The buzzword at this year’s Foundation for Jewish Camp Leadership Assembly was “inclusion.”
Delegates who gathered in New Brunswick March 23-25 could attend sessions on welcoming campers with disabilities, creating LGBT-friendly camps, and reaching out to interfaith families.
“Let all who are in need come in,” said FJC CEO Jeremy Fingerman during the opening plenary. Later he told a reporter, “It’s about how to open the cabins of camp to all.”
Over 700 people from all over North America, Israel, and even a contingent from Hungary attended the assembly at the Hyatt Regency. Every major camping organization was represented, including denominational camps like Ramah and URJ camps, organizational affiliates like B’nai B’rith camps, youth group camps like Habonim Dror, and upstarts like Camp Zeke, a fitness and cooking camp that will have its inaugural summer this year.
Participants attended sessions on how to promote Jewish camp, retain Jewish teens, attract Russian speakers, and create a better lay board. This was the biennial assembly of the FJC, founded by Rob Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner of Montclair in 1998 to promote and improve camps as vehicles for informal Jewish education and identity building.
For the first time, day camps were invited, as well as synagogue educators. Michael Goldstein, director of the JCC of Central New Jersey’s Camp Yachad, a day camp in Scotch Plains, said he was “overwhelmed by the huge array of [Jewish camp] professionals and the diversity of flavors and approaches” to Jewish summer camp.
Goldstein was particularly taken with the idea that partnerships and collaboration with other camps “will be increasingly important.” He spoke with NJJN while awaiting a meeting with Leonard Robinson, executive director of New Jersey Y Camps, with whom he has already collaborated.
Five local synagogue educators — Stacey David of Congregation Ohr Shalom-the Summit Jewish Community Center; David Iskovitz, Temple B’nai Or in Morristown; Elly Bauman, Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains; Susan Werk, Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell; and Janice Colmar, Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn — came to the conference, attracted by the sessions on integrating camp-style programming into year-round education.
‘So many options’
As always, there was as much going on outside the formal sessions of the conference as inside, with networking and meetings taking place everywhere.
Colmar was found discussing the changing nature of promoting Jewish camp within religious schools. “In our synagogue we only promoted Ramah” for years, she said, referring to the Conservative movement camp. “Every summer I went up to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires to visit all my kids.” Now, however, she said, there are so many options for kids that it’s sometimes a political issue who can promote which camp.
Rabbi Isaac Saposnik, executive director of Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement’s camp, called the conference “an incredible opportunity to network and see how FJC is raising the bar.” By the middle of the conference on Tuesday, he had soaked in the message of inclusion. “My takeaway is thinking about the language I use regarding inclusion in new ways, as well as how I think about interfaith families.” He said he realized that “inclusion doesn’t mean just that you include people at camp; it’s also how you reach out to them in the community.”
Robinson offered a session analyzing how NJ Y Camps have become a model of inclusion, with a designated special-needs camp as well as an integrated approach to issues like handling kids with celiac disease at all of the organization’s camps or recruiting Russian-speaking Jews.
Archie Gottesman of Summit, a member of FJC’s board of directors, led a session on reaching interfaith families. “I’d like to see every Jewish family and every interfaith family strongly consider, and go, to Jewish camps,” she said. Gottesman believes camp is the one place that most effectively offers what she calls “joyous Judaism.”
“Interfaith families are a critical market,” said Gottesman, a member of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. “At least 40 percent of our market is interfaith. Kids from interfaith families are welcome at most Jewish camps, but we need to do more outreach.”
The focus on inclusion of all kinds at the conference was deliberate, and comes on the heels of a larger FJC initiative that began with a survey on how camps are meeting the needs of special needs campers. Locally, Lisa Tobin of West Orange, formerly at the New Jersey Y Camps, was hired as director of FJC’s Disabilities Initiative to increase significantly the numbers of children with disabilities served over the next decade. When NJJN caught up with Tobin at the conference, she was heading into a meeting with Jay Ruderman, whose Ruderman Family Foundation funded all of the disability programming at the conference.
Even where it wasn’t in the subject line, inclusion often came up. A session on making the case for Jewish camp included Tracy Levine, manager of One Happy Camper NJ, a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life in conjunction with FJC. When the question arose about the kind of language to use to promote a camp to an interfaith family, Levine remembered telling a couple that Jewish camp was a place where kids could meet their Jewish spouses. “The family was offended because they were intermarried!” she quipped. “I learned the hard way.”
“Regarding inclusion, this field is ready and willing but perhaps not yet able,” said Fingerman. “We hope we can provide the catalyst and the information to serve a broader constituency.” He added, “I think the notion of opening up camp to be more reflective of the community is an important Jewish value and an important communal service.”