiple camps to troubleshoot and understand program impact and, as importantly, determine whether the staff trained through the different programs – sometimes developed by different organizations – were collaborating and coordinating their work at camp. The findings from each summer were reviewed with the leadership of the camp movements and training organizations together so that, as a group, we could learn from the experience and understand where more alignment and corrective work needed to be done.

In Pirkei Avot we are told: Aseh Lecha Rav – “make yourself a teacher.” This becomes even more powerful when the relationship becomes a group “chavruta,” in which foundation staff and professionals from multiple organizations can share and learn together.

Create an environment of trust. Grantees do their best work when they can be transparent and foundation staff can be reflective partners and resources to them. A trusting relationship means the grantee feels safe sharing their challenges, which then enables foundation staff to work closely with the organization’s professional staff and board members to help them succeed.

That trust can also be demonstrated through assessment processes that are not “gotchas” but shared learning experiences to guide changes in the program or strategy. But even some pilot programs grounded in sound theories and good hypotheses will inevitably fail. It is important to recognize that failure is a positive consequence of risk-taking. In addition to celebrating successes, funders and grantees should jointly anticipate and analyze failures so that others can learn from them as well. If a grantee trusts their funders and shares mutual goals for the field, they will hopefully appreciate that a failure will not prevent future funding for other projects.

Make connections among grantees and foster partnerships. Among the most important ways foundation staff can support grantees is by opening doors to natural allies and partners, and sometimes with a little nudge, bringing together staff and organizations that can achieve more together than separately. When AVI CHAI initially funded camp programs to train summer staff to educate about and advocate for Israel, these were developed and run separately by either the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) or the iCenter, which was later joined by FJC. As Israel education deepened in camps and ambitions for these programs grew, it became clear that the field would be best served through closer collaboration and planning among these three organizations. Today, joint planning is an important goal and an ongoing, year-round process. Training is run collaboratively when tactically advantageous, staff is often shared across different training programs, and coordination continues among the camp staff during the summer.

Another grantee partnership was developed between the JCCA and FJC, whose affiliated camp directors now can all benefit from the Lekhu Lakhem professional development program that was created by JCCA staff. And most recently, M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education began exploring with JAFI how techniques it has developed might be helpful in the training of the 1,400 JAFI shlichim who work in camps each summer. The seeds for each of these productive collaborations were planted by AVI CHAI staff and were unlikely to have started without at least some foundation encouragement and introductions, but the shape of the partnerships and efficiencies they introduced were the result of the good will of the different grantee organizations.

Play the long game and become personally invested. With a long history of working together with organizations in the camping field, I am already planning my involvement in some of AVI CHAI’s work to extend beyond the foundation’s sunset, and have agreed to serve as a board member or in an advisory capacity for a number of camp-related organizations. My input will no longer come with a foundation check attached, but I believe that the experience and knowledge gained through these long-standing, trust-building partnerships will be helpful as these organizations continue to serve the field.

Although I have used our camping work – which has been my primary focus – as an example, foundation staff can develop useful expertise without being limited to a single field. In my case, I have been involved through AVI CHAI with a non-camping project for almost two decades, and I plan to continue in my role as vice chair of the board after our sunset.

My larger point is about how philanthropic professionals can be maximally helpful to the excellent professionals and advocacy organizations that do the heavy lifting: by becoming better educated and more engaged in the substantive and challenging issues in the fields in which they work. Personally, I have found this a particularly rewarding way to work, ultimately leveraging my foundation’s financial support.

Joel Einleger is a Senior Program Officer and AVI CHAI’s Director of Strategy, Camping Programs.

Mar 262019

It’s wonderful to be here.  I’ve met some of the people in the room over the years, especially the directors, and had the pleasure of visiting almost every Ramah.  I’m delighted to tell you why AVI CHAI was an enthusiastic supporter of the Ramah movement, but I’d first like to tell you a little about how AVI CHAI entered the camping field.

By the late 1990s, AVI CHAI had begun to invest heavily in Jewish day schools based on research we commissioned that found that 9 or more years in a Jewish day school was a predictor of long-term Jewish engagement.  Recognizing that day schools were only going to attract a relatively small portion of Jewish families, we looked for other fields that could offer a similarly strong impact.  We explored whether colleges could provide an effective way to reach young Jewish adults, but were dissuaded to try to work on campus because there was little consistency across them, making the programming or support that we might offer complex.  There were also a number of Jewish organizations already working on campus, and it wasn’t clear how we might bring additional value.

When we looked next at Jewish summer camps, we learned that even though there were many camps, they hadn’t yet been organized as a field.  Conveniently, a new organization, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, had recently been founded, and FJC aspired to become the central advocacy agency for Jewish camps, offering AVI CHAI a potential operating partner for some of the programs we might fund.  In addition, there already existed a number of religious and Zionist camp movements – including the National Ramah Commission – and the JCCA, and collectively about a third of the camps were affiliated to one of these organizations, offering channels to reach out to their constituencies.

In 2000 we commissioned research by Professors Len Saxe and Amy Sales from Brandeis to study Jewish camps and suggest some initial programmatic opportunities.  This study was published in 2002 as “Limud by the Lake” and later expanded into a book, “How Goodly Are Thy Tents.” In some ways, the research wasn’t truly necessary to justify that camps were a fertile area for investment.  Periodic research had shown – and lots of personal stories we regularly hear confirm – that for many, summers at camp offer the most powerful Jewish experiences.  Plus, the creation called “overnight camp” – a 24/7 opportunity to control every aspect of the camper experience where the outside world rarely intrudes, done within an exciting environment that encourages learning new things – is a Jewish educator’s dream.

Shortly after AVI CHAI began to fund our first camping programs, the field was attracting philanthropic interest from other national foundations.  The Jim Joseph and Grinspoon foundations were also investing in camps, and because their interests spread across some of the broader needs of the field, it allowed AVI CHAI to focus on two primary goals: expanding the number of children who might have an opportunity to go to an overnight Jewish camp, and enhancing the quality of the Jewish experience delivered at these camps, regardless of their institutional affiliation or Jewish values.

So, back to my opening question… why did we invest so heavily in Ramah?  In the words of Arthur Fried, our board chair at the time, supporting Ramah was “an easy lay-up.”  The mission statement on our website notes that “The AVI CHAI Foundation in North America seeks to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people through what we affectionately term “LRP”: Fostering high levels of Jewish Literacy; Deepening Religious Purposefulness (“Intentionality”); and Promoting advocacy for Jewish Peoplehood and Israel.  AVI CHAI’s goal in North America is to advance and sustain LRP education in Jewish day schools and summer camps for the purpose of creating the foundation for an energizing nucleus of youth with the values, commitments, motivation and skills to lead the Jewish People intellectually, spiritually, communally, and politically in the 21st century.”

“An Energizing Nucleus.”  Maybe you would choose different words in describing the goals and product of your camps.  But, Ramah not only aspires to create a powerful mix of Jewish affiliation and leadership, I believe it does it very effectively.  I see it regularly in my involvement in the Jewish community, where Ramah alumni regularly stand out.  Just a few days ago I was speaking with Professor Joe Reimer from Brandeis, who is publishing a book (with AVI CHAI’s support) to help camps shape their Shabbat experience.  In the book’s opening paragraph, Joe writes about attending Kabbalat Shabbat the first summer he went to an overnight camp, and describes it as the moment he found his Jewish spiritual home.  I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the camp was Ramah Berkshires.

I see it in my family, where my daughter Leora lives a Ramah-inspired life.  She was a camper at Nyack and Berkshires and then a counselor there for two more years.  The leadership skills she learned and honed there have helped her become an active Jewish leader on her campus today and a Shabbat regular at the campus Conservative minyan.

From the start, our board was impressed by the clarity of your Jewish mission, and by your understanding of the need to invest in your staff’s Jewish growth, not just your campers.  As a result, AVI CHAI made enthusiastic investments in the Ramah movement.  To develop programs in support of Ramah, Mitch and Amy have been exceptional partners, highlighting specific Ramah needs and opportunities to strengthen both the camps and the entire movement.  So our Trustees were eager to help Ramah expand the daily usage of Hebrew across the camps through Daber, and later to introduce Hebrew Immersion at Nyack through the Sha’ar program; to train specialty staff to bring more Jewish content into their programming through Kivun; to knit together regional Ramah camps and their local congregations more closely through Gesher Ramah; to develop the skills and resources necessary to attract unaffiliated Jewish families to a Ramah experience through Open Door; and to develop Reshet Ramah programming that engages and inspires Ramah alumni and keeps them connected in their local communities.

Beyond the Ramah-focused programs, our Trustees were delighted that many of your camps and leadership could take advantage of programs that AVI CHAI developed or funded for the entire field, including Cornerstone, which teaches better programming skills to experienced counselors; Yitro professional development for assistant directors; and Onward Israel to encourage work internship experiences in Israel for your counselors.  Many Ramah camps renovated or expanded their facilities with help from our interest-free building loan program.  We were also thrilled to help you open Ramah Galim and Ramah Sports Academy with financial support from AVI CHAI as well as the Jim Joseph Foundation.

I think all camps today are challenged to make Judaism meaningful and relevant to a more diverse clientele who bring with them complex identities, and to provide an experience that is accessible and meaningful.  Surely none of this sounds new to you.  And I am not without sympathy: the “I“ generation chooses how it will affiliate, if they will at all.  Which is all the reason that I marvel how Ramah swims against the tide in an age of declining affiliation.  People touched by a Ramah experience wear it on their sleeve.  And the success of Ramah can be measured not by that first summer’s encounter, or even the collective value of multiple summers in camp.  It is by the long-term impact on those who had a Ramah experience, and how that shapes the Jewish lives they live today.

In operating Ramah’s camps, you continue to push to create a safe space for Jewish learning and exploration, one that can tune out the digital noise and encourage deeper personal relationships within a Jewish community.  Ramah’s impact beyond the camper years can be inspirational to other camps, to show they don’t have to compromise their values to succeed.  Ramah’s focus and success presents a standard that I hope other camps can learn from. I deeply appreciate that Amy and Mitch are always ready to help colleagues from other movements learn from Ramah’s experience, and I admire that Ramah has partnered with other movements on joint initiatives when all might benefit.

So, what’s next for Jewish camps, and specifically, Ramah?  It’s true AVI CHAI will not be here to support these programs, so you should continue to demonstrate how they are making an important impact in your work.  Funders today often dream of programs with potential for large scale and simplicity.  That’s not so easy to provide through a camping experience that has many moving parts, so you will need to be creative and teach your philanthropic partners the things that help you succeed.   But the cumulative impact that your camps provide is well-recognized by the philanthropic community, who are eager for your success to continue.

There are other reasons to be optimistic.  More financial resources are coming into the field through Jewish philanthropy, and interest in camping remains strong.  And in a world of many labels, Ramah is a recognized brand within the field, one that stands for Jewish values and learning, often leading to Jewish engagement for life.  That is exactly what many funders dream about.

So I hope each of you can step back periodically from your daily focus on staff and camper recruitment…on developing safety measures…on effective and engaging programming…on inspirational staff training…on successful fundraising, and so much more, and really feel the power of what you are creating and achieving.  Sometimes I think about your work from a 40,000 foot perspective, and sometimes I see it at ground level, when I visit your camps in the summer.  From all heights, it’s really a beautiful thing.


May 162016

This article is cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.

By Joel Einleger, Aaron Saxe and Aimee Weiss

summer-camp-e1463268487928Think for a moment of nearly any activity you associate with Jewish camp. Whatever comes to mind, chances are that the experience is communal, engaging, and fun. Now, more camps increasingly recognize that any camp experience can also be a quality Jewish experience for their campers and staff – if designed in a thoughtful, intentional way.

Over the last decade, multiple investments by different funders have focused on developing the Jewish experience at camp, and camps now have a wide range of professional development and training opportunities with this focus available to their seasonal and year-round staff. The field’s enthusiastic reception of these offerings has shown a steady appetite for learning how to deliver a better Jewish program. Now, our three foundations – AVI CHAI, Jim Joseph, and the Maimonides Fund – are advancing this vision even further by helping camps look comprehensively and systematically at where and how they are delivering the Jewish experience, and introducing ways to do it better.

The result is Hiddur, a new program of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). Camps work one-on-one with coaches who are highly experienced Jewish educators to develop specific Jewish experiential learning outcomes for their campers, staff, and camp community. Camps can choose to address a number of different areas, including Jewish peoplehood, connections to Israel, Jewish perspectives on nature and environment, Hebrew language, social justice (tikkun olam), marking sacred time through Shabbat and Jewish holidays, spirituality and mindfulness, and personal ethics (middot).

Hiddur is our attempt to answer critical questions, as explained by Michelle Shapiro Abraham, a Hiddur coach: “When children leave camp, what five or six Jewish components from the summer will the camp want them to retain? What outcomes from these summer experiences would we hope to achieve? How do we train our staff to support those outcomes? Jewish camp experiences shouldn’t be siloed – how do we bring the camp’s Jewish values to life, in every aspect of the camp experience, blended with that camp’s overall culture? Hiddur is like holding up a mirror and giving the opportunity for camp leadership to think about what’s important to them.”

The first Hiddur cohort is comprised of eight camps across the U.S., representing geographical, denominational, and mission diversity: Camp Daisy & Harry Stein (Arizona), Herzl Camp (Wisconsin), Camp Judaea (North Carolina), B’nai B’rith Camp (Oregon), Camp Sabra (Missouri), Emma Kaufmann Camp (West Virginia), B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp (Pennsylvania), and Camp Tel Noar (New Hampshire). These camps have committed to a three-year process and each has formed a Hiddur team – including professional and lay leadership – to work with their coach. The pilot camps also are participating in a Community of Practice to share their progress and challenges, as well as to further develop their skills to effectively implement Jewish experiential learning. Additionally, camps will have access to Ignition Grants to fund new Jewish initiatives during the summer.

Camps want to grow and evolve their Jewish experiences for a variety of reasons. Hiddur offers space to learn, experiment, and analyze regardless of why camps are driven to do this. Tom Rosenberg, a 27-year veteran of the Jewish camp field and current executive director of Camp Judaea, says Hiddur “provides the opportunity to increase the camp’s intentionality about the type of Jewish education being provided in camp. It does it in a systemic way, weaving together enrichment of diverse components of camp, from Ivrit and Israeli music to daily middot and tefillah. As a pluralistic camp serving a pretty diverse Jewish population, we want staff to demonstrate that diversity so all our campers can learn the many flavors of Jewish life and practices of Judaism in the world. We want to reinforce that we’re all Jewish, and to create a stronger Jewish community worldwide.”

Another director, Efraim Yudewitz of Camp Tel Noar, explains how he sees Hiddur helping to integrate Judaism further into the camp experience. “Our campers love Shabbat. They love Israel Day. These are things we do Jewishly that we love. Then there are things they love about camp that happen more on a routine basis, that are actually also Jewish things, but we haven’t talked about them in a Jewish context. For example, what kids love the most, what keeps them coming back next summer, are the relationships – community, friends, role models. There’s lots of things we do to help foster those relationships. The way we treat and relate to each other in Jewish law – ben adam l’chavero – is a language we talk about in camp, but campers don’t understand it as a ‘Jewish’ concept. I want to help our kids understand and feel like the regular routine camp stuff is Jewish too.”

The Hiddur model is an unprecedented endeavor in our field – in terms of the length of the initiative, its collaborative funding structure, and who it involves. Hiddur involves camp directors, as well as the inner circle of camp leadership, both lay and professional. This makes it more likely that all of the camps’ desired changes will be implemented regardless of staff turnover, new priorities that arise, and other extenuating circumstances. Joe Reimer, Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University and a longtime consultant in the field serving as a mentor to Hiddur coaches, makes the argument, “When you bring the broader camp community, including staff, parents, and lay leadership, into the discussion, everyone can see how the enhanced Jewish mission of the camp is an asset to the overall vitality of the camp.”

We recognize that implementing this type of change effectively and sustaining it for the long-term takes proper planning. That’s why our foundations made Hiddur a three year investment, offering ample time for the coaches to work with the camp’s Hiddur team to assess strengths and weaknesses and plan for change. The cohort of camps and coaches will grow together, benefiting all involved. Yudewitz explains the important cohort dynamic: “We’re not doing it in our own bubble, but getting the guidance to be really reflective over a longer period of time about what’s working and what isn’t. It helps us stay on task, be productive, and also do it much better.” And the coaches themselves will be able to collaborate and learn from each other over this time period as well, helping to ensure that each Hiddur team receives the highest quality level of training.

As foundations that already have invested in Jewish camp, we believe deeply in the power of the immersive experiences it offers. FJC’s strategy of focusing intently on the Jewishness of camp experiences is potentially game-changing – for the pilot camps and for the entire field. Learnings and strategies that come out of this initiative will be shared with the broader camp community.

Our three foundations now are working with FJC to help the pilot group with strategy and execution, and we again are reminded that there is much to be celebrated in the world of Jewish camping. We hope this program will drive success one step further by advancing the ability of Jewish camps to enhance and more effectively execute their Jewish missions.

Joel Einleger is a senior program officer at the AVI CHAI Foundation.

Aaron Saxe is a program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Aimee Weiss is a program officer at the Maimonides Fund.

Oct 312013

By: Joel Einleger


Joel Einleger

Overnight summer camps offer a goldmine of opportunities for building and deepening connections to Judaism and Israel. Camps are fully-contained and controlled laboratories for experiential education. In this unique environment, campers and staff can participate in new Jewish rituals and customs, meet Israelis who work as staff, and can explore their Jewish interests. Counselors and camperswho may only be a few years apart in agedevelop strong bonds through living together. The counselors become role models, including modeling living Jewishly, as they guide their campers through the day and evening, during meals and in the bunk. 

Still, not all Jewish camps recognize the Jewish education and Jewish identity-building potential offered through the summer camp experience. In contrast to institutions that provide formal Jewish education, like day and congregational schools, camps may not need to make the summer experience a Jewish one to successfully attract campers, and directors may consider their goals reached if campers have a good time and parents are satisfied with the happy stories and new skills their children bring home. Further, some Jewish families shopping for a camp may not realize that nothing need be sacrificed in the camp experience if Jewish growth and learning are also a part of it.

Even when camp directors and boards recognize the potential for the camp experience to be a formative, Jewish one, they may not know how to make it happen. Which programs are likely to be effective and fit into the camp’s rhythms? What special training might the staff need to run these programs? Which experiential techniques will be most effective to make a strongly Jewish impact? While the “magic” that makes Jewish camp memorable may resemble a staged performance that runs throughout the summer, it won’t occur randomly or without lots of training and preparation. Ideally, it must also be built around a Jewish vision and planned outcomes for what the campers and staff will learn, feel and do during and especially after the summer.

AVI CHAI focuses its funding in the field of overnight Jewish camps on programming that enables the camps to infuse the summer with positive and engaging Jewish and Israel experiences, as well as to help more children attend quality Jewish camps. The approaches in which we have invested include:

  • Training and inspiring camp directors, assistant directors and large numbers of seasonal staff each year to execute meaningful Jewish and Israel educational programs during the summer;
  • Helping camp professional leadership develop a coherent and comprehensive Jewish and Israel strategy and education program;
  • Supporting the field in its efforts to increase camp enrollment and capacity, and to strengthen the work and the role of the central advocacy agency in the field, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC);
  • Engaging alumni to support their camps and bring to life the Jewish learning and values gained from their own experience.

We have learned some lessons over time about how to do this work in a way that is most effective at animating the “magic” of a self-contained Jewish environment:

  1. Invest in people. Committed, passionate and well-trained staff are crucial to the quality and impact of the camp experience. This is as true in day-to-day operations as it is in integrating meaningful Jewish content and experiences that add to the power and joy of camp. That is why we fund programs such as the Cornerstone Fellowship, which offers Jewish educational training to exemplary returning bunk staff, and Yitro, which trains the next generation of camp leadership, who are now the assistant and associate directors (both are FJC programs). We have also funded training for staff with a variety of other responsibilities: helping activity specialists to incorporate a Jewish framework in areas such as theater arts, visual arts, sports and music (, program of URJ and Ramah) and training Daber Fellows (program of Ramah), who are tasked to raise the profile of Hebrew language at camp.
  2. It’s not just the camp director. While the camp director sets the Jewish vision and tone of the camp environment, the realization of that vision is oftentimes most successful when others at camp also play critical roles in its execution. For instance, our grantee program Lekhu Lakhem, developed by Jewish Community Center Association (JCCA), prepares overnight camp directors to see themselves as Jewish educational leaders. To increase the impact of this program, we then funded Chizuk, which identifies and places senior-level Jewish educators (Chizuk Fellows) at camps whose directors already participated in Lekhu Lakhem.
  3. Create – and coordinate – a holistic environment. In short, the magic of camp really comes to life when the staff can work together collaboratively toward shared Jewish educational goals that are woven seamlessly throughout the camp experience. Particularly as the Jewish education training options have grown in number and popularity for camp staff, this takes planning and coordination. As an example, in the area of Israel education, each year the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) recruits and trains almost 1,000 shlichim to work as counselors and activity specialists at Jewish overnight and day camps in North America over the summer. To increase the impact of Israeli shlichim and weave Israel education throughout camp, we fund programs that not only train the veteran shlichim themselves, but also aid in collaborations and planning between shlichim and American camp staff. Additionally, the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Israel History (co-funded with  The Lillian and Larry Goodman Foundations and the Marcus Foundation) helps camps not only select and train an Israel educator at each camp, but also develop and implement an entire Israel education curriculum.

Through the strategies and programs mentioned abovecombined with the others that make up our camping portfoliowe hope to enhance the Jewish magic of camp and realize those opportunities that make camp that special Jewish environment. To learn more about our camp programs, you can visit here.

Joel Einleger is Senior Program Officer – Director of Strategy of AVI CHAI’s Camp Programs.

Who’s Who at AVI CHAI: Joel Einleger

 Posted by on December 11, 2012 at 11:10 am  No Responses »  Categories:
Dec 112012

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.

Jan 312012

Ramah Wisconsin campers and staff (1951)

By: Joel Einleger

Much has been written recently about efforts to build and support people networks in the Jewish world, including a recent post here by my colleague Leah Meir. Network building has become sufficiently important that the Schusterman Foundation hired Seth Cohen, Director of Network Initiatives, to lead and catalyze their efforts towards this goal.

As an experiment in this arena, AVI CHAI and the Maimonides Fund recently joined forces to support the National Ramah Commission’s efforts to build a national alumni network called Reshet Ramah for their estimated 250,000 camper and staff alumni (this is what you get when you have been running camps since 1947!). Most camps hope to galvanize their alumni in fundraising and staying connected with other former campers or staff with whom they shared fond summer experiences. What’s unique about Reshet Ramah is the goal to build connections among Ramah alumni – regardless of which of the 12 Ramah camps they attended – by offering local activities and programs inspired by the Ramah camp experience that will be appealing to them today.  These are expected to include Shabbatonim, camp retreats, learning experiences conducted both locally and on-line, all adapted to the ages and interests of the alumni in each community. Some programming will link to local Jewish institutions so that these Ramah-based experiences might become part of the area’s JCC and synagogue repertoire and even attract those without a Ramah background.

A good camp experience generates great friendships and a strong connection to the camp community. Many Ramah alumni also note the impact that the summer experience had on their Jewish engagement, so it makes sense to translate those experiences and make them contemporarily appealing and relevant. And since the Jewish people continue to wander, and young adults often don’t live in the community closest to the Ramah they attended as camper or staff, connecting alumni locally with each other provides opportunities to foster regionally-based Ramah communities around the country.

In her Jewish Week article, Helen Chernikoff asks whether alumni will be willing to channel powerful memories formed at one specific camp to become part of a local Ramah network that incorporates alumni with similar experiences at other Raman camps.  No doubt this will depend on the quality of the programming offered and the success at recreating the most satisfying aspects of the camp experience. She also asks whether other movements have the potential to follow Ramah’s lead.

In a conversation last week with Simon Klarfeld, who was recently appointed Executive Director of Young Judaea , we discussed YJ’s similarities to Ramah in inspiring long-term engagement in Jewish and Israel experiences that may have begun at camp. Hopefully Reshet Ramah will enjoy early successes that will provide valuable learning for other camp movements watching the roll out of this experiment.

Joel Einleger is Director of Strategy, Camping Programs at The AVI CHAI Foundation

Ramah Wisconsin campers and staff in 1951. Where are they now?

By: Joel Einleger

Much has been written recently about efforts to build and support people networks in the Jewish world, including a recent post here by my colleague Leah Meir. Network building has become sufficiently important that the Schusterman Foundation hired Seth Cohen, Director of Network Initiatives, to lead and catalyze their efforts towards this goal.

As an experiment in this arena, AVI CHAI and the Maimonides Fund recently joined forces to support the National Ramah Commission’s efforts to build a national alumni network called Reshet Ramah for their estimated 250,000 camper and staff alumni (this is what you get when you have been running camps since 1947!). Most camps hope to galvanize their alumni in fundraising and staying connected with other former campers or staff with whom they shared fond summer experiences. What’s unique about Reshet Ramah is the goal is to build connections among Ramah alumni – regardless of which of the 12 Ramah camps they attended – by offering local activities and programs inspired by the Ramah camp experience that will be appealing to them today.  These are expected to include Shabbatonim, camp retreats, learning experiences conducted both locally and on-line, all adapted to the ages and interests of the alumni in each community. Some programming will link to local Jewish institutions so that these Ramah-based experiences might become part of the area’s JCC and synagogue repertoire and even attract those without a Ramah background.

A good camp experience generates great friendships and a strong connection to the camp community. Many Ramah alumni also note the impact that the summer experience had on their Jewish engagement, so it makes sense to translate those experiences and make them contemporarily appealing and relevant. And since the Jewish people continue to wander, and young adults often don’t live in the community closest to the Ramah they attended as camper or staff, connecting alumni locally with each other provides opportunities to foster regionally-based Ramah communities around the country.

In her Jewish Week article, Helen Chernikoff asks whether alumni will be willing to channel powerful memories formed at one specific camp to become part of a local Ramah network that incorporates alumni with similar experiences at other Raman camps.  No doubt this will depend on the quality of the programming offered and the success at recreating the most satisfying aspects of the camp experience. She also asks whether other movements have the potential to follow Ramah’s lead.

In a conversation last week with Simon Klarfeld, who was recently appointed Executive Director of Young Judaea , we discussed YJ’s similarities to Ramah in inspiring long-term engagement in Jewish and Israel experiences that may have begun at camp. Hopefully Reshet Ramah will enjoy early successes that will provide valuable learning for other camp movements watching the roll out of this experiment.

Joel Einleger is Director of Strategy, Camping Programs at The AVI CHAI Foundation

In Matt’s Own Words

 Posted by on August 23, 2011 at 7:07 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Aug 232011

At his funeral on Friday, Matt Fenster’s dream to build support for day schools was posthumously read to the overflowing audience.

Family and friends,

In my opinion, the single biggest crisis facing the American Jewish population is the unaffordability of Jewish day school education.  I know of parents who have limited the size of their family because they felt that they could not afford a Jewish day school education for any more children.  This stands in stark contradistinction to the Torah’s imperative of “pru urvu” — “be fruitful and multiply”.   The notion that the cost of a Jewish day school education would cause fewer Jewish babies to be brought into this world is the cruelest of ironies.

But why is a Jewish day school education so important?  Each and every Jewish child is born into a millennia-old heritage, just waiting to be accessed.  It is essential that we give our children the keys to unlocking this tradition.  I think of the Torah’s narrative of Moses transferring leadership of the Jewish people to Joshua.  The Torah says that Joshua was filled with the “ruach chochma” — “spirit of wisdom”.  The Torah does not say that Moses downloaded into Joshua each and every nuance of Moses’ forty years of experience as judge of Israel.  Rather, what Moses instilled in Joshua was a mindset and capacity for serving in his own right as the future leader of the Jewish people.

This is how I think of a Jewish day school education.  Each and every child must be provided with a basic skill set, including the ability to read Hebrew, understand the commentators, and parse a Talmudic argument.  Once equipped with these skills, the child is then free to go off in whatever direction he or she chooses, potentially becoming a future leader of Israel in his or her own right.

I hope you will share in my dream of making a Jewish day school education available to each and every Jewish child.  You can do this by donating to the fund established in my memory, the Matthew S. Fenster Jewish Education Fund, which is administered by the Jewish Communal Fund.  Thank you.


If you would like to join Matt in his last wish, donations made payable to the Jewish Communal Fund should be sent to

Jewish Communal Fund
575 Madison Ave, Suite 703
New York, NY 10022

(REMINDER: to be credited appropriately, the memo section on your check must indicate “Matthew S. Fenster Jewish Education Fund”.

View earlier posts about Matt “The Power of One” and “Improving the Jewish World in Life and in Death

The Power of One

 Posted by on April 7, 2011 at 9:03 am  No Responses »  Categories:
Apr 072011

The Power of One
Posted by Joel Einleger

I have very sad news about a remarkable man, coupled with an amazing story about his desire to inspire the Jewish community to action in ways that are humbling and a lesson to those of us who work to create social change.

Matt Fenster is the father of four young children and the husband of Jennifer – a wonderful and beloved family who are very active in my Riverdale Conservative shul community.   Last year Matt was diagnosed with leukemia, which galvanized a huge effort among family, friends and strangers to find a “Match for Matt”.  Bone marrow drives were held in communities in the US and Israel, resulting in matches not just for Matt, but for 19 other people as well.

Matt’s transplant was initially successful, but tragically the disease returned and he recently required a second transplant.  Throughout the ordeal, Matt and Jen have written regular updates about his condition to share with the many people who are concerned about his health and his family.  Their thoughts, worldviews, perspectives and wisdom, often written with a good dose of humor, are both provoking and inspirational.  At times their comments include reflections about the impact of Matt’s illness on their personal understanding of the Jewish holidays and customs of their family.

In Matt’s posting on Friday morning, he shared the numbing news that there are no further plans to try to treat the disease, and that he was coming home from the hospital.  Responding to offers to help him during his remaining time, he has made a single request:  to join him now in his commitment to avoid “lashon harah”, the prohibition against speaking negatively about someone to others.

I met with a friend shortly after reading this posting and told her about Matt’s condition and his request.  An hour later she forwarded to me an email she received from her sister, who knows Matt’s family and whose children attend SAR Academy with Matt’s children.  The school’s principal had just shared Matt’s posting and request with the whole school community.  At a Shabbat lunch the next day, I heard from another guest at the table that the rabbi from her synagogue had already asked his congregation to join with Matt to honor his not-so-simple request.

In a time when social media tools can facilitate the sharing of ideas instantly and have the power to inspire action… and foundations and organizations consider what kind of imprint they hope to leave on the Jewish community… I wonder whether the stark power of Matt’s wish will be respected for its thoughtfulness, kindness and wisdom by our community, and we will recognize the ability of one person to make a great impact.