Joanne Morgenthal, 37, has been involved in Jewish camping for nearly three decades. She first fell in love with camping at the age of eight at B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pa.
She has found a similar sense of community at JCC MetroWest’s Camp Deeny Riback, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, where she took the helm as director last month. She succeeds Diana Ackerman, who retired as of Jan. 31 after 12 years as director of the day camp in Flanders.
In December, Morgenthal had already begun to get her feet wet, meeting with staff and even attending a recent reunion.
“I can tell there’s a real love for camp and community here, and I felt immediately welcomed,” she told NJJN in a telephone interview.
She acknowledged the challenge of stepping into the shoes of a longtime and popular director, but remains undaunted.
“I can add my own twist while keeping all the traditions she started. I look at all the good things she’s achieved and I can build on them, keeping the camp current and moving it into the next phase,” Morgenthal said. Her own hallmarks, she said, include “communication, community building, and relationship building.”
“We are very excited to welcome Joanne to our JCC MetroWest family,” said its CEO, Alan Feldman. “I know that her warmth, spirit, caring, summer camp experience, and professional expertise will help guide Camp Deeny Riback to new levels of day camping excellence.”
He added, “For the past 12 years, we have been extremely fortunate to benefit from the caring professional leadership, guidance, and management of our director, Diana Ackerman, who has set and achieved benchmarks of excellence for Camp Deeny Riback. I know that I speak for hundreds and hundreds of families in our community, and it is with great respect and admiration that I wish Diana further fulfillment of her aspirations as she retires and moves on to the next chapters of her life.” In honor of her retirement, JCC MetroWest has established the Diana Ackerman Scholarship Fund.
Morgenthal was selected from a pool of 25 applicants in a process that involved feedback from JCC board members and executive staff and Camp Deeny Riback committee members, parents, and senior staff.
“The decision to hire Joanne was based on the depth and quality of her camp experiences, Joanne’s ability to engage in meaningful dialogue about children and camp, and her likeable personality, all coupled with the positive feedback received from our interview teams,” said Feldman.
‘Heart of camping’
A 1997 graduate of SUNY’s Binghamton University, Morgenthal started her professional career in camping at Perlman Camp. After seven years as a camper, she stayed another seven on staff, and eventually joined the organization full-time in 2003 as assistant director of camping.
After two years she went to San Diego to help establish Camp Mountain Chai, which grew from 36 to 100 campers in just a few years.
Later, she returned to New York City, her hometown, to work summers as director of the senior division of the Manhattan Youth Downtown Community Center’s Downtown Day Camp and throughout the year as assistant director of after-school programs. She found this experience in secular camping in an urban location somewhat lacking.
“There was just something missing; that sense of community that comes along with Jewish camping just wasn’t there, and there was no space to run around like we do with Maccabiah or ropes courses,” Morgenthal said. Still, she added, those campers got a “community-based, group-based program that builds self-esteem like only camp can do.”
Morgenthal said she expects to move from Brooklyn to West Orange in the next few months. She is looking forward to being an “accessible” camp director, forming relationships with parents and the communities — including Mount Olive, Flanders, West Orange, and Livingston — from which the camp recruits.
“I want people to feel welcomed by a warm community and desire to have their kids grow and feel safe at Deeny Riback,” she said. “We are the heart of Jewish day camping in this area,” she said.