Between the Forest and the Tree: Undertaking the Major Task of Culture Change
December 12th, 2019
At the end of 2018, Foundation for Jewish Camp concluded the first cohort of the Hiddur Initiative. Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Maimonides Fund, and The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Hiddur Initiative was a pilot experiment to help eight Jewish overnight summer camps become more effective at delivering Jewish educational experiences to their campers and staff, in ways that align with each camp’s unique Jewish mission. In reflecting on this demonstration project, I realize that Peter Senge, the change management guru, was right when he said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” Two stories from camps about the challenges and opportunities change provides offer insights into the experience of the Hiddur Initiative. Interestingly, both stories are about trees, which model the delicate balance of permanence and growth.
The first story goes that there was a new camp director at his first summer at camp. When he got there he was disturbed to discover a “gum tree” – a tree where all of the campers and staff would put their gum before Shabbat prayer. Feeling that this was gross and unsightly, he had the groundskeeper cut down the tree before the second Shabbat of the summer. Often, when people tell this story, they claim that the director was fired before the tree hit the ground. The tree was a part of their camp culture, and the camp director had broken their trust by cutting it down without consulting anyone from the community who could have helped him understand its significance. While there is a time and place for quick, responsive adjustments or shifts in policies and procedures, we do it at our own peril if we are not conscious and conscientious of the cultural context. In order to bring about change we need to have reverence for tradition.
The second story comes from Helene Drobenare, the longtime director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake. Once, when asked about the secret to her success in leadership, she told a story about a trip up to URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in the winter early in her career. As she tells it, she and Jerry Kaye, the legendary director, were driving around camp and he stopped and made them get out of the car. It was freezing cold and all she could see was a thick forest of trees. Not understanding the significance of this moment, Helene asked Jerry what they were doing. He pulled out an old large map. Jerry said, “Look at this. It is the map of OSRUI from when I took over as the director.” Pointing out where they were standing, he continued, “See right here, this was an open field, but I wanted it to be a forest.” When Jerry retired last year he had been the director at OSRUI for close to half a century, and he’d left a thick forest as part of his legacy.
Between the two stories of two trees we can understand a profound lesson of change management. Camp maintains a depth of culture founded on a utopian sense of tradition. While short term wins are important, there are no shortcuts to changing culture. We can do almost anything we can imagine in a community or an organization as long as we have respect for the tradition we have inherited, have a clear vision for the future, and have the grit, gumption, and patience to see that field become a lush forest.
Laying the Groundwork for Meaningful Change
Each of the eight camps was asked to set goals for change with their Hiddur coaches, who were expert Jewish camp educators, so that, critically, the process was internally motivated. To help create this motivation, Hiddur coaches introduced camp leaders to a deeper use of data so they could see and understand the impact and outcomes their actions were having. As Brian Schreiber, President & CEO of JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, which owns Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC) said:
You can’t build a great Jewish camp without building a great camp and we had to take data seriously to do that. The CSI (Camper Satisfaction Insights) and SSI (Staff Satisfaction Insights) data led to a lot of soul-searching, change and a detailed intense three-year strategic plan for EKC. Hiddur helped us uncover some areas we needed to focus on and pilot programs often are at the edge of the R & D that this field needs. If Hiddur was designed as a catalyst to do more, the pilot achieved its goal at EKC 100%.
By approaching this process with a coach in a strategic, data-informed way, camp leaders felt empowered to make decisions about what should—and should not—be changed. Creating change, as the evaluation on Hiddur affirms, often is a sensitive and difficult endeavor. But if people see that change is necessary to fulfill the mission, people are more likely to support it. Hiddur gave space for camp leaders to map out where they wanted to keep the fields as they were, what needed to be chopped down, and where they wanted to seed forests.
Camp leaders, for example, whose camps had a stated set of Jewish educational tenets or objectives began Hiddur by reviewing that list to see what was and was not aligned in practice. How could those stated principles be refreshed and better expressed in action? Returning to those initial intentions created that essential internal motivation among the camp’s stakeholders and cemented the commitment to the process. No one was cutting down any “gum trees”; they were restoring their camp to their core values. B’nai B’rith (BB) Camp, for example, worked with its Hiddur coach to articulate goals based on their B’nai B’rith brand and culture. Much of the “culture” in this case was already defined; they had a sense of what they wanted to preserve. But they also wanted to increase camp-wide participation in Jewish life. To this end, they created a pre-camp Shabbaton for staff and teen leaders aimed at getting a core group of camp influencers on board and inspired by the Jewish life enhancements. Now, BB Camp Shabbat is led for the first time by a team of home grown song leaders and community educators who have developed tunes, dances and rituals that are unique to their camp.
Independent camps not affiliated with a denomination or movement face a particular challenge—a lack of a built-in framework—when trying to define their “camp culture” of Jewish education. Asking any organization to start with reflection instead of “doing” can be a challenge, but this is what Hiddur asked of its cohort. Only then could coaches and camp leaders together create a path for the camp to identify their brand as a Jewish camp. One independent camp in the initiative reflected:
In 2016 we did not have a framing for Judaism at camp. Hiddur helped us lay out who we are as a Jewish camp, what does it mean to be a Jewish camp, how do we identify to Jewish community as a Jewish camp. Creating our core Jewish values was helpful in how we framed Jewish life at camp. Before, we were making it up as we went along.
Outside Help Moves the Change Process Forward—Slowly
Creating change is an easier process with outside facilitation and help. Since the pull to “do what we have always done” competes with vision and aspirations for improvement, having a coach to provide gentle reminders and a guide back to camps’ own stated goals is a difference-maker. The Hiddur coaches facilitated reflection on and evaluation of the process intermittently, talking through the change, addressing some of the camp leaders’ discomfort, and providing camps a way to “consult the map” along the way. The coaches were able to help these communities define and refine for themselves their own Jewish brand, programming, and messaging.
At the same time, a paramount learning here is that real change takes time. An initiative meant to facilitate change must provide a framework that accounts for this. Rather than ask camps to commit to an unrealistic measurable change over one camp season, Hiddur was a three year program (and even that amount of time proved to be too short to execute and see all of the changes that these camps envisioned). By setting a longer time-horizon, camps could dream big and work slowly at change. While we are confident that we could make the process shorter than three years, there are no shortcuts to culture change. Now, after a year since Hiddur concluded, FJC is eager to bring a tighter version of this model of coaching to more camps.
John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Brian Schreiber from Pittsburgh articulated the unique role of the Hiddur team in this challenging change process: “Three years ago we knew we were good, but not great. We wanted to up the game on Jewish life, but didn’t have the right people or focus to make it happen. Hiddur gave us direction, justification for making change and made us intentional about everything we do when it comes to Jewish life at camp and this entire agency.” With Hiddur, we at FJC are thrilled to see the emergence of wonderful forests of Jewish life at each of these camps. From where we sit, in all of our work we know that we cannot lose sight of the majestic forests for a “gum tree.”
Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is Vice President of Innovation and Education at Foundation for Jewish Camp. Read the full evaluation conducted by Rosov Consulting, Beautification and Exploration: Evaluating Three Years of the Hiddur Initiative.