At Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the Mercaz building has been around since 1950 — the same year the camp opened. And it kind of looks that way.
The wood on the outside is a little weathered. Inside, the paint on the benches is chipping away around the edges. And the space is big enough for maybe a bunk or a division gathering. But not much more.
For all those reasons, Camp Ramah Executive Director Miryam Seid took to the steps of the building on July 23, Visiting Day, and made an announcement to the assembled parents, campers and counselors: Thanks to a lead gift from Ramah supporters Nathan and Mary Relles and hundreds of other donations, a $4.5 million project would renovate the old structure between the fall of 2023 and the spring of 2024.
Starting next summer, the new and improved Mercaz building will have room for camp activities. But it will primarily serve another purpose: counselors. The building will have two staff lounges, a gym and rooms for taking job interview calls and final exams, according to Seid.
This Jewish overnight camp in the remote mountains of northern Pennsylvania has a summer population of more than 600 people, according to a sign at the entrance. Now, camp leaders are making sure they put the same love and attention into the counselor portion of that population.
They are doing so because it’s harder to recruit counselors in the 2020s, according to Seid. At Ramah, the lost COVID summer of 2020 wiped out a whole group of last-year campers and first-year counselors. There are also more competing internships than there used to be. Additionally, young adults today tend not to commit until the deadline.
“We’re focusing on our staff because we see it as an area that needs to be focused on,” Seid said.
Other camps that serve Philadelphia-area Jews are doing the same.
At Pinemere Camp in Stroudsburg, Director Eytan Graubart is implementing staff sessions on how to use camp on a resume. As a counselor, you are responsible for the health and safety of young people. You plan and lead activities. You manage supplies. You work with supervisors. You balance your time in a 24/7 job. All of these can be bullet points.
“They are getting the real-life experience of being in charge of people,” Graubart said.
The director is also offering pre- and post-camp opportunities for counselors to make money during off-sites that the camp hosts. For European staff members, he is organizing offseason reunions to keep everybody in touch. And during the summer, he is offering camp outs, trips and meals for just counselors.
“We want to make sure they know how valuable they are,” he said.
Golden Slipper Camp in the Poconos has increased salaries, according to Director Justin Guida. It has started offering downtime beyond the normal American Camp Association recommendations. Guida also now offers three 10-passenger vans that can take staff members to Main Street Stroudsburg, Target or Walmart and restaurants on their nights and days off.
After each season, the director meets with his counselors to ask what would make them want to come back and what their goals are moving forward. Many say they need community service hours. He’s happy to oblige.
“The outside world is competitive,” Guida said.
The JCC Camps at Medford (New Jersey) also had to increase salaries, according to Director Sara Sideman. Canadensis in the Poconos did, too, according to Director Brian Krug. Nock-A-Mixon in upper Bucks County dealt with several counselors who considered internships, according to Director Gary Glaser.
Yet each camp ended up fully staffed for the summer.
Jake Schacheer and Ezra Glazer are 18-year-old first-year counselors at Ramah. Both grew up at the camp and returned to the Poconos after going on Ramah’s six-week seminar in Israel last summer. (Ramah organizes the trip for teenagers during the summer between their last camper and first counselor years.)
They said they wanted to return because of the friends they made as campers and to give back to the place that gave them so much.
“Just pass on the traditions and the things that our counselors and the people who are older than us gave to us,” Glazer said. “Pass on our love for camp to every single kid we talk to.”
Schacheer and Glazer want to go into computer science and law, respectively. They plan to start down their career paths during their college years. For now, they just want to enjoy Ramah.
“You really only have a short window of time to be a counselor at camp,” Glazer said.