As a Director at JCC Camp Chi, I often found it difficult to know with much certainty if our goals and mission were being met. Sure, I knew that campers were having a lot of fun, trying new things and forming friendships, but what about the deeper connections or personal growth?
Satisfaction surveys and return rates demonstrate one type of success, but these measurements don't get to the heart of what we want kids to take away from their camp experiences.
I saw firsthand last summer that this challenge is even more true at day camp, where campers often don't have the maturity or verbal expression skills to accurately share their feelings. By spending a minute at any of the nine JCC Chicago day camps, you know that campers are having the time of their lives, but how do we know if we are meeting or exceeding what we want to be the positive impact of camp or, more precisely, the positive impact of Jewish camp.
We found the answer to this question in a surprising way. Towards the end of the summer as part of a larger project, we asked JCC Chicago day campers to complete this sentence:
It's not just camp. It's _______.
Using markers and crayons, words and pictures, campers shared-often with creative spelling-what camp "is" to them. Among responses that ranged from reflective to silly, we discovered a number of answers that highlighted the distinctive elements of Jewish camp. Campers wrote:
Jewish memories… Shabbat… family… Jewish tradition… Maccabi games… inspiration… Jewish… community… Israel experience… a chance to show yourself… kindness… Shabbat singing… JCC
With an opportunity to write anything they wanted about camp, many of our campers chose to express what was meaningful to their Jewish identity and Jewish experience. These ideas were surrounded by other words and phrases, such as swimming, home sweet home, soccer, awesomeness, my happy place, fantastic, best part of the year, friends, painting, and love.
Seeing this better defined for me, more than any research study, why Jewish camp matters. The melding of Jewish rituals, ideas, and activities with the excitement that naturally happens at camp is the real magic of Jewish camp. Swimming was a dominant theme with our day campers, but so was Shabbat and Israel. Campers related "Jewish" alongside fun, joy, comfort, and belonging.
This reminded me of something I experienced in the months leading up to my first summer working at Camp Chi. I met with small groups of campers and staff to get the real scoop on the camp. I asked all of them to tell me their favorite part of camp. Almost always the answer was "Shabbat."
Not having attended Jewish camp as a child, I thought this was an odd response at a camp with outstanding facilities and activities. I would have expected "horseback riding" or "water skiing" or even "my friends," but, instead, I heard about how connected they felt to the Jewish community or their "Jewishness" when at camp.
What our day and overnight campers told us is so much more than just words on paper or stories to be shared. There is incredible power in this positive relationship to Judaism that campers make while at Jewish camp. At JCC Chicago day and overnight camps, being Jewish is fun, accessible, relaxed, just like almost everything else that takes place there. In their own ways, our campers, from the youngest to the oldest, expressed that "Jewish at camp" has meaning and importance to them; it's part of what makes camp and their camp experiences so special.
As adults, we can see that their words and stories are evidence that the seeds of Jewish connection are planted throughout the summer. The potential impact of Jewish camp is tremendous. It sets the stage for a lifetime of sense of belonging to a Jewish community, a relationship with Jewish traditions, a feeling of pride in Jewish identity and an understanding of values.
It's not just camp. It's the start of a lifelong Jewish journey and so much more.
Jamie Lake is marketing manager of JCC Camping.