by Deborah Fishman –

Over the past three years, Perlman Camp in Pennsylvania has brought their previously seasonal Jewish educator, Candice Goldstein, onto the camp’s year-round team, working with staff to ensure Jewish life is a focus throughout the year. She now plans for and supervises a team of summer staff including Cornerstone Fellows and members of the camp’s Perlman Leadership Council, a new fellowship for veteran staff who are empowered to share ownership for supporting the Jewish life at camp, which also helps with the camp’s staff retention. Through her role, Candice helps staff see themselves as Jewish educators and role models. Two media-savvy fellows created a promotional video focused around the core Jewish values which the camp has recently been working on solidifying and amplifying. In a powerful moment in the video talking about Tikkun Middot – Jewish values and moral compass – a camper who grew up as a competitive athlete talks about the power of camp in shaping his values and personal identity.

“At camp I was able to figure out who I was without wrestling. When I went to [college], I stopped playing sports competitively, and I had to do an identity check. I had to figure out who I was without my sport. I reverted to the kind of person that I was at camp. The person I was at camp was the person I wanted to be throughout my life. Camp has really taught me to be a more accepting person, and to accept myself for what I want and who I want to be.”

This is just one story from one of the eight camps that participated in the Hiddur program of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), which is concluding its pilot this year with funding from The AVI CHAI Foundation, Jim Joseph Foundation, and Maimonides Fund. The three-year Hiddur process incorporated coaching from exceptional, seasoned Jewish educators; formed a Hiddur “team” from each camp’s professional and lay leaders to ensure the entire camp community is represented and aligned; created a Community of Practice of all the participating camps to share experiences and amplify impact; and offered ignition grants to fund new Jewish initiatives at each camp as part of the process.

Why all this far-reaching activity, both within and between camp communities? The purpose of Hiddur is to create systemic enhancement of Jewish experiential education at each camp. This was achieved by helping each camp enhance their organization’s ability to transmit Jewish values, culture, and tradition, always in line with their camps’ missions, which reflect different Jewish educational priorities and represent the spectrum of Jewish life. FJC is now engaged in a process of evaluating the outcomes of the Hiddur pilot, and strategizing how to expand the learnings and resources of the first cohort – such as the power of coaching and of convening camps face-to-face – to reach more extensively and into a greater number of camps.

While many of the enhancements enacted by the camps were programmatic and staff-driven, sometimes it included rejuvenating the camp’s physical infrastructure towards this goal. Many alumni of Emma Kaufmann Camp in West Virginia have fond and profound memories of the camp amphitheater, the magical place where Shabbat experiences happen and a lifelong connection to Judaism is formed. Over decades of copious use, the amphitheater became worn.  So Rachael Speck, Associate Director, had an idea. Over 10 days in April, 2018, the camp conducted a “Tush Push,” encouraging alumni to donate to replace the amphitheater benches through a crowdsourced campaign which was driven by the camp’s alumni and staff rather than the administration. In an amazing moment of community engagement, stories and videos poured in about meaningful moments at the amphitheater – and with them, donations. In those ten days, the campaign exceeded the goal of $43,000 with gifts from over 370 donors.

In an article about the campaign, Rachael wrote, “How do we preserve Shabbat at camp? We take care of our sacred spaces.  We preserve them so we can ensure that the Shabbat experience is there for generations to come.  So that the camper who only gets Jewish at camp can have their first Friday night experience in the amphitheater be a defining moment in their Jewish journey.”

Hiddur Mitzvah refers to the concept of beautifying or enhancing a Jewish ritual by appealing to the senses – sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and colors. The Hiddur Initiative has enabled camps to apply all their senses toward reinvigorating Jewish learning and Jewish life, with a wide range of Jewish values as a focus, including spirituality; Hebrew Language; connections to Israel; marking Shabbat as sacred time, Tikkun Olam, personal ethics; Jewish Peoplehood; Nature and Environment, and more.

At Herzl Camp in Minnesota, the process coalesced around an epiphany amongst the staff that the central feature of Herzl’s approach to Judaism is its “culture of curiosity.” This understanding blossomed into a Pluralism Task Force which worked to define what pluralism means and how it shows up at Herzl, exemplifying the penchant for intellectual curiosity and asking “big questions.” New experiential forms of Jewish life and learning now include ways of experiencing Z’man kodesh, highly rated by campers last summer, ranging from traditional service to Torah stories and lessons on leadership and life to hikes and blessings for nature. “Some campers found meaning in learning how to wrap tefillin and appreciated the opportunity to choose and to try this traditional practice. Others appreciated praising nature’s wonders while being outside – listening to the leaves in the wind, smelling the dew-covered landscape, and seeing the natural beauty in which their summer camp is nestled,” wrote Liz Paige, Director of Jewish Education. Other innovative initiatives included introducing Storahtelling, which are skits and discussions about the weekly Torah portion, and a “livebrary,” to which staff contributed books that inspired their Jewish journeys, together with a short written overview. These initiatives further the desire to increase learning amongst camper and staff – all part of the “culture of curiosity,” which is not just a slogan, but also lived out experientially at camp.

[The Avi Chai Foundation is] excited to see the thoughtful ways in which the participating Hiddur camps have charted new paths to holistically express and live their Jewish mission and values. With the pilot concluding shortly, we look forward to seeing how it inspires the campers and the field more broadly.  Kol Hakavod to all the camps and the FJC for their vision and execution of this groundbreaking program.

This article was originally written for the Avi Chai Foundation blog. The original can be viewed here.