From Campbell to Camp – a 30-year journey

From Campbell to Camp – a 30-year journey

Former soup exec from Englewood focuses on Jewish camps

Courtesy The Foundation for Jewish Camp

Homesickness and daddy longlegs and best friends forever.

Wet bathing suits drying on lines, bunk beds, bad food.

Those are staples of summer camp across North America.

Camp is an intense, often formative experience, offering total immersion in a separate, intact, idiosyncratic little world, with its own rituals and code words, a sort of Brigadoon with bug-juice. Campers often come away with lifelong friendships, memories, and even worldviews.

Jewish summer camp takes those elements and adds to them.

Think a camp full of kids in white at twilight on Friday night. Think Havdalah on the lakefront. Think Israeli counselors. Think Israeli dancing. Think sitting outside in the dark, listening to the sounds of the night overlaid with the haunting melody of Eichah, Lamentations, on Tishah B’av.

Think of campers living Jewish lives – no matter how you define it, because each camp defines it slightly differently – all day, every day, for weeks at a time.

Jeremy Fingerman visits his children, Esther and Zalman, at Camp Yavneh earlier this year.

Camp is a prime way to ensure that Jewish kids grow up with vibrant Jewish identities.

This has been a strong assumption, based on anecdotal evidence and gut belief, for some time; more recently research, most approachably “Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp,” spearheaded by Dr. Steven M. Cohen, has born out the assumption. (To read the report, just Google camp works cohen.)

The Foundation for Jewish Camp is a nonprofit organization that aids nonprofit Jewish camps, providing them with grants, ideas, support, advocacy, insight, training, and all sorts of other tangible and intangible help. It is all part of its mission to increase the number of Jewish campers and strengthen Jewish camps, thus increasing and strengthening Jewish life in North America.

The foundation is an umbrella organization, more or less on the federation model. Its member camps pay nothing. It defines as Jewish those camps that are nonprofit, have a Jewish educational mission, demarcate Shabbat in some way as being different from the rest of the week, even if it is not celebrated conventionally, and includes love of Israel, no matter how that love is defined, as part of its core mission.

Jeremy Fingerman, who lives in Englewood and is a vice president at Congregation Ahavath Torah there, is the foundation’s third CEO. He has held the job since 2010.

He brings to the task a lifelong commitment to the Jewish community, a two-generational dedication to Jewish camping, and decades of experience in the business world.

Fingerman, 52, grew up in Cincinnati. His parents went to Jewish camps in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and they sent their four children to Jewish camp.

“The first Jewish camps are 111 years old now,” he said. “That’s Surprise Lake in New York” – which made a cameo appearance in the 1953 biopic “The Eddie Cantor Story” – “and the Tamarack camps out of Detroit. They were the first nonprofit Jewish camps.”

His father, like many Jewish kids of his generation – and many others, Jewish and non-Jewish who followed – “were to get kids who were living in the city out of the city, to give them an experience outdoors.

“I went to Ramah in Wisconsin, and it had a transformative effect on me and on my own Jewish journey,” Fingerman said. “It gave me an experience of positive, joyful Jewish engagement and observance.”

Fingerman came east to go to college at Columbia, where his best friend, it turned out, had gone to Ramah in California. He went back to Cincinnati to work for a few years, and then enrolled in business school at Harvard; he is now celebrating the 25th anniversary of his graduation from that school.

Fingerman went to work in the branding and marketing division of General Mills, in Minneapolis.

The camp connections that have marked his life manifested themselves then. “When I moved to Minneapolis, my mom knew that her camp counselor, about 55 years earlier, had gotten married and moved there. So basically she had me call her and introduce myself. It was a wonderful connection.

“She was a role model for my mother, and then she ended up taking care of her son! And she was a very prominent leader in the Jewish community in Minneapolis.”

Soon Campbell Soup recruited Fingerman for a job based in Camden, so he and his wife, Gail Solomon – who had been at the Milwaukee JCC’s Camp Interlocken, just 10 miles from Ramah, exactly when her husband-to-be was there – moved to Philadelphia.

Fingerman spent 12 years working for Campbell Soup. Four of those years were in Australia; by the end of his stint at the firm, he was president of the United States soup division, the company’s largest.

“When I was at Campbell, we introduced the first OU-certified kosher soup,” he said, parenthetically but with pride. “It was a vegetarian vegetable soup. It was a very complicated process, but we worked with the Orthodox Union, and with Rabbi Genack.” (Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood is the president of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division.)

In 2003, Fingerman was recruited to be CEO of Manischewitz, which was based in Secaucus; in 2005, he and his family moved to Englewood for that job. In 2008, Manischewitz was sold to a hedge fund; the process was a success, but its completion left Fingerman without a job and with the luxury of waiting until he found the perfect fit.

That was the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

“I was looking around at other food and beverage companies, and then I got a call about the foundation,” Fingerman said. “I honestly hadn’t been looking in this area, but I had a flood of memories back to my own camp experience.

“I called my wife, and she had the same kind of reaction, and she said, ‘Hey, we should consider it.’ So we started looking at it, kicking the tires, looking at the website.

“The more I learned, the more interested I got in the job, and in the field. In the work.”

As it turned out, Fingerman’s call came through a camp connection. “The board had been looking for someone with corporate branding and marketing strategy background,” he said. “A friend of a friend – someone I met through my best friend from college, the one who had gone to Ramah in California – gave my name to the recruiter.

“I buy that guy a l’chayim every time I see him.”

Fingerman feels that the foundation is emblematic of the way the Jewish world should be. “This is big-tent Judaism,” he said. “It is a great example of everyone being able to fit under the tent.

“Jewish camping is a vital and important vehicle for transmitting a powerful, joyful Jewish experience,” Fingerman continued. The span of FJC’s membership is vast, ranging “from Hashomer Hazair and Habonim Dror – Labor Zionist camps – and Young Judea and then the Reform movement’s camps, and the Conservative movement’s Ramah camps, and then Moshava and B’nai Akivah, which are Orthodox camps, and even three camps from Agudath Israel, and some Chabad camps.”

The research whose results are reported in “Camp Works” – 26 population studies from across North America, which measured adult Jewish engagement on two otherwise similar groups, one of people who had gone to camp, the other of non-campers – shows “that on every measure” – there were 26 of them – “there was a material positive impact on adult Jewish engagement,” Fingerman said.

“When we look at the cohort across North America, there probably are about 750,000 Jewish kids who are of camp age.

“Approximately 10 percent of them go to Jewish camp now.

“As you dig into it, you realize that there is a big part of the population for whom Jewish camp is unaffordable, and you also have a large swath of the population going to high-end private camps.” Those camps’ campers may be almost entirely Jewish, but those camps still do not count as Jewish.

“Our goal is very simple,” Fingerman said. “It is to get more kids to camp. We know that it is a very powerful vehicle for transmitting Jewish identity and building community. Our goal is to get more kids to experience it.”

The foundation “connects the field,” he said. It advocates in the political arena – “in the last couple of weeks we were very involved in the immigration bill before the Senate,” Fingerman said. “The J1 visas allow camps to bring summer sh’lichim” -emissaries – “from other countries, including Israel. It is important for the camps in terms of cultural enrichment; there are more than 1,200 sh’lichim from Israel in the camps this summer.

“We worked with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, and the Jewish Federation of North America’s Washington Office, as well as with the American Camping Association, to get an amendment to the bill to protect the J1 visa. That was included in the bill that the Senate passed.”

The foundation gives some scholarships directly; it also runs a program it calls One Happy Camper, which gives partial, non-need-based scholarships to brand-new campers whose communities participate. The program is an incentive that is meant to push families teetering on the brink of Jewish camping over the edge and right into camp.

The foundation also seeds new camps; so far its camp incubator has created five new ones, funded by the Jim Josephs Foundation, that opened in the summer of 2010. Now, another grant, from Jim Josephs and Avi Chai, will fund another four camps. The foundation has far more proposals than it can fund; “this entrepreneurial spirit bodes well for the world of Jewish camp,” Fingerman said.

Jeremy and Gail Fingerman have two children; Zalman, 14, and Esther, who is just turning 12. “They go to Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire,” their father said. “This is their fourth summer, and I would like to report that they are both happy campers.”

The Foundation for Jewish Camp was created 13 years ago by Robert and Elisa Spungen Bildner of Montclair. Their inspiration came directly from another highly targeted Jewish organization, the Wexner Heritage Foundation. In the early 1990s, they were both Wexner fellows – identified as up-and-coming Jewish leaders, they were treated to an intensive program that deepened their Jewish knowledge as it fine-tuned their leadership skills.

“We listened carefully to the panorama of the Jewish world that had been created in our Wexner group, and it became obvious to us that no one was touting Jewish camp,” Elisa Bildner said. “People were speaking up about day schools, synagogues, Hebrew schools, but camps were forgotten. Not because they weren’t effective, we thought, but because they weren’t seen.

“Camps are at the end of long country roads. People generally don’t see them, and they don’t think of them that much. When they do think of them, they think that they’re just fun.

“And yes, Jewish camps are fun, but they are much more than that. They impart a love of Jewish life because they are an immersion experience. They are about learning par excellence.”

Both Robert and Elisa Bildner think that Fingerman, building on the work of his predecessor, Jerry Silverman, who now is CEO of the Jewish Federation of North America, is bringing a professional, entrepreneurial approach to the foundation.

“We believe that running a nonprofit requires many of the same skills required to run a company,” Robert Bildner said. “Elisa and I are both lawyers, with professional backgrounds, as well as a lot of experience in the nonprofit world. We believe that the foundation is a startup, similar to a startup in the private sector. It requires an entrepreneur to grow it and sustain it.

“The camp world itself is very entrepreneurial.”

“We are working with nonprofit camps, but helping them run a business,” Elisa Bildner added. “We are selling a product – we are selling camps. I am not equating camps with soup, but still it is a product, and we want to sell it in the best way possible.”

Because the for-profit world from which Fingerman comes operates on data, “Jeremy understands the value of research and data as a way to develop products,” she said. “He made it his absolute priority.”

Fingerman has to raise funds for the foundation. “Our name can be confusing,” Robert Bildner said. “We are a nonprofit. We do not have an endowment. Our CEO has to raise money for the foundation to continue to exist. Fundraising is clearly one of the most important aspects of his job. He spends a lot of time on the road, explaining the foundation and the field.

“We also are doing more marketing than before; his skill set as the former head of a consumer products company is important,” he added.

“The camps we work with are trying to figure out how to attract new customers, be competitive with the private sector, deal with challenges in hiring, recruiting, and marketing. The summer camp industry is a very dynamic market.”

Fingerman, like the CEOs of other nonprofit umbrella organizations, has to balance the needs of his organization with those of the organizations it exists to serve. “Jeremy has a very difficult line to walk – on the one hand, we are marketing the Foundation for Jewish Camp across North America,” Bildner said. “His job is to market the various constituents, which are the camps themselves. His job on the other side of the line is to market the foundation.

“People can see the camps and what they do, but it’s less easy to see the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and how it has been such a powerful force. It’s a difficult line to walk.”

Fingerman sees a certain inevitability in his choice of jobs.

“When I was an undergraduate at Columbia, I was offered a job working at camp, and I accepted,” he said. “It was the summer of 1980.

“A couple of weeks later, I got an internship on Capitol Hill, working for Congressman Bill Gradison from Cincinnati.” He had to take it.

“I remember writing to camp by snail mail, saying that I couldn’t accept the job there, and I apologized. I think that about a week later, I got a letter from the director, and he said he understood, ‘but I hope you will be back next year. I expect you back then.'”

Fingerman didn’t go back the next year, or the year after that.

“And now I finally returned to working in camp,” he said. “My journey took 30 years – but I’m back.”

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