The Project Begins! - Israel Diversity Project

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[blog entry detailing overview for project, and plan for trip #1]

This afternoon, I'll have the privilege of presenting a "hot topics" session at the Leaders Assembly of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, where I'll present some results from this past summer, along with thoughts about how to move this concept forward into this coming summer. (The session will also highlight some innovative professional development programs run by individual camps.) 

Last summer, this project was evaluated by the individual participants at the end of each visit, and by the participating camp directors after the summer ended. From these evaluations, we've put together a report on the project's strengths and successes, as well as several areas for improvement in future years: Camp Supervisor Exchange Project - Final Evaluation Report

As always, I welcome all comments, feedback, and suggestions, from participants, participating directors, and interested observers. I'm especially interested in talking with community members who are interested in using or adapting this framework for their own organization. Please drop me a line at director@modernjudaism.org, and we can find a time to talk! 

Crane Lake: Large Camp, Small Feel - Camp Supervisor Exchange Project

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Today's visit to URJ Crane Lake Camp was exciting for the supervisors from Berkshire Hills Emanuel Camp, who had each worked at BHE for 3-5 years. As they toured the camp, learned about the program, and spoke with Crane Lake's counselors and supervisors, they identified several useful ideas to bring back home. One of the most fascinating parts was the Crane Lake seems to be a large camp (in enrollment numbers) with the attitude of a small camp, and the feeling of an intimate family.

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Crane Lake had many exciting facilities, like this newly-built art room (above photo) of considerable size, and a zoo with pigs, dogs, llamas, and even a pony. But even more importantly, their program philosophy is incredibly strong - Crane Lake seems to be exceedingly conscious of the vocabulary and framing that it uses. For example, instead of "homesickness," campers simply "feel sad" sometimes, which is a natural feeling, and much easier to address.

My favorite example is the chart of Crane Lake's organizational structure. Rather than top-down supervision, Crane Lake sees its staff as a wagon wheel, with the year-round staff around the edges, and the campers and families at the center. In between, the senior staff are grouped into "teams" by program area, where they discuss and strategize about issues, rather than simply taking direction from a superior. While many camps operate this way, it's cool to visually illustrate that philosophy on a circular pie chart.

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During their visit, the group from Berkshire Hills Emanuel talked to this counselor, who is in her first year of the Olim Fellowship. Formed as a partnership between two URJ camps, and since expanded to five, the fellowship provided advanced training for first-time counselors who commit to working for two years at camp. In addition to at-camp development, the fellows all gather together for multiple seminars during the year, where they learn about their own identity, as well as best practices for camper management and group facilitation.

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Crane Lake has a long history, though it has only been a URJ camp since 1998. Still, many traditions (like the color war posters above) date from long before then. It's exciting to see how Crane Lake's program has evolved over those years, and the new leadership is actively moving Crane Lake forward on many fronts! 

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During their two-day visit at Camp JRF, the supervisors from Crane Lake Camp were impressed with the level of Judaism incorporated into every part of the day. The visit included tours, program observations, and plentiful conversations with campers and staff. Ultimately, the Crane Lake supervisors left JRF with creative ideas for Jewish programming (and other parts of camp), and they're exciting to host their own visitors, from Berkshire Hills Emanuel Camp, next Friday.

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Twice daily, the entire JRF community participates in services, but they only occasionally look like the services that you might find in a synagogue. Frequently musical or arts-based, the JRF staff and visiting faculty work creatively to find non-standard ways for campers to connect with Judaism, and our hosts mentioned several types of activity-centered services from the past few weeks.

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When the Crane Lake supervisors interviewed campers and staff members about their favorite parts of camp, Jewish values camp up frequently. JRF bases its program on seven core Jewish values, which are then incorporated into all parts of camp life. In fact, they even wrote a catchy song (with seven entire verses) to remember all of the values, which the campers have sung at meals. This focus on values allows all of camp to align the intentionality of the various programs and activities. 

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On the first day of Crane Lake's visit, the JRF campers were deeply involved in an Israel-themed maccabiah competition. The night before, they'd begun learning about five of Israel's most prestigious universities, and the next morning they "took classes" at the various universities by competing in medical, technological, artistic, and legal-based challenges. Later, they made decorations for their chosen university, and took a series of college exams (above) before finally graduating at the end of the evening.

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Most of JRF's program areas are open on at least two sides, proving a nature-based experience for campers even in more education-based programs. Their Shabbat service location (above) is particularly beautiful, surrounded by forest and overlooking the camp lake. JRF also has a few trails, used for day hikes and overnight camping, and it is currently building a new 72-bed "eco-village" unit.

As the visit ended today, the Crane Lake visitors were excited to bring back the new ideas that they'd found, and they left the JRF staff members discussing the newly-gained perspective on their program. Stay tuned to read all the details of next week's visit to Crane Lake Camp!

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Today's visit to Berkshire Hills Emanuel Camps featured four diverse supervisors from Camp JRF: the songleader/special needs coordinator, the experiential education director, a unit head/dance specialist, and the technical director. From their variety of lenses, the supervisors eagerly explored Berkshire Hills Emanuel's newly-refocused program, including refurbished buildings, more diverse specialty offerings, and a renewed commitment to staff professionalism. 

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Emanuel's refreshed buildings behind its cross-lake zip line. (No, mom, I didn't try it out!)

Since it moved to its current Pennsylvania location four years ago, Camp JRF's leadership has been learning more about dining and facilities management. (Previously, they'd rented a camp property, with those services included.) Berkshire Hills Emanuel has also been focusing on those elements, since Adam Weinstein became the director a little over a year ago. In that time, Weinstein has accomplished a total renovation of many of camp's buildings, refreshing their appearance and optimizing their interior layouts. But most impressively, the changes have been incredibly frugal. Rather than demolishing and rebuilding, Adam worked with the maintenance director to identify small improvements with big impacts, like a fresh paint job in dynamic colors, updated paneling on interior walls, and replacements for outdated windows. They even removed a wall in their rec hall to create a useful new music room! Weinstein's creativity has left Emanuel with far more budgetary freedom than if it had demolished and rebuilt these buildings, and the changes can be immediate, without the need for significant fundraising. 

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The JRF supervisors asked lots of questions about Emanuel's history and alumni, because their own camp is only 12 years old. As they looked at a wall of photos going back 50 years, one JRF supervisor remarked that they could easily start a similar wall back home, because some of his colleagues had been around from the beginning. Emanuel also depends on its alumni for some of its financial support, since it has an alumni base spanning over 70 years, and it actively welcomes them back to the property. JRF has already built a strong culture, despite its young age, and today's visitors were excited to become parents and re-visit the camp as alumni! 

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Before they left, the JRF supervisors presented the Emanuel supervisors with an entire box full of gifts and souvenirs, and Emanuel's director happily reciprocated!

Bridging the Religious Divide - Camp Supervisor Exchange Project

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Today, Camp Moshava's supervisors began their two-day visit at Capital Camps. Moshava is experimenting with a twist on the project's framework, sending the camp's assistant director along with a division head. This is also the first time that a camp's project liaison has come along on the visit. I'm excited to explore how that impacts the experience - each visit this summer is organized a little bit differently, which will allow us to reflect on various exchange structures as we move forward. 

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Many of Capital's program spaces feature breezy open walls.

At Capital Camps, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness that had informed the construction of various facilities. Striking a remarkable balance between closed-off indoor spaces and brutally hot outdoor spaces, Capital features several program spaces (like the above photo) with a hard roof and one or two sides, leaving campers with a shady breeze.Not content with a standard zip line, Capital strung a monstrous zip line from a hill above the dining hall all the way across the lake, leaving campers with a unique and unforgettable zip line experience. Moreover, the visitors from Moshava were impressed with Capital's cleanliness, and the lack of paper and garbage on the ground. Adam, our host, said that everyone at camp shares the responsibility for clean-up, and everyone pitches in a few times each week. 

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Capital's zip line traverses its lake. 

Capital's Jewish program was also inspiring. This summer, the newly-hired year-round Director of Jewish Life is facilitating a summer-long rewriting of the camp siddur. Each bunk gets to participate, learning about their assigned prayer, and deciding how they want it represented in the new siddur. Meanwhile, a visual artist is working with campers to lay out and decorate the pages. I've seen this process succeed several times at youth groups and Hebrew High programs (though never at a camp), and it's wonderful when campers get to feel such an investment in their camp's Shabbat services!

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This sign greeted me as I entered Capital Camps' main gate. 

Ruach and Learning at Camp Harlam - Camp Supervisor Exchange Project

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Jeff and Hannah, two division heads from Camp Poyntelle Lewis Village, visited URJ Camp Harlam yesterday, on the first day of a two-part visit. (Today, the delegation also includes a program director and an arts director.) The visit was filled with exciting discoveries both programmatic and logistical, and the CPLV supervisors left with several inspiring ideas!

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Aaron Selkow, the esteemed director of Camp Harlam, paired each visitor with a Harlam division head for most of the day. As the visitors shadowed their hosts, they got to see supervisor meetings, camper discussions, and a variety of program areas. (Every Shabbat, the visitors learned, Harlam provides professional development opportunities for each of its counselors!) Most importantly, Jeff and Hannah got to observe the basic mechanisms of unit supervision at Harlam, and compare their observations to life at CPLV. 

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Later in the afternoon, the guests met with Harlam's camper care department, and learned about its innovative system for addressing camper issues. Harlam employs four dedicated camper care professionals, including two social workers, who interface with parents, follow up on counselor concerns, and even manage special foods and allergy needs. The CPLV supervisors were so impressed that they asked to take home a copy of the Daily Camper Report form! They also visited the Harlam infirmary, to learn how to streamline and standardize their own infirmary's operations. 


One of the most exciting parts of the day was Harlam's incredible after-dinner song session (above video). The dining hall erupted with hundreds of campers' joyous singing, led by an enthusiastic (and wirelessly amplified) songleader who wove through the crowd and jumped on tables. They sang Circle Game, the Hebrew train song, and Summertime Forever, a special camp song written at Harlam in the 90s. It was the kind of ruach that campers dream about in the off-season, and our host said that it was still only a fraction of the energy found at Harlam's Shabbat song sessions.  

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At Camp Harlam, each unit closes out the day with a Siyyum Yom circle. Together, they sing an extremely chilled-out version of the Shema, which leads directly into the Hashkiveinu. With their arms around each other, the campers sang with passion and joy, even on the second night of camp. (Many of the circles were led not by supervisors, but by regular counselors from the unit!) 

Personally, I was impressed with the consistency of the Harlam staff's discussion facilitation skills. For the entire day, I saw CITs, counselors, and unit heads across camp facilitate engaging, meaningful, and content-heavy discussions for campers of all ages, while carefully creating a safe and comfortable discussion environment. I can't wait to follow up and find out how that skill is taught in Harlam's staff training, and see if I can adapt it for the organizations where I work. Ultimately, the visit to Camp Harlam was exciting and insightful for the participants from both camps (and for me as well!), and the CPLV supervisors returned home full of new ideas! 
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This morning, my project suddenly became real when three supervisors from Pinemere Camp arrived at Camp Moshava, where they spent the entire day! Moshava, a B'nei Akiva Modern Orthodox camp in Honesdale, is much larger than Pinemere, and bills itself as "an adventure in religious Zionism." Pinemere is a small overnight camp affiliated with the JCCA, but the visitors rapidly discovered that there was a lot they could learn there, as they toured the camp, sat in on activities, and met with key staff members from many different departments. 

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The visitors discuss programming with Rachel Levitt-Klein, Moshava's drama specialist.

Personally, I was impressed with several elements of Moshava's program. Their shlichim (Israeli staff members) number in the hundreds, and they work in every camp department, including the kitchen. As a Zionist camp, Moshava actively integrates its shlichim into the basic fabric of camp. The biggest surprise came at Moshava's beit midrash - in addition to serving as a place for the community to come and learn, the camp actually pays staff members (10 men and 10 women) to study there for the entire summer, and share that learning with the rest of camp. 

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Noah, Pinemere's Jewish Program Supervisor, learn about Moshava's nature room.

But I most appreciated Moshava's endless commitment to the quality of its programs. The nature room was fully stocked with guinea pigs, frogs, fish, and even a snake, not to mention the goats and ducklings outside. The science specialist eagerly showed us her demonstration of the science of light, featuring a wall of photosensitive phosphorous paper, ultraviolet gaga, and even a pyrotechnic display using hand sanitizer and coffee creamer. (I should probably say not to try the fire thing at home, but it was just so cool!!) Elsewhere, Moshava outfitted an entire building with an innovative, fully experiential museum-style exhibit demonstrating the Independence Hall/Israeli Declaration of Independence experience for campers, and continuing (over the course of several rooms, and using story cards and interactive activities) through the evolution of Israel's current society. All of the materials were designed in-house, at significant expense, but Moshava was willing to pay for a superior, engaging educational experience. 

In fact, throughout camp, Moshava spent big money on high quality programs and equipment. The Israeli history program (part of a rotating curriculum that changes every year) featured music, lighting, multiple ceiling-height printed panels, and even a flat-panel television, not to mention the custom-printed and laminated info cards. The science program required an entire garage to be darkened, and outfitted with new, expensive equipment. Elsewhere, the camp spent money to buy high-quality, effective sound and video systems, floating lake toys, and even a set of inflatable balls that fit campers inside. While many camps are reticent to spend money, Moshava recognizes that strong programs and specialty areas come from a commitment to invest sufficient money to "do it right," resulting in an exciting, high-quality experience for every child at every department. 

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The surprise twist was the Moshava constantly evaluates its program, using computer surveys to measure camper satisfaction twice each summer, and asking staff members to participate in focus groups. It takes staff happiness very seriously, putting on nightly events for staff (with food!), sponsoring frequent buses into town, and even hiring a director exclusively to be in charge of staff happiness. Most of the staff members with whom we met were genuinely enthusiastic about their areas, and (in the words of Halel, Pinemere's director of staff training) incredibly devoted. Their devotion has a clear impact on the success of Moshava's program, and it was unimaginably exciting to see that program on today's tour. 

Note: Special thanks to Chaim Livne of Moshava (and his helper Shoko) for putting together today's visit, to Toby Ayash of Pinemere for arranging for her wonderful supervisors to participate, and to everyone who helped make today's visit a success! 

The Unique Energy of Color War - Camp Supervisor Exchange Project

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Having grown up at a camp without Color War, I'd always heard about the concept from friends, and read about it in scholarly articles. (Yeah, I study the history of summer camp at grad school. I know I'm awesome...) Once, Color War was featured in an episode of This American Life, but until yesterday I'd never experienced one in person. Remarkably, these various accounts proved rather accurate, as Camp Poyntelle Lewis Village is deep in the midst of haRuach, the first-session Color War. 

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The beginning of Poyntelle's first silent lunch competition. 

On Poyntelle side, the supervisors kicked off the competition on Monday night with an intense aquatic melodrama - after the directors were "kidnapped" earlier in the evening, and campers had to complete various puzzle stations to free them, the plot developed through highly skilled acting on the dock, on the lake trampoline, and in the water itself. Ultimately, the actors revealed that the directors would in fact be rescued by four Jewish warriors, each of whom would lead one of the Color War teams. (Extra awesome points for having two male warriors and two female warriors - Jewish history features some fierce women!) Over the last few days, campers participated in a variety of sports-based and intellectual challenges, and tomorrow will be the final day of competition. 

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The Lewis Village teams cheer on their color-mates in last night's quiz bowl. 

Meanwhile, the Lewis side competition began with a spirited presentation from the Leaders in Training. After a video and lots of joyous yelling, the teams (themed to classic game shows) were broken out and the sign-ups for individual events began. Last night, the teams competed in a quiz bowl competition, after a long day of sports, and tonight the teams presented exciting talent show, each with its own unique game show narrative. Tomorrow is the final day for Lewis side as well, and a winning team will be crowned tomorrow night. It's easy to see how campers (and staff members) all over North America get completely swept up in this Color War tradition!  

The Moment Has Arrived: Mailing the Workbooks - Camp Supervisor Exchange Project

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Noah displays the newly-completed workbooks, to help project participants frame their visits!

I'm excited to announce that we've mailed our workbooks! After several weeks of writing, editing, and assembling the workbooks, they're on their way to the nine participating camps, where supervisors will use them before, during, and after their visits. The pre-visit conversation, with the director of their home camp, will help the supervisors set goals for their visit. Later, the post-visit conversation will help them select ideas for implementation, and secure buy-in from colleagues. But the core of the workbook encompasses seven content areas with prompts and questions designed to optimize the observation process. . 

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The tabs in that section are my favorite part of the whole workbook. (And they only took a few hours to cut and assemble!) Since the supervisors will be inundated with sights, programs, and ideas throughout their visit, I created a handy set of tabs to allow them to instantly flip to the relevant section and record their findings. This allows them to spend more time observing, and less time fiddling with the workbook. 

This seems like a good time to credit my project mentor, Sarah Raful Whinston, with the initial idea for pocket-sized workbooks. As we were struggling with formatting late this spring, and trying to avoid bulky clipboards or floppy packets, she suggested a quarter-fold booklet. We realized that participants could carry them easily and constantly, and that it would feel a little more professional than a set of printed-out pages. Just one of Sarah's valuable contributions to this process! 

Ultimately, I'm thrilled that we're about to start testing this project! The first camp visit is this coming Thursday, and I can't wait to see how well these materials work in the field, and how we can improve them for future use. As always, check back here on the blog for more exciting updates!