Two Cornerstone Birthdays, Ten Years Apart

By Mark Gutman

Growing up, I was a typical Jewish teenager living in Denver, Colorado. I went to Sunday school, had my Bar Mitzvah, and spent my summers at a Jewish summer camp.  If anyone had asked me how I planned on spending my 21st birthday, however, the last thing I would have said was “with a whole bunch of strangers, at a Jewish camp in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, at a conference put on by the Foundation for Jewish Camp”. If you had asked me then how I would be spending my 31st birthday, I probably wouldn’t have said, “back at the same conference.”

But here I am now, going into my third summer as the Assistant Director at Camp Interlaken, ten years after my first cornerstone experience, preparing to celebrate my 31st birthday back at Cornerstone. This time, I am no longer surrounded by strangers, but by some of the smartest, most creative, and skilled educators, colleagues and friends (including those I haven’t yet met!). As I prepare my Fellows for their first cornerstone experience, I can only look back at my journey and reflect on the role Foundation for Jewish Camp played in my life.

Without my first experience with Foundation for Jewish Camp and Cornerstone, I don’t think that I would be where I am today. It was the first time that I was introduced to the larger world of Jewish camping and gave me the spark that I needed to proceed down this career path. Even after ten years, I keep in contact with my cohort and the friends that I made. I look forward to the five days I get to spend at Cornerstone every year. I love to share ideas, learn from my peers, and – most importantly – get excited for the amazing summer to come!

Over the years as a Cornerstone Fellow and Liaison, I have learned a few tricks that have helped me make the most of the five days we spend together. I think these tips apply not only to Cornerstone, but to living a full life guided by Jewish values as well.

  • Listen for the differences – When camp people get together, we inherently start playing the game “well, at my camp…”, where one person will say something they believe to be unique at their camp, only to realize that a lot of other camps have similar (if not the same) traditions. Even though we each love our specific camp and love to talk about it, some of the best ideas come from listening to other staff talk about the different ways they approach similar traditions. They might have the missing piece that would take your program to the next level or help you solve a problem you didn’t know you had.
  • Always ask questions – Before the seminar I work with my Fellows to come up with a handful of questions for them to ask to other staff. This could range from “What’s your favorite item on your salad bar?” to “What is something your camp does really well?”. Like I said before, we all really like to talk about our camps, and you never know what you will learn that you can bring back to your camp.
  • Take care of yourself – At the end of the week, it will feel like a full summer was packed into five short days, including early mornings, busy days, new friends, and late-night song sessions. Just like over the summer, it will be hard to fight the FOMO and head to bed at a reasonable time. But I promise just that extra hour of sleep will make your experience so much better.

Cornerstone is one of the most amazing programs offered through FJC. The educators, advisors, camp professionals, and camp staff come together with one common goal: to explore new ideas that challenge our respective camps to continue pushing the boundaries of Jewish camping. With any luck, in ten years, I will be preparing to spend my 41st birthday back at Cornerstone!

Mark Gutman is entering his third year as the Assistant Director of Camp Interlaken in Eagle River, WI.  After getting his Bachelors in Human Development and Family Studies, he has worked all over the world as a tour guide, camp staff, and youth director. His favorite part of camp is working with staff to plan amazing programs!