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As Camps Get More Professional, Directors Turn to Ceo-like Training

December 27, 2006
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As Jewish camps become more Pellegrino than bug juice, a new fellowship at Brandeis University is aiming to make the Jewish camp director more CEO than glorified counselor. The Foundation for Jewish Camping and Brandeis University will offer a fellowship to train the next generation of directors of nonprofit Jewish camps, the two announced at a Nov. 29 cocktail reception in New York at the Samuel & Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation.

The fellowship, started in honor of camping foundation founders Rob and Elisa Spungen Bildner, will allow one student to pursue a degree in Jewish communal service together with a master’s degree in business. It is believed to be the first program of its kind in the Jewish camping world.

“This is a story about the professionalization of Jewish camping,” said Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis expert in Jewish history who helped design the fellowship. “Whereas once upon a time, people who ran Jewish camps learned how to do it on the job or learned by being the associate director, there is now a sense that camp is a big business. I expect that a generation from now we will look back and say that in our era, Jewish camping came into its own as a distinct profession.”

Several recent studies have shown that overnight camps are the most effective tool for establishing Jewish continuity, as they provide immersion in Jewish settings along with positive social experiences.

In the past 10 to 15 years, however, nonprofit Jewish camps have struggled to keep pace with the growing world of private camps that offer more specialized programming and better amenities, the foundation’s executive director, Jerry Silverman, told JTA.

And while it used to be that families felt allegiances to individual camps — often sending generations of children to them — those ties have eroded, Silverman said.

“As the field has changed, the expectation for Jewish leadership has changed and what is expected of them has changed,” he said. “The market has become much more competitive. It requires a new set of skills.”

Unlike private camps, which typically draw on executives from the hospitality and hotel industry with backgrounds in business, nonprofit Jewish camps tend to take their directors from a pool of social workers, teachers and rabbis, Silverman said.

That may no longer be feasible. A camp director today is expected to be “an educator, a construction expert, a major fund raiser, a financial genius, a health expert — as well as someone who understands the psychological growth of children, teens and the college-aged counselors that work for them,” Silverman said.

Debbie Sussman, director of Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire, said that while private camps can charge steep tuition fees that cover costs and allow them to make capital improvements, Jewish camps tend to cost less and offer thousands of dollars in scholarships.

Yavneh, which is under the umbrella of Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., covered its operating expenses from tuition the past two years, but Sussman had to raise more than $1 million from grants and donors to renovate Yavneh’s sports fields and replace its septic system, she said.

“We come at this with a lot of enthusiasm and love of the job,” she said of Jewish camp directors. “But we don’t have the financial or fund-raising or marketing background.”

According to Silverman, “less than five” of the 135 directors of Jewish camps in North America have master’s degrees in business.

That’s why the camping foundation is pushing to bring the field up to professional speed.

In October, the foundation ran the first of what will be seven seminars for its Executive Leadership Institute. Over 16 months, the institute will provide intense training to 19 camp directors. The curriculum, which took two years to develop, includes marketing, financial management and professional leadership development training at “a CEO level,” according to Silverman.

The Robert and Elisa Spungen Bildner Fellowship at Brandeis will focus on the next generation of Jewish camp directors. The student selected as the first fellow will take classes at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and at Hornstein: The Jewish Professional Leadership Program @ Brandeis.

The program also will include a Jewish camping component that revolves around the history of Jewish camping and a study of the literature on Jewish camping, much of which was written by Brandeis professors, according to Sarna.

The emphasis on training better camp leaders is not cheap. The camping foundation’s Executive Leadership Institute cost more than $1 million to develop, and the Bildner fellowship was funded by the foundation’s board of directors at a cost of more than $125,000, according to Silverman.

It’s an investment the Bildners were honored to have made in their name.

“From the very beginning, when we started the foundation, the idea was to help the professional leadership in Jewish camping, from the directors to the senior counselors to the staff,” Elisa Spungen Bildner said. “We wanted to improve the accessibility of the Jewish camp. So the idea to have a graduate program in Jewish camps was something we had hoped for.”

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