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Focus on Issues: Business World Lures Young Jews Away from Work at Jewish Camps

Jonathan Cohen, director of the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Mississippi is desperate to find enough counselors.

So he sent letters to everyone who had ever attended the Reform movement sleep- away camp, called people “over and over again” and offered $75 signing bonuses.

Jerry Kaye, director of the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Wisconsin, another Reform camp, is offering his counselors career planning sessions with a corporate recruiter and awarding $1,000 scholarships to those who return for a third year of work.

Steve Mintz, of Herzl Camp, an independent Jewish camp in Wisconsin, offered signing bonuses and “made a lot of plaintive phone calls.”

As American Jewish camps prepare to open for the summer, they face soaring enrollment rates and are earning growing recognition for their effectiveness in fostering Jewish commitment.

But they are having trouble filling their bunks with Jewish counselors.

“This has been the hardest year ever” for finding staff, said Rabbi Ramie Arian, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping.

“There are openings at many camps still,” he said in early June, although he noted that he knew of no camp so understaffed that it could not open its doors.

The foundation, founded in 1998, has awarded $200,000 to Jewish camps to help alleviate the problem.

The counselor shortage is not unique to Jewish camps, and the executive director of the 2,500-member American Camping Association, reports that “everyone’s having a hard time.”

But finding Jewish counselors — which most Jewish camps want, in order to create a Jewish climate with Jewish role models — can be particularly difficult, especially at a time when the entire field of Jewish communal work is struggling to find staff.

For the most part, camp directors blame the strong economy in which other traditional employers of college students, like Disney World and fast food chains, are also struggling.

But the highly competitive, career-minded ethos of today’s American Jewish college students is also hurting camps.

“It seems like the counselors who used to come back for a second and third year and then became senior counselors, they’re taking internships and feeling pressured to move on with their lives,” Mintz said.

Hilary Buff, executive director of Camp Solomon Schechter, a Conservative- affiliated camp in the state of Washington, agreed.

“The priority for a lot of kids in college is a reputation-based job, a job that will get them connections,” she said, noting that with fewer counselors returning for third and fourth years, she has had to make do with a younger staff.

Take Les Skolnik, who just finished his sophomore year at the University of Maryland. Skolnik has worked at camp before and is chairman of his campus Hillel’s student leadership council: In short, he’s the counselor every Jewish camp wants.

But this summer he’ll be making $9 to $12 an hour interning for an online investment firm in New York.

Skolnik thought about going back to camp this summer, but his parents were pressuring him to make more money and he wanted to “start having different experiences to help make my decision for post-college plans,” he explained in an e-mail interview.

“Jewish camps should make salaries more competitive,” he said, adding that “enormous financial strain” prevents many from even considering camp jobs.

Camps pay from several hundred dollars to $3,000 for the summer, depending on experience, and the work at sleep-away camps is round-the-clock. Many college students also have financial aid packages that require them to earn more over the summer than camps pay.

Those who work at camps say that pay is not a deciding factor.

“It is well-known that we are not working at these places for the money, only because we love what we do,” said Helayne Hashmall, who just completed her freshman year at the University of Maryland and is returning as a counselor to the Reform movement’s Kutz Camp in New York.

Hashmall sees the camp experience as helping her professional aspirations of becoming a rabbi.

“We’ll have to increase salaries across the board,” predicted Cohen. “Although money’s not the only issue, there have been numerous conversations where people say, `I could go to camp and make this kind of money or go to a Web design company and earn thousands of dollars.'”

But because most Jewish camps are nonprofits on tight budgets and struggling to keep costs down, raising salaries can be daunting.

“To make a real difference, you would have to raise salaries by at least $1,000 per counselor,” said Arian, adding that such across-the-board changes would dramatically affect a camp’s budget.

“In the long run, there’s no choice, but where the money will come from, I don’t know,” he said.

Not all camps are struggling to recruit. Brian Greene, director of the Conservative Camp Ramah in California, said he had most of his positions filled by April. He attributes his success to an extensive training program and a loyal cadre of former campers.

“The best camps are able to produce their own counselors from within,” he said.

For now, camp directors in search of counselors are relying mainly on bonuses, career counseling and increased recruitment. In addition, they are starting to agree to one condition that was once taboo: allowing counselors to work for only part of the summer.

They are also hiring more non-Jewish counselors — from the United States and abroad — particularly for specialist positions like art teachers and athletic directors.

However, said Arian, “the sacrifice you make when you don’t find a Jewish baseball coach is you lose the opportunity for the baseball field to be a place where Jewish lessons happen. If you don’t have someone with a Jewish background to make that real, you’ve surrendered that piece of camp’s power.”

Many camps are turning to Israelis to solve the problem. Even though Israeli counselors earn less than their American counterparts, camp dollars go further in Israel than in the United States. Also, post-army Israelis are often eager to jump at a free trip to the United States.

The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Summer Shlichut program has doubled its placements in three years. The program, which recruits and trains young Israelis to work as counselors and specialists in Jewish camps, placed 480 people in 1997 and is placing almost 900 this summer, according to Melanie Rosencranz, the program’s U.S. coordinator.

“Camp directors used to say Israeli counselors are so expensive to bring over,” said Rosencranz, but she said those complaints have stopped.

In addition to looking overseas, there is a lot of talk about marketing the camp job as a career-enhancing experience. A few camps are offering on-site classes for which counselors can get college credit, and some are looking into connecting staff with camp alumni in careers the counselors are interested in pursuing.

“Interning at Goldman Sachs looks better on your resume,” said Arian, but “whereas your job at Goldman Sachs is probably a glorified file clerk,” counselors have a lot of responsibilities and learn management and organizational skills useful in the corporate world.

“We have to sell it to parents and prospective future employers,” he said.

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