Guest Blog

Jewish Summer Camps are Meeting this Moment

– by Jamie Simon, Foundation for Jewish Camp

March 28th, 2024

Last month, I was on a train coming home from the airport. A woman sitting next to me was wearing a Star of David necklace. We made eye contact and both smiled. Then she asked me if I was Jewish. I said, “Yes, I am.” She responded, “I feel safer now that you’re here and I am not alone.”

She shared with me that her daughter goes to public school and that since October 7, she has felt alone and isolated. She experienced some forms of antisemitism and, in light of this, will attend Jewish camp for the first time this summer.

“My daughter Sasha needs Jewish community. She needs Jewish camp.” Knowing that their daughter will have a safe space where she can be Jewish with other peers and counselor role models gives her family hope during this dark time.

This exchange underscored what we already know to be true: Jewish camp creates safe and nurturing communities in which campers and staff can explore their Jewish identities. The parents, who don’t even go to camp, feel good and positive about their children being in these spaces. And we need these spaces now more than ever, for all Jewish families.

Each year, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), where I am fortunate to be the first-ever chief program officer, supports more than 300 nonprofit Jewish day and overnight camps across North America. Our camps are diverse in geography, movement affiliation (or lack thereof), and Jewish practice. The common link is that they all enable their campers and staff to grow and develop each summer, building lifelong connections and friendships in safe and loving Jewish communities.

Camp Ramah in the Poconos, summer 2023.

While the camps support their campers and staff, FJC supports the camp professionals. Each year, we offer ongoing professional development opportunities for year-round and seasonal staff; cohort experiences; grants for capital improvements to become more accessible and inclusive; grants and trainings to help camps bolster staff recruitment and retention; resources for camps to hire mental health professionals; and more. In 2024, we will continue to provide all these resources as usual and help camps prepare for a summer in which the impact of October 7 will surely be felt throughout the entire field.

Central network organizations are always important and even more so during a crisis. The events of October 7 and these months of war have caused a collective trauma for the Jewish people. We are able to help camps meet this critical moment in our history by advocating, organizing, and fundraising on behalf of the entire field.

As a central organization we are providing critical funding, research, and information on trends and hot-button issues, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of community for our camps.

Just as FJC did during the pandemic, we were able to quickly reach out to Jewish day and overnight camps across North America, administer a pulse survey to determine their most urgent needs and connect camp leaders to one another to remind them that they are not alone.

In fact, the very first thing FJC did in response to October 7 was to organize, host, and facilitate a virtual gathering so that our field could be together in their grief and shock. During this hour together they felt heard, held, and cared for. And in the months since then we have continued to gather our professionals to strategize the best path forward as a unified field, share best practices, and support each other.

Right now, the entire North American Jewish community needs spaces where they can heal, process emotions, and have potentially difficult conversations. Jewish camps provide those spaces, and FJC is partnering with them to make sure they have the tools and resources they need. To this end, we are:

  • Bringing nearly 50 camp directors to Israel on educational trips to learn firsthand about the impacts of the war and how to bring what they learn back to their camps.
  • Providing a training series on Israel education at camp and how to manage and navigate difficult conversations with different perspectives among campers and staff.
  • Raising funds for camps to hire Israel educators (Israelis and Americans) to visit camps for one-week sessions or the whole summer who are artists, musicians, etc.
  • Partnering with other organizations such as JAFI and Mosaic United to bring Israeli teens to our camps and ensure that those camps have the mental health and wellness professionals in place to support them.
  • Raising funds to help camps hire more security personnel in light of rising antisemitism.
  • Supporting camps to hire the best staff members possible, both domestically and from Jewish communities around the world.

There are 180,000 “Sashas” who will be at Jewish camp this summer. Many of them are returning campers, but all of them are coming to camp for the first time after October 7th rocked our community to the core. With well-trained staff and skilled educators to facilitate meaningful conversations, camp will provide campers with the Jewish identity, belonging, connection, and community that they always have— and that they need now more than ever. I am truly grateful that Jewish camp exists, and I can’t wait to visit our camps this summer. I know that Sasha and thousands of others will feel safe, seen, and connected, and will experience a summer filled with joy and hope.

Jamie Simon is chief program officer of Foundation for Jewish Camp.

originally published in the Jerusalem Post