Aaron, a Jewish college student in Illinois, has been struggling with the recent events in Israel. "College life is normally pretty intense," he said, "but it's been on a whole new level this past month." When asked what has helped him weather the challenges, he replied without hesitation: "Jewish Camp. I was on staff this past summer, and I learned so much about how to show up for people who need me, and how to show up for myself."
Jewish summer camps are both a microcosm of the world around us and a respite from that very same world. Whether navigating the COVID crisis or supporting young people as they experience the war in Israel and rising antisemitism, Jewish summer camps rise to these challenges. At the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), we provide support to help our summer camps navigate challenges like these.
Beth Rodin, Director at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), notes that "The job [of camp counselor] isn't what it was 20 years ago. We live in a whole different world." Rodin added, "The world is really hard right now, and our staff are mainly college-aged individuals who lost much of their high school experience due to the pandemic. They didn't have that same independence and ability to build resilience outside of home."
Polling over 90 Jewish overnight camps across North America, FJC's 2023 Staff Satisfaction Insights survey reveals that about two-thirds of staff received social and emotional support from a mental health professional while working at camp. Rodin went on to mention the most important skill taught over the summer. "You have to figure out how to work together," she said. "Building the resilience to make it through tough things helps people gain problem-solving and critical thinking skills that they wouldn't learn anywhere else."
In addition to on-the-job skill building, staff training is an integral part of the staff experience. Hannah Wallick, Executive Director at Camp Young Judea Midwest, knows this firsthand. "I've been a rabbi and Jewish professional for 20 years, and everything I know I learned at camp." Wallick tailors her staff training towards "leadership, facilitation, and learning how to be an active builder and contributor to our camp community."
To help our Midwest Jewish summer camps bolster their staff training, FJC is investing in several projects including new training pilots that will include local Chicago and Midwest cohorts of supervisory staff, continuing funding allotted to mental health-focused positions through the Yedid Nefesh program and leaning into the new Midwest Region to build cohort and community amongst fulltime staff across camps.
Despite the many challenges, a summer spent as a staff member at Midwest Jewish camps is still a highly impactful and positive experience. Nine out of ten staff members this summer reported they were satisfied with their experience and are likely to recommend working at camp. One Midwest respondent commented, "I feel like camp truly values me as an individual and plays on my strengths and interests to create the best possible summer experience for the kids. In all, it's a very satisfying job."
At FJC, we know from our data that a positive staff experience translates to a positive summer for campers and a lifelong commitment to Jewish life and community. With the current rising tide of antisemitism, Jewish camp is the best place for young adults to learn and grow in a safe and supportive environment that strengthens Jewish identity and builds an enduring and irreplaceable connection to the Jewish community.
David Korenthal is Midwest Regional Director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.