Lessons from Camp Newman About Your Congregation’s “Why”

Inside Leadership

Lessons from Camp Newman About Your Congregation’s “Why”

Two smiling tween girls with I LOVE CAMP written on their cheeks in face paint

If you’ve met me, you know I’m a big fan of the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) camping system. I served on the board of URJ Camp Newman for six years before joining the URJ staff, and my husband still serves in that capacity. My daughter attended camp for seven years and my son stayed through college, ultimately serving as a rosh eidah (unit head).

I follow news from URJ Camp Newman, which recently shared this article that was a powerful demonstration of “Start with Why” – a concept inspired by the work of Simon Sinek that I’ve been teaching (and preaching) about to anyone who would listen for the past two years.

As I mentioned in a previous piece on this topic, congregations’ mission statements have traditionally articulated their why, or their purpose as “to serve the local Jewish community,” or “to provide programming.” For example: “We are a Reform Jewish congregation providing inspiring worship, enriching education, and welcoming communal opportunities in the Springfield Valley for individuals and families who wish to connect more deeply to their Jewish heritage and to Israel.” In today’s world, though, that mission simply isn’t enough to make synagogue membership compelling.

Imagine if a camp had a mission statement that, like a traditional congregational mission statement, described the business the camp was in: “We provide a fun Reform Jewish residential camping experience for children and teens in California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, and New Mexico.” If I was looking to park my kids somewhere for the summer, I’d consider this camp – as well as other options that offer different residential camping experiences.

By contrast, from the news article noted above, here’s what I know about the mission of URJ Camp Newman and how the staff fulfills it:

Newman’s Why: Our mission is to inspire campers and staff to take camp home and apply their Jewish learning to their daily lives, ultimately bettering themselves, their communities, and the world.

Newman’s How: We fulfill this mission by creating a spiritual oasis that bestows on campers and staff enhanced self-esteem, a more positive Jewish identity, a greater knowledge of Judaism, and lifelong friendships. We create an enriching, enjoyable community of living Judaism for all ages, all seasons, and all of life.

Now that’s something I can get excited about. What’s more, it’s something I imagine occupies the minds and souls of every counselor, counselor-in-training, rosh eidah (unit head), and senior camp staff member all summer long. In addition to the basic necessities of a Reform Jewish residential camping experience – clean cabins, great activities, healthy food, daily t’filah (prayer), and, of course, a song leader or two – the camp’s “why” adds the need to create experiences that children and teens bring home that help make them and the world the best it can possibly be.

This contrast with a classic mission statement effectively illustrates what is missing for many of our congregations as they think about their ultimate purpose: the clear statement of why we need this business of worship, education, and communal Reform Jewish experience. As Rabbi Rachel Timoner stated so clearly at the URJ Biennial during her presentation on a “Start with Why” panel with Rabbi Stacy Friedman and me, “I wish that the ‘why’ for people was simply to study Torah and pray to God in community. But for most people today, that is not enough.”

As Camp Newman did, we must articulate something deeper and more connected to our bodies, our minds, our souls, and ultimately to what being a part of the greater Reform Jewish community really can do for us. Then, we must act to make it a reality in the life of our congregations.

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Amy Asin is the URJ’s Vice President and Director of Strengthening Congregations. She is a past president of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA, and a former board member of URJ Camp Newman. Asin holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and spent 15 years consulting to Fortune 500 businesses with Booz, Allen & Hamilton.

Amy Asin

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