By Molly Wernick
Jewish camp professionals don’t have much time to mourn the loss of the summers we’d planned. We must switch gears, roll up our sleeves and come up with a new 2020 vision. Luckily there are no better-suited dreamers and designers for this challenge than camp people.
For the past three years I have served as the community director at Habonim Dror Camp Galil in Bucks County. In addition to being my employer, Galil was my summer home from ages 10 to 23. I experienced 14 years of memories, milestones and rights of passage, each vital to the fabric of my life today.
Days after making our announcement about not opening camp this summer, the Galil community convened on Zoom for Havdalah, as we had been doing weekly since mid-March. I did not know whether to hide my face from the video as the tears fell from my eyes. Each one felt like a would-be memory lost to our community. Our campers don’t deserve to have their summers lost. We owe it to them to create meaningful memories and connections that can travel with them as they grow.
Before we start cutting and pasting our regular camp day into Zoom rooms, let’s keep in mind what camp is all about. Here are a few suggestions for camp leaders that can apply to everyone thinking about making the summer meaningful for kids this year.
Listen and Meet People Where They Are
Conducting empathy interviews with camp families allows us to understand how their needs have shifted. This year, we’re not child care and we’re not an immersive Jewish experience — but we can use what we learn from those interviews to inform the goals of our summer programming. More than ever, actual community needs matter a lot more than an organizational vision.
Following the announcement about suspending in-person camp, Galil’s staff and board contacted each of our enrolled families to discuss the summer. We listened, we comforted, we commiserated about Zoom fatigue and furloughed family members. One parent shared how her young daughter is an early riser and would benefit from summer activities first thing in the morning. Another parent shared about how her middle child who wasn’t yet ready for in-person camp is now eager to participate in Galil’s remote programming.
From these conversations, our youth leadership team was able to construct additional interview questions to discover more about family schedules, camper passions and ideas for community support. Everything that we learn through this process will become a piece of the puzzle informing our summer structure.
Be More Inclusive — and Jewish
The way a Zoom call is facilitated or an email is written can communicate values. Make sure that the values you want to teach this summer are not just named for your community but also experienced by them.
Practice the value of inclusivity by making sure new and younger campers are welcomed into camp traditions, even if they look different than they have in years past. Practice the value of responsibility by allowing campers of all ages play a role in a program’s planning or execution. (The Foundation for Jewish Camp and M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education offer great resources.)
Keep Rituals Alive
In the era of isolation due to social distancing, having campers feel how much they matter to a community has substantial benefits to their mental health. We as camp communities have the power to make that possible. Try incorporating recurring camp rituals into your remote program so your campers can experience a repeated sense of personal and collective mattering. Rituals and traditions comprise camp culture, and camp culture helps make camp magical.
I recently helped lead Moishe House’s Expedition Nai, a global, virtual color war in which prioritizing participant mattering made the entire experience possible. Even on the educator/facilitator side of Expedition Nai, running biweekly “flagpole” gatherings provided me with joy and purpose I didn’t realize I needed.
Use Failures to Make Change
Starting in mid-March, our team at Habonim Dror Camp Galil began running daily online programs for our community. Each day, good or bad, helped us improve the facilitation and function of our virtual programs and helped us understand how to — and how not to — most effectively engage our community.
Finding meaningful ways to build an intentional, empowered and hospitable remote community has the ability to do more long-term good than we can even imagine.
Molly Wernick lives in Philadelphia. In addition to her work with Camp Galil, she contracts as an experiential educator and facilitator for Jewish organizations like Moishe House, Hazon, and M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. This piece first appeared on JTA.org.