At the 2018 Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly, held last weekend in Baltimore, about 800 Jewish camp counselors, staffers, administrators, lay leaders and experts convened to network, talk shop and foment new ideas. And while one might expect that sessions focused on recruitment, staff development and community engagement, what one might not expect were in-depth explorations of how the smart-phone generation differs from its predecessors, how to better address sexual abuse and sexual harassment, and how to welcome and nurture children and teens of all gender identities into Jewish camp culture.
The foundation’s seventh biennial assembly celebrated its 20th year of working with more than 300 Jewish day and overnight camps and summer programs affiliated with all denominations from the United States, Canada and around the world.
This year, in response to the #MeToo movement, the foundation announced the “Shmira Initiative.” Shmira translates from Hebrew to “guard duty,” and standing guard against harassment and abuse is what the initiative aims to do.
“Clearly, there has been a lot of discussion around the #MeToo movement and what was going on in our broader society,” said Marina W. Lewin, COO of Foundation for Jewish Camp. “The sexual harassment discussion, gender discussions, gender issues. How do we change this generation, empower them, have the discussions, give them the tools, so when they become the Jewish leaders of tomorrow, they’ve been trained and we’ve created this new culture that they’re going to carry forward with them in their future lives, whether in the broader community, or as leaders in Jewish communal life?”
The initiative focuses on staff prevention education and training, improved policies for identifying and reporting of sexual misconduct, resourcing and training camp directors and boards, and developing and disseminating curriculum and educational materials to change camp culture and language concerning sexual identity and gender expression.
“It’s all connected — it’s an important issue of empowering women and making sure that leadership is balanced between men and women, because when you have diverse leadership in an organization it only makes [it] stronger,” Lewin said. “It’s really important to me that the conversation is about [creating] an empowered generation to talk about these topics and to do the right thing.”
That ideology was addressed in sessions throughout the weekend such as “Children’s Rights are Campers Rights,” “How to Talk About Body Image & Create a Positive Body Culture at Camp,” “Inclusion: Beyond the (Cis) Gender Binary” and “Child Abuse and Harassment.”
And while inclusion was certainly not the only topic — there were sessions on best practices, value-added programming, recruitment and retention, alumni and community engagement, coaching, food and Israel — it certainly underpinned the three-day experience.
Dani Wallace of Denver, Colorado, found the conference in general, and the small-group breakout session on understanding gender definitions and transgender inclusion, informative and helpful.
“I’ve been here to learn about Jewish summer camps as a whole, connect with other Jewish summer camp professionals and learn more about the options and opportunities,” she said. “I studied gender and sexuality in college. It’s not what I’m working in right now, but it’s definitely my passion academically and something that I’m always thinking about and looking for ways that we can make our community more inclusive and make the people that I’m interacting with safe and welcomed.”
Daniel Bahner, Keshet’s national director of education and training, ran the session that educated participants in LGBTQ and ally-community terminology and how to address the needs of transgender and nonbinary campers, while camp leaders shared successes and challenges.
Janna Zuckerman, Center for Jewish Camping program manager for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said the organization’s affiliated 12 area day and overnight camps meet regularly as a professional cohort and are discussing gender issues.
“We’ve brought case studies to the table for conversation,” she said. “It is certainly something that all of our camps are thinking about. It’s certainly something that all camps someday will be needing to think about if they aren’t already.”
At Monday’s keynote address, Jean M. Twenge, “Generation Me” author and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, shared research on the iGen generation (born 1995-2012), the first to have grown up completely in the age of the smart phone. Twenge presented research illustrating how the huge spike in smart phone ownership may have influenced this generation’s social skills (they are less skilled in face-to-face interactions), independence (they are more dependent), happiness (they are more prone to depression and suicide) and transition to adulthood (they have more difficulty making decisions and adjusting to the work/adult world).
Twenge said getting children and teens into day or overnight camps and away from their electronic devices has been proven to help reverse many of these device-dependency side effects.
“It is very, very suspicious that teen mental health issues started to spike right as the smart phone became common,” she said. “This is a good thing that these activities that are linked with happiness — a lot of them are what you do at camp. I’m not exaggerating when I say this: In a lot of ways, camp is the cure for the modern age.”
To parents who want their kids to have cell phones at camp, Twenge says, “No.”
“It’s not just being away from the phone, it’s that they get the exercise in sports, they get the face-to-face interaction that they often don’t get,” she said. “This is a generation with so much potential — they’re practical, they’re ambitious, they’re hard workers, they know how to use social media for good ends, and I think that camp can be an integral part of iGen reaching all of the wonderful potential that they have.”
Linda Posner of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the chair of the camp committee at the URJ Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi. She was enthusiastic about Twenge’s talk and the conference, where she has found concrete ideas to take back home.
“We live in a pretty isolated part of the Jewish world, so just to connect to Jewish camping in other parts of the world is always valuable,” she said, adding that she found Twenge’s talk a little disturbing, but helpful. “She’s absolutely right, this is yet another reason why camp is so important. When you live in the Deep South, in these small Jewish communities, camp is your Jewish lifeline, literally. And we knew that, but I forget sometimes how much it’s also their social and emotional lifeline.”
Emily Stern, senior director of camping at the JCC of Greater Baltimore, attended to get ideas for improving JCC programming and “finding things that speak to us for this year,” she said. “I went to a really interesting [session] about a positive mindset. As long as I can get one helpful thing out of a session, it’s worth it. And I can take it back and utilize it in my camp or in my training or in my supervision.”
Stern said new camp initiatives at the JCC include expanding JCC STEM Plus specialty camps.
“We want to reach more kids in a variety of interests,” she said. “So, not only are we doing it in our own doors, but also doing them in other locations as well, to make sure that we’re able to reach as many kids as we can.”
Leah Schwartz of Silver Spring is in her first year in camp leadership at Habonim Dror Camp Moshava in Street, Maryland. She came to the conference to learn more about the field of Jewish camp and network with like-minded leaders.
“Our movement is unique, it fills a niche. [I wanted] to see what everyone else is doing to learn from them,” she said. “And getting to talk a little bit with people. I came by myself, but there’s a group of people from different Habonim who are here. I would say it’s a good [experience]. I’d come back.”