In Praise of "Camp Magicians" - Foundation for Jewish Camp
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By Hannah Gilfix, FJC Leadership Development Fellow

Recently, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what it is that has led me to feel so strongly and passionately about working in the field of Jewish camp. There are so many answers to that question. Watching a first-time camper “get” camp. Seeing an organic friendship form between the least likely of campers. Feeling the pride radiate from a staff member who has just comforted a camper having a tough time. The list could go on and on. 

As the news of camp cancellations continue rolling in and we begin a summer like no other, I feel compelled to pin down what it is that makes Jewish camp so powerful, special, and magical. Of course, it is a combination of all of the small moments listed above (that really aren’t small at all), but it’s also the camp staff who aren’t really just staff, but are truly “camp magicians”. 

Camp magic doesn’t exist on its own. Camp magic doesn’t exist because our camp properties are beautiful, although that certainly doesn’t hurt. Camp magic exists because every summer, over 17,000 college-aged staff dedicate their time, energy, love, and ruach to working at Jewish summer camp. In the heat and intensity of camp, it is so easy to lose sight of what really makes camp, well, camp. 

As this summer forces many of us to take a step back from camp as we know it, I’ve found that our camp magicians are spreading their magic in a new way. Most of these staff are no longer working for camp this summer, and yet they are still comforting their campers in ways that no one else could, because that’s what magicians do. Whether it’s holding a virtual cabin reunion, sending hand-written letters, or just letting their campers know that they still support them, even when they aren’t together, they bring magic wherever they go, and they share it with those they love most.

I’ve had the unique opportunity to be a part of the FJC Fellowship, where I get to work with and learn from my incredible frolleagues (friends and colleagues) at Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) during the year, and then spend my summers working at my home camp. This would have been my sixth summer working at Herzl Camp, where I have worn a variety of different hats, but the role that I have recently been reflecting on is the years that I have spent on our Chinuch (education) team. I’ve been reflecting on why this role has meant so much to me as someone who has no formal degrees in Jewish education. The answer that I keep coming back to is that, as a college student, I was given opportunities to grow into a young Jewish leader that I couldn’t have found anywhere else. My absolute favorite part of my role as Rosh Chinuch (Head of Education) was the trust that I was given to be a camp magician on a large scale. 

At camp we often talk about “vibe curation”, and that’s what I’ve found being a camp magician to be all about. Being able to lead a Shabbat service or facilitate a meaningful havdalah (or 10) each summer, has helped me to not only understand my own potential, but the potential of the 500 people sitting at the Mercaz (our prayer space at camp) with me. It isn’t often that a 21 year old is given the opportunity to shine in the way that the Herzl team has allowed me, or the teams of camp professionals across North America allow their summer staff. My frolleague Teri McGuire put it best; camp professionals are superheroes. And as it turns out, superheroes create magicians.

After wrapping up Cornerstone 202.0 with FJC last month — a seminar where Jewish camp staff from around the world come together to learn, share, and inspire one another — I have never felt so confident in the power of our camp magicians. We knew a virtual Cornerstone wouldn’t look the same as FJC’s usual in-person gatherings. We were on our screens instead of at Capital Camps, and we danced in our own living rooms instead of hand in hand with our camp friends. What we didn’t know was that Cornerstone 202.0 would have the same feel as the 17 Cornerstone conferences prior. This idea of “vibe curation” was brought to a new level as over 300 people felt the impact of virtual dance parties, song sessions, and Jewish wisdom from their own homes. 

Being a part of the Cornerstone team at FJC while still grieving the loss of my own camp this summer wasn’t easy, but it was more powerful than I could have imagined. I truly felt the power of camp in my own living room. I felt the power of camp magicians across the globe coming together in their feelings of grief, pride, and love for their own Jewish summer camps. 

Just as we knew Cornerstone wouldn’t look the same, we know camp won’t look the same this summer. We know that we won’t experience the adrenaline rush of the campers arriving at camp on opening day, and we won’t be walking through camp together in our Shabbat whites, but what we also know is that our camp magicians will continue to shine their camp magic wherever they go.

As Cornerstone faculty member Melissa Shaw said so beautifully to our Cornerstone Fellows, “You are camp. Wherever you go, wherever you are, you are the spirit that builds your camp.” We won’t be at our summer homes in summer 2020, and they’ll miss us just as much as we’ll miss them, but camp is in each one of us. Camp is grown and embodied in our camp magicians.

Hannah Gilfix joined the FJC Team as a Leadership Development Fellow and is very excited to have the opportunity to continue her work in Jewish camping all-year round. Hannah grew up as an active member of the Minneapolis Jewish community, both attending and working at her local Hebrew school, as well as being an active board member in United Synagogue Youth (USY), which led to her attending Herzl Camp. She has held many roles through her five years working at Herzl, most recently stepping into the roles of Rosh Chinuch (Head of Education), Rosh Kvutza (Unit Head), and overseeing Herzl’s Cornerstone Fellows. Working in such a wide-variety of roles, while beginning her work as an FJC Fellow, helped her to understand the importance of having resources in the camping world that support growing professionals. In addition, she was also a part of the Cornerstone Event Staff in 2019, where she was able to see first-hand the impact that FJC has on camp staff, and cannot wait to continue creating meaningful experiences. Hannah recently graduated from Indiana University where she studied Youth Development and Nonprofit Management. She is ready to transition from being a summer staff to a year-round professional, and be a part of bringing the magic of Jewish camp to life.