‘The secret in the woods’

‘The secret in the woods’

Do you remember your team’s color-war theme? How about the song-filled kumzitz around the campfire? Did you bang on the dinner table singing Shabbat songs with your bunk, or belt out Hatikvah at roll call by the flagpole?

If anything in the above paragraph makes sense to you, you are one of only 7 percent of Jewish children (50,000 campers, 10,000 counselors) with Jewish camp experience. Because that number is so small — and because Jewish camp experiences are vital in keeping young people Jewish for all the right reasons — a group of dedicated people came together in Jersey City this weekend to discuss solutions to the problems of Jewish camping.

Rob and Elisa Bildner of Montclair are "Jewish camp fanatics" who established The Foundation for Jewish Camping eight years ago and have been trying since then to put together the first conference on Jewish camping. On Sunday and Monday, almost 400 Jewish camp professionals, lay persons, and Jewish leaders met at the Hyatt on New York Harbor to share their knowledge and discuss their common problems.

The Jewish funding world knows the Bildners are on to something when they talk about the importance of Jewish camps, but they have done virtually nothing about it, said several speakers at the conference.

"It’s because they treat Jewish camping like a little secret tucked in the woods," says Rob Bildner. "But it’s not a secret, and one of the problems is getting people to visit camps because they are so out of the way. So we need new models, new ways of getting people to give to this cause."

Why the conference now? "We did this," says Bildner (whose mom grew up in Englewood), "because when we went to The Funders’ Network and talked about Jewish continuity, no one mentioned camping, yet almost everyone there was impacted Jewishly by their own camp experience."

John Ruskay, who moderated a Sunday session on funding, told a hundred people that until he went to a Jewish camp, he had never experienced Shabbat. Today, he is CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, living proof that the camp system works.

Bildner talks about the necessity of obtaining space without prohibitive capital campaigns and using the Birthright Israel model to get people to send kids to camp. One alternative to building new facilities is to rent empty college campuses off-season. He would also like to see synagogues hold camp fairs and have rabbis do more to encourage congregants to send their kids to camp.

The Bildners are both in the wholesale food business and are active in Jewish life (Jewish Funders’ Network, American Jewish Committee, the Slivka Center at Yale, MetroWest Federation) and their local synagogue, Shomrei Emunah. They have four children, 13 to ‘1, who have been to Jewish camps and credit the experience with giving them strong Jewish identities, says their mom.

Elisa Bildner describes the family as "traditional egalitarian Conservative." "We do live in a post-denominational world, after all," she says, adding that this was precisely why the foundation was conceived as an umbrella for all Jewish camps. "We spanned the denominations, and I think it’s the only venue left where the ultra-Orthodox and Reform can still dialogue about things they share in common."

Camp music, which is so powerful, was the basis of the Sunday night concert with Craig Taubman and Neshama Carlebach, Danny Friedlander, and others. Elisa says, "if it turns them on and brings them in, we want them under the umbrella."

Concludes Rob, "Camping is cool, and that’s the message we want to send. Let’s make it work."

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