Area women came together for a "mini-camp" program intended to empower them in a fun setting reminiscent of Jewish overnight camp.
At a nearly deserted Cherry Hill, N.J., shopping center on a Tuesday evening, a woman is standing outside Cous Cous Moroccan Cuisine and Lounge. She is lighting a sage-leaf cluster that smells like incense — or maybe something a little stronger — and offering it to other women drifting in.
“Take a deep breath,” says Tammi Leader Fuller, a Miami native and current Los Angeles resident who spent some of her happiest times in the Delaware Valley. “Get rid of the negative stuff.”
For the next three hours, about 25 mostly Jewish women turn to positive thoughts as they search for new meaning in their lives. This is Campowerment, billed by Fuller as “a hilariously awesome weekend sleepaway camp for grown-up women, featuring empowering, expert-led workshops, good old-fashioned camp activities and games, and lots s’more.”
Fuller, a former television producer who began running overnight camps for grown women 10 years ago, attended the now-defunct Camp Akiba in Reeders, Pa., in her youth.
“Camp was my happy place. For the other 10 months of the year, I would live for those two months of summer camp. It’s where I grew up with the friends I made,” says Fuller, Campowerment’s CEO – that’s Chief Empowerment Officer. “It was life lessons wrapped in fun and games. It was where I had confidence in myself and could really be comfortable in my own skin.”
The Cherry Hill gathering is a mini-Campowerment for women unable to break away from family and work for a four-day weekend. Campowerment at Cous Cous begins with a sing-down, where campers break into two teams to come up with songs featuring the word “me.”
Heidi Checkoff of Cherry Hill is married to a former Akiba camper, but never went to sleepaway camp herself as a kid. “The first time I went was to Campowerment in Malibu over a year ago,” she says. “Now, I’m a Campower Ranger. I’m 47 and I have camp friends. I feel like my 12-year-old daughter.”
Another mini-camper, Marge Matusow DellaVecchia of Cherry Hill, attended Akiba with Fuller decades ago. The two recently reconnected on Facebook.
“I loved camp, too,” says DellaVecchia, who works for Camden County. “I lived for camp.”
Fuller says 30 percent of her campers are returnees. “We create a community of people who together are better than ourselves. For the first 24 hours at camp, we don’t even say what we do for a living — sweatpants are the great equalizer,” she explains. “There are no mean girls at camp. There is never any drama — now, don’t kin ahora me.”
Most Campowerment attendees are Jewish, and speakers and activities of particular Jewish interest are sometimes scheduled. All the sleepaways are held at Jewish camps. “There is something very haimisch about them,” Fuller notes, citing the giant menorah at the Malibu camp.
Fuller runs several Campowerments annually. Last year, she held one in the Poconos and one at the Jersey Shore. She has one scheduled in the Catskills in June, and two in Malibu this fall.
Recently she came up with $25-to-$30 mini-camps “to plant seeds” of encouragement. Cherry Hill, home to some of her camp regulars and expert facilitators, is one stop in a 10-day blitz with others scheduled in Virginia, Maryland, New York City, Long Island and Chicago.
One of the facilitators is Joanna Kleinman of Cherry Hill, who runs the Center for Extraordinary Relationships. She brings the women together for a camp circle entitled “Dethroning Your Inner Critic,” where the women talk about things that bother them while others offer ways of overcoming hurdles.
“Your inner critic is that voice that is the place of suffering for all of us,” Kleinman says. “You have to be intimately familiar with her to see the damage she causes. When you can separate from that voice, that’s where freedom lies.”
At times, Kleinman’s circle becomes a place for tears as women who had never met before share some of their biggest fears and frustrations. But it is also a place of reassurance, where other women give advice and no one is judgmental.
Four-day Campowerments typically cost $1,000 to $1,200 plus transportation. Activities include knitting, journaling, yoga, meals, snacks, and circles featuring such topics as “My Greatest Failure” and “Smart Money Moves.” There are also activities like meditation, hiking, ropes, archery, arts and crafts, tarot readings, spa treatments, bunk photos, movie night, campfires, Happy Hours, Passion Parties and a closing ceremony, “Last Call.”
By the end of the evening, this taste of camp was obviously enough to whet the appetites of some attendees: Four women decided to sign up to participate in the full weekends.