Leaders Assembly 202.0: Opening Remarks from Jeremy J. Fingerman

After two years of planning their biennial conference — the largest gathering of Jewish camp professionals, lay leaders, board members, and supporters in North America — Foundation for Jewish Camp was forced to cancel Leaders Assembly 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Within a week, the FJC team pivoted to their first-ever virtual convening for the field: Leaders Assembly 202.0.

FJC CEO Jeremy J. Fingerman offered the following remarks at the virtual opening plenary on Monday, March 16, 2020.

What a difference a week makes!  It does seem like anxiety and uncertainty threatens to overwhelm us.  I worry in particular about the impact these dark times may have on young people growing up in this challenging world. I find comfort in the teachings of so many great thinkers – from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – who remind us that the most effective way to combat darkness is with light.  I believe that Jewish camp offers the brightest of lights – not only for the next generation, but also for ourselves and the community at large.

Each of our diverse range of camps generate their own style of joy and radiance which shine brightly.  We celebrate your light.  We need your light.  I hope that this virtual convening ignites a new, stronger light in each of us, that we will share with our entire camp community and beyond.  Together, we will drive out the darkness and illuminate the best of the human experience.  Friendship. Belonging. Kindness. Resilience. Connection. Purpose. Being part of something larger than ourselves.

During our daily prayers each morning, right after Bareichu, the liturgy proceeds with many references praising G-d, creator of light that shines upon the earth. Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir.   May a new light shine upon Zion.   G-d, in his goodness, every day renews the work of creation.

The extraordinary pace of change in this world requires us to work “b’chol yom tamid maasai bereshit” – everyday to continue the cycle of creation and renewal.  This speaks directly to FJC’s mission and to the work of everyone watching today.  We must work to create more Jewish camp as we address complex current issues.  We must ensure that the light of Jewish camp touches and includes every member of our community, especially those on the periphery.

I often refer to individual camps as separate and distinct laboratories.  Each camp pilots anew each summer, Or Chadash, bringing new light, new perspectives, new learnings to bear.  We are all in this together and we will amplify our individual lights only by innovating, adapting, and creating together.

We recognize the uniqueness and ambiguity of today’s operating environment, especially as we face Coronavirus.  FJC is in conversations with funders and federations exploring a range of ways to support the field and we so appreciate their care and concern.  And, this afternoon, we have a number of sessions scheduled to address different aspects of COVID-19.  In the midst of this unexpected disruption, it is an act of courage to continue to create, innovate, and plan for – bimhayra v’yameinu, in the days to come, very soon we hope – when today’s challenges have passed.

We can find incredible inspiration in the words of a very dear friend of the field whom we lost tragically less than two months after our last biennial.  Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken, zichrono l’vracha, President of Hebrew Union College, said two days before he passed:  “We are a people of action and courage, of innovation and fearlessness, of adaptation and endless creativity.”

So very true.  Let’s live up to those words.  We have many opportunities for growth as a field even as we respond to multifaceted and difficult challenges. Addressing these issues will require field alignment and a commitment to collaboration and doing so will help us continue the vibrancy of the field.  Aside from potential impact of coronavirus and the destruction caused by the California wildfires, let me share quickly just four other challenges:

  1. From Pittsburgh to Poway, from bomb threats to individual attack, we have had a security and safety wake-up call. And, the already increasing level of anxiety and uncertainty experienced by today’s generation – and I dare say, all of us – can be debilitating if we let it.
  2. We operate in an economy of choice. Families expect high-quality programs, operating with excellent facilities, led by outstanding professionals.  They demand ever greater flexibility, increased communication, and individualized attention. And they want it all at affordable prices.  We need to operate on all fronts, raising the bar to stay competitive, reducing barriers to entry to reach more campers and staff.
  3. There are so many inspired and engaged professionals in this field and we have much admiration and appreciation for all you do. And we know we have to develop a much more robust talent pipeline at every level…of CITs to counselors to unit heads to assistant directors to camp directors.
  4. The counselor experience is the linchpin for Jewish camps, and we must truly reimagine and reinvigorate the role, the skills acquired, the satisfaction generated. We must also increase the number of teens who stay engaged and involved and who aspire to be counselors.  Stay tuned for a big announcement forthcoming on teen travel programs to Israel, which for many camps continues to be the penultimate, aspirational camper experience.

We have a lot of work to do, and for now, let me suggest one essential and easy step.  We can and should reinforce the messaging from the American Camp Association that camp is more important than ever before.  At camp, campers and staff alike develop and refine their college, career, and life readiness skills – in a safe, healthy, supportive environment.  Camp is the best way to develop a growth mindset, social emotional learning, and improved self-awareness and mindfulness.

Let’s also not forget we have some terrific grant and training opportunities to help the field grow and prosper.  We must continue to break down barriers, welcoming everyone to experience the joy and light of Jewish camp.  You can visit our website – jewishcamp.org – for more details, but I’d like to highlight just five ways we hope to give you money:

  • The Yashar Initiative, made possible through the unprecedented $12 million support from the Weinberg Foundation, enables camps to improve accessibility and inclusion for those with disabilities. We still have more than $5 million in grants to distribute over the next two years and encourage more day and overnight camps to apply.
  • UJA-Federation of New York has stepped up with a meaningful grant for camps serving its catchment area, including a new national position and resource, Camp Security Advisor. This afternoon, the leadership of Secure Community Network, the security arm of our North American Jewish community and our partner in this important initiative, will conduct a virtual workshop where you’ll learn even more.
  • Let us express our gratitude to The Marcus Foundation for its significant funding of our new Yedid Nefesh initiative, to help upgrade the quantity and quality of mental health professionals supporting our summer camp communities. We will share learnings from our first cohort of 32 camps, and will let you know when we will open up applications for the second cohort.
  • For the last two years, we have piloted a program called The Competitive Edge to launch new specialty, skill-building tracks in traditional camps. The first three camps have had good initial success.  And we’re thrilled that we will expand this initiative with a new generous grant opportunity from The Gottesman Fund to open specialty tracks in five more camps in Summer 2022.  Applications are now open with details on our website.
  • Finally, I am thrilled to announce a new grant opportunity with much appreciation to the Maimonides Fund. We will begin to pilot Jewish family camps specifically targeting less engaged families, introducing them to joyous Jewish experiences.  This has potential to be a huge innovation, helping more young families build Jewish community, strengthen their Jewish identities, and develop Jewish traditions they can bring home.  Grants will provide camps with funding for capital infrastructure, staff capacity and family subsidies.

As humans, we crave human connection. Our new reality of social distancing feels awkward and isolating.  And, yet as a field, we can use our creativity to bring our communities together in powerful ways.  This weekend, I saw a few camps offered virtual pre-Shabbat Ruach and post-Shabbat Havdallah services and I know more will soon follow.   Camp builds community with human connections, needed now more than ever.   We bring positivity and joy when we convene together to sing, dance, laugh – to be a kehillah, a community, filled with light.

On Shabbat morning, we sing one of my favorite prayers, El Adon al kol hama’asim – G-d Master of all creation.  Its theme really resonates with me and reflects how I feel about this amazing field:

Tovim m’orot shebar’am Elokeinu – “Good are the luminaries created by our G-d.”

Our good and holy work has a higher purpose.

Milayem Ziv u’mifikim noga – “Full of splendour they radiate brightness.”

All of our Jewish camps truly shine brightly, especially in these dark times.

Na’eh Zivam bechol Ha-olam – “Their brilliance adorns the entire world.”

Camps uniquely radiate positive light across the globe.

Thank you for joining with us as we adapt and evolve to address every emerging challenge.  We have achieved so much together, and yet, we can radiate so much more light throughout the world as we continue to move forward, B’yachad together as one.