Jewish Outdoor Leadership Institute participants at Ramah in the Rockies; courtesy.

By Rabbi Eliav Bock

[This is the sixth in a weekly series “When and how does effective leadership make a true difference?” written by alumni, staff, and faculty of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]

Some say leaders are made. Others believe that leaders are born. I believe that leaders are nurtured and developed from a young age in spaces where failure, honesty, fun, and creativity can thrive.

When I look back on my childhood, my most formative experiences were during my years in the Boy Scouts and attending Boy Scout camp from age 12-14. During this time I learned how to make emergency shelters using only wood and bark, swam a mile for the first time, and spent a night sleeping under the stars as part of the Order of the Arrow ordeal ceremony. While I was never going to become the next Michael Phelps or the next mountain man, these experiences taught me the importance of taking initiative, setting goals, and overcoming fears.

In 2009 I had the opportunity to start a summer camp for Jewish children (while still completing my MA at The Davidson School), one that would inspire young people to become the next generation of leaders. I turned to the lessons I learned as a Boy Scout to craft the vision for what is now Camp Ramah in the Rockies. I hoped to create a place young people could come and experience many of the values present in the Boy Scouts combined with so many of the Jewish core values I had learned over the years at Camp Ramah and JTS.

But there was a key element that might not have been present as much in the Boy Scouts or even in more formal academic settings that I wanted to make central to a new community inspiring leaders for the 21st century. And that element was failure. Yes, I wanted to make sure that everyone from campers to counselors to the highest level of staff members knew how to fail and that failure was usually the first step to succeeding.

And this is why we decided to focus our efforts on creating an outdoor adventure camp. Campers and staff who come to Ramah in the Rockies know that it is impossible to get it right 100 percent of the time, or even 95 percent. If we are getting straight As then we are not pushing ourselves hard enough. We strive for excellence, but know that “good enough” is sometimes best.

When our campers return from a climbing trip, they are scarred with bruises from their slips on the rock slab (only to be caught by the safety ropes/harnesses). Bikers return from attempting ever more challenging trails, knowing that at some point they will fall, scrape themselves, and get back on to try again. Bandages, cuts, and bruises are worn with pride. Even in our non-physical programming, be it our meals or evening activities, we push our staff to try new ideas, knowing that some will work wonderfully and others will fall flat.

So what does it take to create such an environment, assuming that not everyone has access to magnificent mountains and inspiring natural surroundings?

Here are four recommendations that I suggest are replicable in almost any environment:

  1. Create a relatively flat organizational structure where every person is mission aligned. Yes, you need a director, and yes, you need someone to wash dishes or to take out the trash, but make sure that every person has the opportunity to create change and feel that they have a voice in the organization. If an employee who has been there for two weeks wants to try something new, then let her. What is the worst that can happen: someone tries something new that advances the mission in a way you did not expect? Or perhaps someone has even more dedication to the organization because she was given the chance to take initiative.
  2. Create a place where complaining is not allowed. At Ramah in the Rockies, any senior staff member will listen to a complaint once, but the next time the same person/people come with a similar complaint the answer is always: “What do you want to do to fix it?” Assuming the answer is mission aligned, then the next line is, “Please go make it happen.”
  3. Create a place where failure is celebrated and be open about failures. No one likes to mess up, but we all need to make mistakes. I have said some regrettable things to staff and parents over the years. I have created some abysmal programs (as well as some pretty awesome ones). And I am open with my staff about these. When a staff member makes a mistake, I often ask them what they learned from it and what they might do differently next time. End of story. No need to harp on it; usually we are our own worst critics.
  4. Have fun. Many camp people of my generation grew up singing songs by the Indigo Girls around the campfire. A quote by Indigo Girls member Emily Saliers that still rings true is: “You have to laugh at yourself, because you’d cry your eyes out if you didn’t.” A community that creates impactful leaders should be imbued with a sense of fun and purpose where we laugh with each other and only we alone laugh at ourselves.

Camp is often seen as a microcosm for the real world. We all want our children, our teachers, and our leaders to aspire to be even more effective and to create an even better community. To constantly create the environment that allows children, teens, and young adults become effective leaders requires these places where we can fail, be honest, be creative, and have fun.

Rabbi Eliav Bock is the director of Camp Ramah in the Rockies. Eliav received his rabbinical ordination from The Rabbinical School and his MA in Jewish Education from William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

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