Every year at Jewish summer camps, friendships are made, color war plans are laid, and mosquitoes are sprayed.
But it doesn’t just happen.
Outside of the professional staff, camps depend heavily on the abilities of their high school and college counselors, who are entrusted with both the care and the good time of their numerous campers. It’s a tall order.
For many camps, however, it can be difficult to retain those high school and college-aged students, many of whom perceive that their summers as camp counselors will not be held in the same regard as a career-specific internship in the eyes of potential employers. This has caused issues for camps.
“One of the most prevalent challenges facing camp directors today is the recruitment and the retention of the counselors, and that’s been accelerating over time,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
To Molly Wernick, assistant director of community engagement for Camp Galil outside of Philadelphia, it’s a lost opportunity for both potential counselors and future employers to overlook the skills of camp counselors. Last summer, Wernick wrote an article for Alma, a Jewish women’s site, addressing the issue.
Wernick recalled a story her sister had told her. Her sister’s friend said that when she sees “camp counselor” listed on a resume when she’s going through applications, it was an immediate trip to the bottom of the pile. Wernick’s sister, who had worked as a camp counselor, felt the total opposite: It pushed applicants to the top.
To Wernick, who has a master’s degree in nonprofit management and leadership from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, this was indicative of the issue. People who had not grown up in a summer camp environment do not understand the skills that come with working as a camp counselor.
“If you’ve been through it, you really get it,” Wernick said. “If you didn’t go, it’s a blind spot.”
Working as a camp counselor, she said, can sometimes be “devalued as ushering kids from point A to point B.” But on the contrary, Wernick added, a summer as a camp counselor can introduce valuable skills that fully engage with the spectrum of what a 20-year-old is capable of. Communication, integrating feedback into one’s work, staying level-headed during crises: All of it is part of a counselor’s job description, and should be valued as real skills by employers later on, Wernick said.
Jeff Solomon, a board member at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, agrees. When he was 10, someone told him he was a leader for the first time. At the Emma Kaufmann Camp in Morgantown, West Virginia, the summer camp of the Pittsburgh JCC, Solomon’s counselor took him aside and pointed out to him the ways in which he’d taken the lead among his bunkmates over the course of the summer.
He opened Solomon’s eyes to the idea that those weren’t just isolated incidents, but instead were indicative of something larger.
Today, Solomon, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, is the chairman and CEO of Cowen Inc., a publicly traded financial services company. His time as a camper and camp counselor, he said, taught him valuable skills.
“My most foundational summer,” said Solomon, “that taught me so much about who I am, and what I’m good at, and the valuable skills I use on a daily basis, was the summer between my junior and senior year in college. I was a program director at a summer camp.”
Solomon doesn’t shortchange the idea that students need a baseline level of field-specific knowledge once they enter the workforce — they do — but says that “who you are” will matter more to an employer. And a summer as a camp counselor? “It speaks volumes about your character,” he said.
“This is the only time in your life when you can have an experience like camp,” he added. “Don’t squander that.”
Rabbi Joel Seltzer, executive director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, sees the hiring problem as indicative of a larger issue for American students, rather than something specific to camps. Specifically, the “professionalization of late adolescence,” as he termed it, puts a tremendous amount of pressure on students to pursue opportunities that they believe will benefit them career-wise from a young age.
And, in the end, the jobs pursued outside of summer camp may not even actually lead to gaining the skills needed for such pursuits, he said. Working as a counselor, he said, “is the best on-the-job training for any other job you will have in your life.”
Seltzer shared a story of a former counselor of his, now a resident in pediatric surgery at a hospital. This former counselor, he said, is the hospital go-to for icebreakers, team-building and social activities for residents — skills that he traces back to his time as a Rosh Edah (division head).
“We don’t just turn out rabbis,” Seltzer joked.