Come the third weekend in March, there will be a lot of happy campers descending on the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront. More accurately, a lot of happy Jewish campers, as more than 700 Jewish camp professionals, lay leaders and others from the U.S., Canada and abroad will be pitching their tents, so to speak, as part of the 2018 Foundation for Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly. This will be the nonprofit’s seventh biennial meeting and the first to be held outside its New York environs.
“The foundation will be celebrating 20 years at this conference, created in 1998 by this entrepreneurial couple, Elisa and Robert Bildner,” said FJC CEO Jeremy J. Fingerman. “The first biennial conference was in 2006, and importantly, it was called even back then ‘Leaders Assembly.’ The inspiration was that leadership drives quality, quality drives growth, and coming together and convening the field together would help to shape the future.”
The foundation works with more than 300 Jewish day and overnight camps and summer programs affiliated with all denominations to improve and promote camps and camp programs as well as develop better management practices and encourage professional development. The foundation also raises money and extends grants to the Jewish camp field.
“The theme in Baltimore this year is ‘The Pursuit of Excellence,’” said Fingerman, who has been with FJC since 2010. “So that in anything we do, we as a field, we want to be doing it with excellence in leadership, excellence in programs and excellence in facilities.”
The assembly, which runs March 18-20, includes an exposition hall, seminars with topics such as “Community in Context: From Cross-fit to Your Camp” and “iGen: Understanding the Influences Shaping a Generation” and workshops on specialty areas including customer service, middle management, mental health and greening institutions.
“Overnight camp enrollment, in the last decade, is up 22 percent,” Fingerman said. “It is interesting in the context of so many other institutions in the Jewish world that are in decline. We’ve had slow, steady growth. That says there is a need and a platform and a confidence that camps have been able to deliver.”
More than 200,000 campers and counselors participate in Jewish camps annually, according to FJC, a summer ritual that began in the late 1800s, coinciding with the rise of camping in the U.S.
“The history of Jewish summer camping is rich and lively and raises fascinating questions about identity,” said Jenna Weismann Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and a professor of history at the George Washington University. “Much like those associated with summer camping more generally, the origins of Jewish summer camping were bound up both with philanthropic or charitable camps designed to introduce urban immigrant children to the delights of nature and the prospect of a more wholesome way of being.”
Joselit added that some camps “catered to the sons of the elite, seeking to toughen them up. You might call these exercises in masculinity.”
There are dozens of camps and programs around the Baltimore area. A quick scroll through an online list of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore finds about 50, including special- needs camps in other East Coast states.
David Shapiro is an attorney and volunteer chair of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Center for Jewish Camping Advisory Committee. He remembers his first experience as a young boy at overnight camp, where he suffered terrible homesickness.
“It was not pleasant. I think I wrote more letters back in my first two weeks of camp than I’ve written in my entire life,” he said and laughed. “But I got through it, and I ended up enjoying the experience at Camp Airy.”
Shapiro said beyond the generic camping experience, Jewish camps specifically are important for young people building lifelong connections with their Judaism and their Jewish community.
“I always tell people there are three major pillars for cultivating Jewish young people in having positive experiences that will lend them to be active, engaged Jewish leaders. One is Jewish day school, the second is a Jewish camp, and the third is a meaningful trip to Israel,” he said. “So if the kids can have a trifecta, all three of those, there’s a high likelihood that they’re going to be an engaged Jewish member of the community and possibly get involved in leadership.”
“Congregations need really to connect with these Jewish camps out there,” he added. “I think there could be such synergy that everybody benefits. I’ve really set my sights on trying to encourage camps to go beyond just the traditional camp experience, to think about doing wrap-around programs after the camp session is over.”
The advisory committee works closely with camp leadership on designing meaningful programs and promoting Jewish camps and camping.
“Let’s face it, 70 percent of the Jewish community is not engaged in any traditional activities, whether it’s a synagogue or the JCC, the Big Brother League or even family services,” Shapiro said. “And anything we can do to connect those who are not engaged with a congregation, I think it’s a win-win for everybody. For the congregation, for the camp, and it’s most importantly a win for the Jewish families, particularly the Jewish children.”
Shapiro said he’s thrilled that FJC has chosen Baltimore for its 2018 conference.
“We’re hugely excited about that opportunity. They have a very full program planned, and I do believe that they too are forming some sort of policy direction for this wrap-around programming,” he said. “To have 600 to 700 people who are committed to Jewish camping from all over the country come to Baltimore and share their ideas and meet our leadership and our rank-and-file who work with Jewish camps, it’s very exciting. We’re really looking forward to being host to the group.”