It probably was almost inevitable that Michael Schlank would find his destiny in a Jewish camp.
In September, Mr. Schlank became the CEO of New Jersey Y camps, the huge, mainly two-campus multi-camp system that becomes the summer home for thousands of children every year. (Except last year, of course, when covid struck; that’s another, sadder story.)
Mr. Schlank, who grew up in Stony Brook on Long Island and still lives on the Island, but further west, in Plainview, is “a lifelong camp person,” he said. “I grew up in camp. I went there my entire life.”
Even though he did not grow up particularly close to Camp Poyntelle, a Jewish camp in Pennsylvania, that’s where he spent his childhood summers, beginning in 1984. That’s because “in 1968, my parents,” Ellen and Paul, “were counselors there. In 1969, they were engaged there. So they knew that when it was time to send their son to camp, they’d send me there.”
They did. “And then my parents came back for visiting day,” Mr. Schlank said. It reminded them of how much they’d always loved camp; they could not remember why they’d ever left. They both were teachers — Paul, who died two years ago, was a middle school teacher, and Ellen retired as the director of the nursery school at the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset. They loved working with kids and they had their summers free. “So they both ended up working there for the next decade.” By the end of that time, they were running Camp Lewis, one of Poyntelle’s divisions.
Michael loved it too. “I was there until I was 23 years old and in graduate school,” he said. He went steadily up the ranks, from camper to counselor to head various, increasingly large divisions. That last summer, he had decided not to go to camp — it was time to grow up, to find work in his field — “and at the last minute the internship I’d planned fell through. So I called the director, who I’d grown up knowing — it was April — “and he said, ‘Of course! Come on up!’”
This story bears repeating because that was the summer that Ilene Epstein, “an undergraduate at Penn who had never ever worked in camp before, somehow was hoodwinked into working there.”
So Ilene — now Ilene Epstein Schlank, a speech language pathologist — and Michael did exactly what Ellen and Paul had done decades earlier. The family’s ties to camping grew even stronger.
But Michael’s master’s degree, which he earned at Hofstra, was in health care. His plan, which he carried out, was to work in health care policy; from there, he moved into politics. But “at one point I turned to my wife and said ‘I’m not sure that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” he said. So he went back to school, got a master’s in education, and taught middle school, as his father had done, for eight years.
The formal education that schools offer is important, of course, and it’s gratifying to teach there. But Mr. Schlank was more moved by experiential education, the hands-on, less didactic form of teaching that camps and afterschool programs offer. Even as he moved into management, that love for informal education fueled him.
He began to work for a company called Oasis Day Camps, a Long Island-based organization that runs day camps and afterschool programs all over the metropolitan region. Eventually, taking “a big leap,” following his passion, he left formal teaching entirely. He worked on curriculum development and as his portfolio grew, so did the size of his job. By the time he left Oasis this summer, it had become “a very big job,” Mr. Schlank said.
He decided that he wanted to work for a Jewish camp because “you get to a point in your life when you have some options, and you want to decide what the next chapter is going to be.
“When you’ve gone through something like the death of a parent, that is a clarifying event.”
Looking back, he can see some other turning points. “I was pretty involved in the recovery after 9/11,” he said. “Not physically, but I was in government then, and I did a lot of work with firefighters and police, and visiting the pile. I realized that for me, the most important thing would be making a difference in the world.
“I was able to do that at Oasis, but my own Jewish journey is part of my decision. As a family, we have become more observant, more connected to the Jewish world.” He and his family have become active in their synagogue, Midway, where his mother ran the preschool; Syosset is next door to Plainview. “Jewish camp has become very important to my kids.
“We’re now a family with three generations and residential Jewish camping has been very important in all our lives.”
The Jersey Y camps “is one of the largest Jewish camping organizations in North America,” Mr. Schlank said. “Probably it’s one of the largest in the world. To be able to take the reins of an agency like that, which had gone through some difficulties but is at the core of the Jewish world, really spoke to me.”
Yes. Those difficulties. The organization had been hit by scandal in 2018, when its longtime and up until then apparently beloved executive director, Leonard Robinson, was accused by first one and then many women of sexual assault. He left in disgrace; the organization worked to cleanse its procedures, its assumptions, and its reputation. Mr. Schlank’s hiring is in many ways the culmination of those efforts. He’s coming into what is in effect a new organization.
And there’s also been another huge challenge between the scandal and now. Covid.
Mr. Schlank is upbeat and excited about his new job.
“My own kids were devastated this summer, when they couldn’t go to camp,” he said. He and his wife have two children; Seth, 17, a high-school senior who is planning (covid willing) to spend his gap year in Israel, and Naomi, 12, a seventh-grader. “They’re both serious campers,” their father said.
Because he knows how much the camp closures affected children like his own kids and parents like his wife and him, he’s even more excited about his job.
“To have the opportunity to be able to make a difference, to be involved in an organization that despite the scandal has been an important part of the Jewish landscape for 100 years — we’re celebrating our 100th year now!”
There’s another odd historic fluke about the camp’s history. “We realized that the New Jersey Y camp’s first summer also was the first summer after the last pandemic” — the extraordinarily deadly flu of 1918-1920. “There’s a real symmetry about that,” he said. “These camps have an enormous history. There are members of our board who are fourth-generation campers, and who are grandparents of campers.
“To be part of this history and legacy is interesting and meaningful to me.”
When he talks about the camps, he begins by detailing the make-up of the camps in Pennsylvania; in Milford, there’s Nah-Jee-Wah, for first- through sixth-graders; Cedar Lake for seventh- through ninth-graders; and Teen Camp, for high school sophomores and juniors. Milford also is home to Round Lake Camp, for campers with special needs. “An hour and a half away, in Lake Como, also in Pennsylvania, we have Camp Nesher, a modern Orthodox camp,” he said. “Until last year we also had Camp Shoshamin, a single-gender girls’ camp that we decided to close this summer.” Campers “run the gamut,” he continued. “There are kids whose three or four camp Shabbats are the only Shabbats they experience all year, to the modern Orthodox day school community.” All the camps are “kosher, and what we do on Shabbat is limited, and the camps are all Zionist,” he said. “The population runs from not necessarily Jewishly connected to uber-connected.”
He’s thrilled by that pluralism. “We have kids from the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements; kids from BBYO, and from USY, and from NCSY; kids whose families have no connection at all. They’re all part of our family.”
In a normal summer, the camps house about 3,000 campers. It’s a very large family.
So given all that, how do you overcome scandal?
“I think that it’s in the rearview mirror,” he said. “There is an entirely new board. The board president, Steve Seiden, took over almost 19 months ago. I tell my staff often that we look to the past for lessons, but we are moving forward. We want to make sure that we put in place systems and structures and philosophies that would never allow this to happen again — but our focus is looking forward, and dealing with the myriad issues that we are dealing with now.”
Those issues include “some financial problems that are still hanging over us, but the focus of the next three to five years will be about how we take the core of this amazing agency and build more and more good new things on it.
“It is easy to be defined in the world by your worst moment, but we won’t be defined by that. We will be defined by our campers.
“We not only have campers who come from New Jersey and New York, but from Israel, and from four or five other countries. We have 1,000 summer staff; a large percentage of them come to us because they were campers.
“One of the things that we have learned is that one of the most important experiences for Jewish continuity is on the staff side. We put a lot of effort and resources into training our returning staff, and continuing to be part of their family. We have also launched the beginnings of a real connection to our alumni. We’ve had that before — we’ve always had it — but this will be a real focus of our going forward.”
The Jersey Y camp organization is independent; it works closely with two federations, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Community Federation of Greater MetroWest. It’s also affiliated with the JCC Association, the umbrella group for JCCs. Mr. Schlank is grateful to those groups’ leaders for their help.
Last summer, the camps were closed. This summer, “100 percent they’ll be open,” Mr. Schlank said. “We have spent a lot of time learning and planning. We know that other camps operated last summer. We learned from that. There’s been a tremendous amount of learning in the field about how to do it.
“We expect that 2021 will be better than 2020, God willing, but we are engaged in full scenario planning about what camp might look like. Completely bubbled, partial bubble, all open.
“Camp will be open.
“We spent at least part of every day planning for every eventuality There’s a lot of professional development, and talking with our colleagues in the field.
“So yes, camp will be open in 2021. There will be campers. We plan on sending our Israel trip to Israel.
“This is temporary,” he summed up. “We have to get to the other side. We don’t know what the other side will look like. We know that at times the trip will be rough. But as leaders, we look beyond the emergency. We don’t know when this will end, but we know that it will end.
“This will be the most important summer for our kids in the last 100 years” — that is, in the whole long life of the camp. “Many of our kids will have spent from March on not really engaged with their peers, either in a hybrid school or in Zoom school. To have the opportunity to interact in person! The social, emotionally, and physical gains will be so important.”
Will parents agree to send their kids to camp again? “Some of the families are reticent, but they all want their kids to be in camp, outdoors, running around, interacting with other children the way they are meant to be interacting with other children,” Mr. Schlank said.
So yes, parents will agree, and camp will be open for them. For the best summer ever.
Jeremy Fingerman of Fort Lee is the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. He has high hopes for Mr. Schlank, and for the camps — and for Jewish camping in general.
“I was very impressed with Michael,” Mr. Fingerman said. He’d met Mr. Schlank recently; “he’d networked his way to me.” He seems a perfect fit for his job; “he’s professional and businesslike; he’s also warm, and already is well on his way to enhancing the institution.”
Like Mr. Schlank, Mr. Fingerman looks at the Jersey Y camps as a foundational organization, crucial to the world of Jewish camping. Like Mr. Schlank, Mr. Fingerman sees the camp as an institution that has been strong enough to fight back from scandal, and as having emerged from that shadow already.
He attributes much of the camps’ resurgence to the strength and determination of its board. “I really credit its interim chair, Steve Seiden, with managing the board and the season, and the search for the new CEO,” Mr. Fingerman said. Mr. Seiden, who lives in Livingston, has provided stability and clear vision. He also credits its COO, Janet Fliegelman, who was its interim CEO. Under the leadership of Mr. Seiden and Ms. Fliegelman, New Jersey Y Camps regained their stature.
“The camps performed very well in 2019,” Mr. Fingerman said; until covid hit, both he and the camps’ leaders expected that momentum to continue in 2021. “We’re tracking well for enrollment in 2021,” he said. The numbers look good. Like Mr. Schlank, Mr. Fingerman is passionate about the importance of Jewish camping for Jewish continuity, Jewish community, and the Jewish future. Camps are a place where Jewish children can live Jewish lives — in a range of ways, depending on how their home communities and their own interests define that — with each other, in nature, surrounded by love in the long days of summer. They’re not in heaven — no place on earth is — but for many campers, and for many campers’ families — they’re about as close as it can get.
Learn about the New Jersey Y camps at njycamps.org; learn about Foundation for Jewish Camp at jewishcamp.org.