Reform, Conservative camp systems get grant to grow specialty staff training

Reform, Conservative camp systems get grant to grow specialty staff training

In their first-ever programmatic partnership, the Conservative movement’s National Ramah Commission and the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camping Movement will be engaging in a joint initiative to develop training opportunities for specialty staff prior to the 2012 summer camp season.

The AVI CHAI Foundation has given the two camping movements a shared grant of $144,000 to fund a series of training programs, called “Kivun,” designed to bring together camp specialists for professional development, and the building of a network of specialty staff.

The objective of Kivun is to enhance the skills of staff in their specialty areas as well as in the integration of Jewish content and knowledge into their programs.

“While we have always had a long and deep personal and professional friendship with our colleagues at Ramah, this is our first joint project,” said Paul Reichenbach, director of URJ Camping and Israel Programs.

Four sets of retreats are planned to prepare specialty staff for the upcoming summer; two will be hosted at URJ camps, and two will be hosted by Ramah, Reichenbach said.

The training retreats will focus on adventure and nature, sports, music, and visual and performing arts. In addition, there will be specialty training for staff members working in the camps’ special needs programs, and in organic gardening.

Each of the URJ’s 13 camps, and Ramah’s eight camps, can send up to two staff members to each program.

Reichenbach sees the initiative as a chance for camping staff to learn how to integrate Jewish concepts into the various specialty activities, while sharing ideas and making connections with those working in the other movement’s camps.

“Not only will this program give the opportunity for college students, and kids a little older, to have training opportunities, but it also gets kids in the two movements together to share information and best practices,” he said. “It’s about developing connections and relationships and sharing successes. It creates a wonderful community of young people who are passionate about the same stuff.”

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, sees the training as an opportunity to enrich both the quality of the specialties as well as Jewish content.

“The staff will learn how to teach the specialties better in Jewish camps, so that people don’t feel that those areas are compromised by sending their kids to intensive Jewish camps,” Cohen said. “They will also figure out ways to maximize integrating Jewish education.”

Because of ideological differences between the movements, a few logistics had to be resolved, Cohen said. For example, kosher food will have to be brought in for Ramah staff while training at a nonkosher URJ facility, and compromises may have to be made when the staff gets together for weekday morning services.

Cohen does not anticipate any of these issues to be a problem.

“We will learn from each other,” Cohen said. “I find that, in general, in the camping world, we tend to work better together than in other areas of Jewish life.”

Once the program is past its pilot phase, Ramah and URJ will seek to increase the number of specialty areas involved in the training program and will explore opportunities to involve additional camping movements.

Cohen hopes that through initiatives such as Kivun, the quality of Jewish camping will improve, and that more families will choose a Jewish camp for their children.

The influence of summer camp on the ways in which adult Jews choose to engage with the community is striking, according to a study published by the Foundation for Jewish Camp in 2011. Adults who attended a Jewish camp in their youth are 30 percent more likely to donate to a Jewish charity, 37 percent more likely to light Shabbat candles, 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue monthly or more, and 55 percent more likely to be very emotionally attached to Israel than adults who did not attend a Jewish camp.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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