A-camping they did go
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A-camping they did go

Jersey Y surmounts a summer of challenges to bring back the joy

Campers at Nah-Jee-Wah, the Jersey Y camp for kids up to sixth grade, win awards at book of records day.
Campers at Nah-Jee-Wah, the Jersey Y camp for kids up to sixth grade, win awards at book of records day.

To say that this was a challenging summer for camp directors, camp staffers, and campers is ludicrously to understate.

It was extraordinarily hard to pull off a summer that sent campers home with the joy that accompanies most of them back to real life, along with the burning desire to go back to camp just as soon as possible.

The Jersey Y camps managed that feat.

Cedar Lake gathers for a camp-wide lip-sync competition.

“This has been an enormously successful and I would say satisfying experience for the agency, for the staff, and for me personally,” Michael Schlank, the CEO of the Jersey Y camps, said.

All the summer camps in the country — most likely in the world; we have no idea how to prove such a sweeping statement, but it surely feels true – have had to deal with the pandemic, which as we all know still is hanging on, the legacy of the lost or curtailed and deeply weird summer of 2020, and the emotional, physical, and financial scars that is that summer’s legacy.

Mr. Schlank also had the additional challenges posed by this being his first summer at the Jersey Y Camps – he’s a lifelong camper and was a camp administrator, but elsewhere — and because the camps were recovering from a sexual abuse scandal that was over but not forgotten.

The issues that most concerned Mr. Schlank as the summer began, however, did not involve years-old history. “It was eye-opening to see the challenges that many children showed up to camp with,” he said. “They were specifically because of covid, and the social isolation, and the year away.”

Doron Krakow of the JCC Association, center, visits a day camp in Princeton.

The Jersey Y Camp system is huge; it’s mainly two massive chunks of land in Pennsylvania, which are divided into five camps, along with some other programs elsewhere, and it houses thousands of kids every summer. 

Each camp director had his or her own challenges, as the head of an organization of mainly young people.

“The individual camp directors all had to make meaningful connections with the campers and the staff; the staff use the directors as role models, as they should,” Mr. Schlenk said. “I think that this summer, some of the connections were even deeper and meant even a little more. We had staff members who posted on their Linked In profiles or wrote notes to us about how important this summer was to them, how much they grew as people. And the parents! Their anxiety levels were so high. So many of them reached out to the camp directors, many more than usual. It was very moving.

Cedar Lake and Teen Camp compete in rock wars.

“From an agency standpoint, it has been a pivotal year,” he continued. “Our early bird enrollment is a good indication.” The early bird program allows parents the opportunity to sign up for next summer early; it ended on August 31. It always registers many campers, but this year the numbers were way up from the normal high base. “It shows us that not only was this summer meaningful, but people had good feelings about going forward with us.”

Camp is never about just one person, Mr. Schlank said. It’s always about the community. “This is not the endeavor of a single individual,” he said. “It’s not about the CEO or the directors. From Day One, it’s about teamwork. If you would see all the work that goes into a successful summer. And this summer, with all of the great work that went into ensuring the health and the safety of the children, and also the financial health of the agency throughout the pandemic — it took all of us.

“One of the really nice things is that the community at large put a lot of faith in the new leadership, in the board, and in me, supporting us financially, helping us get to the other side,” he continued. “At the beginning, who knew what the world would look like? We knew that we would open — we said that we would — and we did it!”

Usually, the Jersey Y camps recruit staff from around the world. This year that wasn’t possible. “We had only American and Israeli campers and staff,” Mr. Schlank said. “We did have some wonderful support staff from Mexico, but no one else could come. We had hundreds of Israeli campers, although that was fewer than normal — it was a difficult process to get them here — but we were able to have a critical mass of Israelis and Americans getting through a difficult summer together.

Cedar Lake boys display an award.

“But the focus, as we look back on it, is not the difficulties we faced but the successes we had.”

One of the lessons the camps learned is one that they’d already known, but it always can be reinforced. That’s the vital importance of community. 

“Eighteen months ago, the safest thing we could do was hide, but now we know that we have to live,” Mr. Schlank said. “We have to get together safely. It’s not as easy as it used to be, but we realized how important it is. At camp, we saw it.

“The idea of Zoom taking over the world, of it being the glue that holds us together – that’s just not true. What we learned from the summer is that being together, in community, might not be easy, but it is so very important. We have to figure out, as a community, how to bring the community together physically, and how to maintain that. 

Cedar Lake girls pause as they play basketball.

“Our community needs it. We all need it.”

Mr. Schlank praised the Jersey Y camps’ board, and its board president, Stephen Seiden of Livingston, for its great support. He also thanked two institutions and their leaders, both of whom live locally, for their help — that’s Doron Krakow of the JCC Association of North America and Jeremy Fingerman of the Federation for Jewish Camp.

Mr. Krakow, who lives in Tenafly, explained the often-confusing-to-the-uninitiated history and structure of the New Jersey Y Camps.

The camps have “a number of sites but they are one entity,” he said. “It is the largest of the 23 overnight camps that are part of the JCC movement; it is the largest network or system of Jewish overnight camps in North America.”

Michael Schlank

The camps “historically were owned by the collective JCCs” and before them YM-YWHAs that dotted New Jersey. “None of the JCCs or Ys would have been able to support a camp on their own,” so they did it together. Eventually, after quite a few decades, the camps became independent of the institutions that had formed them, but they remained part of the JCC movement, as a member agency of the JCC Association. The Jersey Y camps “recruit from across the Northeast, and really from across North America,” Mr. Krakow continued. “So it’s both a partner and an alternative for JCC communities across the Northeast and a peer of other camp systems, like Young Judaea or Ramah or the URJ camps, as well as a variety of other independent, private or nonprofit camps. But it is the biggest, and it has a uniquely important place in the landscape of Jewish life.”

He’s impressed with Mr. Schlank’s work. “Michael has been both a remarkable steward of longstanding tradition and a visionary leader for the next chapter in the camp’s history,” he said. “He came from outside the JCC professional world and very quickly made his mark as an important player in the field. He’s already put his imprint on the business of the camp, and on the agency’s relationship with the wider JCC world. Everywhere that he’s focused his attention, we have seen renewed energy and new opportunities.”

Although the pandemic has been awful, “in an unexpected way it amplified the break with the past,” Mr. Krakow said, by creating an unbridgeable empty-summer gap between what had been and what is. “You had a new board that came together, a new senior executive dealing with some combination of longstanding and newer members of the staff, and you had to provide confidence-building measures with longstanding camp families and with prospective camp families.” 

Firefighters visit Cedar Lake on a hot day

Like Mr. Schlank, Mr. Krakow talked about the emotional difficulties this summer presented. “Like all other overnight camps, it was hard to find staff, and the staff were a year behind in their maturation, because they didn’t have the experience of camp last summer. There were heightened levels of anxiety in the campers and staff and camp parents and families, and all of that required the people who operated the camps to stretch in ways they hadn’t anticipated. And it allowed them to operate well above everybody’s expectations.

“It is therefore all the more remarkable that the largest camp in the field, under the leadership of a brand-new CEO, should have had such a powerful and impactful renewal this year.

“The camp community needed this success this year,” he continued. “Because of the Jersey Y camps’ size and their prominence, their success was important to everyone in the North American Jewish community. We all have a vested interest in the success of the largest Jewish overnight camp, and therefore we all take extraordinary satisfaction in the huge success that was delivered this year.”

Jeremy Fingerman of Fort Lee is the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

Teen Camp Campers relax during rest hour.

“This really was a camp season like no other,” he said. “On the surface, it was a magnificent, joyous Jewish summer of homecoming and renewal. And below the surface, everyone was paddling so hard just to stay above water.

“They were working so hard to make sure that everyone stayed healthy and safe. Camps operated very differently this summer. There were a lot of covid-related protocols and other interventions, and they worked. The camps created a much-needed oasis, a safe and joyful environment.”

He talked more about that frantic, hidden paddling. “Underneath the surface, the need to take care of the campers and counselors and professionals’ social and emotional health really came to the fore.

“We have known for some time that people have been challenged. It’s been a growing concern over the mental health of the younger generation. We’ve seen it for some time in teens and college age students — concern about anxiety and depression — and it was exacerbated by covid.

Doron Krakow, CEO of the JCC Assocation, is at a day camp in Princeton.

“This summer, for so many of them, was the first time they were coming together. And we also were hearing from campers’ parents – we were able to give them the much-needed relief of being able to send their kids away to camp, but they, the parents, are suffering too, with the trauma of covid.

“We have felt a need to address the growing mental, emotional, and even spiritual challenges that the generation is feeling, and that made the summer even more challenging for camp directors and staff.

“It has taken its toll on the professionals, who worked unbelievably above and beyond to get the camps ready, to give campers a joyous summer experience. This has been their work for the last almost two years; when it was clear that camps couldn’t be open last summer, they faced the challenges first of fundraising and then of recruiting staff. And they were short-staffed this summer.”

Like Mr. Schlank and Mr. Krakow, Mr. Fingerman talked about how hard it was to recruit staff, and how good it was to be able to have Israelis at camp, both as campers and as counselors. 

DJ Raphi performs for everyone, from all the Jersey Y camps, under the camps’ dome.

“The professionals are exhausted from both the physical and the mental stress, but they have such a real sense of pride in their achievements.

“We also should recognize that many of the camps had either their boards or their medical committees of volunteer doctors who stepped up, offering advice and counsel. That certainly was true at the New Jersey Y camps.”

Now, Mr. Fingerman said, one upcoming concern will be “the affordability of camp for those who may be suffering from economic challenges. I believe that it is really going to be a growing concern among camps; they’ll want to provide scholarships.

“Both the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest have been significant leaders in supporting the camps, both with grants for first-time campers, with the One Happy Camper program, and with scholarships. For the first time, they are running a joint Tour de Summer Camp,” a fundraising bike ride from camp to camp. “There’s a great spirit of collaboration and cooperation; we see it with camps, and also among the federations.”

Both local federations have been leaders in providing emergency money to the Jersey Y camps. “There’s a lot of credit that goes to Steve Seiden and the New Jersey Y board of directors,” Mr. Fingerman said. “And to the federations. Both Northern New Jersey and MetroWest gave emergency grants or loans.”

And Michael Schlank has had the courage to make hard but necessary decisions, Mr. Fingerman added. He closed one program, Shoshanim, for Orthodox girls. “Michael wound up deciding that the program was not viable financially, and they ended up leasing that site to another nonfit Jewish camp,” Mr. Fingerman said. “I am very happy that it worked out that way. It was an example of making a tough call to consolidate, and to be able to overdeliver in terms of recovering from the financial challenge.”

Now, the Jersey Y camps, like other summer programs in the Jewish nonprofit world – and for that matter like all summer programs, period — is focusing on next summer. No one knows what it’ll be like yet, but it seems certain that the experiences of this summer, including both the hard work and the joy, the visible surface-level ease and the below-the-surface mad paddling, will help make next summer even better.

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