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When I was a little girl, I loved “Camp Shabbat” at my temple. I loved seeing my camp director during the off-season. I loved watching the promotional video and wearing my camp t-shirt. For one night, it felt like a tiny bit of glorious summer had crept into the rest of the year. I loved Camp Shabbat because I already loved camp, but all the magical elements of Jewish camp that make it life changing – the lifelong friendships, cool counselors who make their campers feel cool as well, living in “Jewish time” – cannot be replicated during a Friday night Camp Shabbat program.
When our congregation, Temple Shalom of Newton, began a five-year overhaul of youth engagement strategies, our general strategy prioritized creating a common understanding of the trajectory of Jewish life from preschool through high school so that our children and families could look ahead with excitement. Similarly, with camp recruitment, we wanted families to start thinking about their child attending Jewish camp starting as young as kindergarten. We wanted the language of Jewish overnight camp to become part of our community’s vernacular. We wanted our children to have an understanding of how it felt to be in a close-knit cabin group, to have cool counselors to look up to, and to feel part of something special and separate; so that when the idea of Jewish overnight camp came up it was a concept that didn’t feel foreign. We wanted to try and actually bring the brilliance of Jewish overnight camp into the school year. And so, in the fall of 2015, “Taste of Camp” – a weekly experience for children in grades K-5 that takes place immediately following our Sunday morning Jewish education program, was born.
Children registered for Taste of Camp stay at temple for an extra 90 minutes for lunch and fun activities with their “counselors” and “bunkmates.” We designed the program with three components that we believe are keys to success: 1) Ease of use 2) Quality staff, and 3) Meaningful relationships.
Taste of Camp happens every Sunday after SHACHARIT (religious school). Parents don’t need to keep track of specific dates or change pick-up plans week to week. Taste of Campers complete a one-time online registration and can then come any week or every week. Parents don’t need to let us know if their child is sick or their family is out of town. We have a flexible program to accommodate the kids who come and we have a firm “no guilt” policy if you can’t be there. There is a cost for Taste of Camp, but we have scholarship monies available, as well as prorated fees for mid-year registration and a 25% sibling discount.
We hire our Taste of Camp counselors from among our congregational teens, many of whom are dedicated to Jewish overnight camp themselves. Counselors are encouraged to be silly and creative and to develop new traditions specific to Taste of Camp. Weekly activities are straightforward and simple, allowing our staff to truly focus on their campers. Counselors spend lunchtime asking campers about their week and hearing about school, friends and life at home. Campers are eager to talk about what they learned that morning in SHACHARIT. During activities, counselors are cheerleaders; celebrating even the smallest of achievements. This model has fostered strong connections between some of our youngest congregants and our oldest teen participants. Our staff have also fostered friendships between campers of different grades to further enlarge and strengthen the community. Taste of Camp counselors are the heart and soul of the program and they set the tone for the whole environment.
One of the key factors in encouraging children to attend Jewish overnight camp is having a Jewish professional suggest that they go. At Taste of Camp, there are three youth engagement professionals in attendance every week. Throughout the year, we are able to talk with parents about their child as an individual and discuss what kind of Jewish overnight camp experience might be the best fit for them. As friendships grow at Taste of Camp, we suggest to parents that their children try camp together with the future campers already having a shared “camp” experience. Our knowledge of each camper’s strengths, needs, talents, and social group means that we can reliably offer a tailor-made camp plan to each family. We also know that any one camp is not the right place for every camper and for some kids taking the plunge into overnight camping might not be the best decision. Because we know the campers, we are able to help parents make the best choices for their children at their pace and possibly avoid a traumatic experience resulting from too much exposure too soon.
Similar to Jewish overnight camp, Taste of Camp has a consistent schedule and a fun, relaxed atmosphere. We incorporate HaMotzi, Birkat HaMazon and Jewish learning in activities. We have song session with Jewish music, and also do arts and crafts projects, sports, drama, science, and cooking. We enjoy silly birthday celebrations and sometimes even manage to “write” – or text – letters home. Many of the older campers help the younger ones clear the table, pour water, or set up program supplies. That leadership and willingness is not only helpful, but also contributes to their sense of self and gives our counselors a chance to praise and encourage them. Early feedback from parents and campers is proving that Taste of Camp is a huge success. With steady rates of 90 percent attendance each week, we introduced the first of three Saturday night Taste of Camp After Dark programs in December, 2015 – a brand new program that includes Havdalah around an electric campfire. Thanks to the URJ Service Corps program, we have been able to offer it to all campers for free, and registration is filling up fast.
Our youth engagement model changed the way we approach camp recruitment and junior youth group; offering social opportunities for elementary aged students, as well as job positions and leadership training for our high school counselors. By catering to the needs of our youth, we managed to authentically recreated a camp-like environment in our building every Sunday morning. And, who knows, now that our kids got a little taste of camp – perhaps we’ll also rock our TOC t-shirts on an upcoming Shabbat.
Ellie Klein Goldman is the Director of youth engagement at Temple Shalom of Newton, MA. In her work with 7-12 graders, Ellie works to create a vibrant and comprehensive Jewish experience for every young person and takes her role as community builder seriously. She began her career in Jewish youth work as the Regional Director of NFTY Michigan and then went on to complete the Double Master’s program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the University of Southern California in Jewish Communal Service and Social Work. Ellie’s previous congregational experience was at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, CA and Temple Sinai in Denver, CO.