The new director of Pinemere Camp has been involved almost his entire life with overnight camps, but for Mitch Morgan it’s always been about camps connected to the JCC Association.
“Growing up at a JCC camp — that’s kind of the network that I felt the most comfortable in as a participant, but also as a professional,” said Morgan, who is from St. Louis and was a camper and staff member at Camp Sabra in southern Missouri.
A self-described camp “lifer,” Morgan replaces Toby Ayash, who spent five years as director of Pinemere. She was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago and went through chemotherapy but said she “never had a true chance to recuperate physically and emotionally.”
“It’s a bittersweet decision, I do love what I do,” said Ayash, who has worked in overnight camps most of her life. “I’m going to miss the staff and the campers and families, but I probably won’t miss the facility breakdowns or calls about bears in the middle of the night.”
Pinemere, located in Stroudsburg in the Poconos Mountains, was founded in 1942. It served about 300 campers last summer, with about half coming from the Philadelphia area.
Morgan, who also worked two years as director of JCC Maccabi Camp Kingswood in Maine, takes over Pinemere at a time when there is increasing recognition locally and nationally of how effective overnight camps can be in fostering Jewish identity among young people.
But Morgan, 33, has long believed in the importance of overnight camps.
“When you have so many people out there who say that camp is their sanctuary, that says something. There is a reason people think about and yearn for camp all year,” he said.
Part of what attracts him to JCC camps, he said, is their effort to attract campers from across the spectrum of Judaism, in contrast to those affiliated with specific Jewish streams. At Pinemere, for example, Morgan said there are campers ranging from those who call themselves unaffiliated to Modern Orthodox.
For some of these kids who go to school without other Jewish students, Morgan said, camp provides “a community where the majority of the people are just like them. They can say, ‘I’ve got people. I have a tribe.’ ”
After graduating from the University of Missouri, Morgan spent time in the business world before he became assistant director of Camp Sabra and also helped start an overnight camp in Illinois.
Morgan says there are differences between Jewish camps — “one camp has the water trampoline, one has the water slide” — but he sees commonalities among many Jewish overnight camps. For example, everybody does Shabbat services.
“I pray acoustically, outside. I like my service to be a little bit more like a jam-band show,” with guitars and drums, he said.
In advance of moving up to Pinemere for the summer, Morgan, who has moved to Manayunk, said he’s spending much of his time reaching out to current camp families and alumni — no matter how long ago they attended Pinemere.