Jeff Dannick still remembers a Jewish summer camp experience from 40 years ago, when he was a bunk counselor and theater and tennis specialist at the now-closed Camp Sequoia in Rock Hill, N.Y.
The intrepid counselor befriended a shy camper and an outgoing, charismatic camper. Dannick introduced the two campers who, at the beginning of the summer, interacted briefly and awkwardly. Persistent, Dannick got them talking, finding similarities in their interests and lives. By the end of the summer, Dannick recalls, the two campers were good friends.
“I don’t know whether they kept in touch, or how they grew from the experience,” said Dannick, now the executive director of the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. “But I suspect that that summer had an impact on both of their lives.”
Knowing firsthand the impact of Jewish summer camps on youth, it’s no surprise that the 62-year-old Beth El Hebrew Congregation member still believes in the unique power of those summer experiences. Now in his “bar mitzvah year” as executive director, Dannick hopes that as the world emerges from the pandemic, summer camp can continue to be a profound touchstone of Jewish community building.
“We as an institution had to look at ourselves and decide, is now the time to shy away from new opportunities to make an impact? Or is now the time to really clearly identify where we can make an impact to walk through that door as aggressively and as positively as we can?” Dannick said. “And we decided that now is the time for us to do what we can for the people who need the most help, the most engagement, the most sense of community.”
This year, the Fairfax-based Pozez JCC will hold three summer camps, including Camp Achva, a day camp staple. Home to 226 campers over two sessions in 2022, Camp Achva is projecting a 10% increase in campers for 2023, Dannick said.
The Pozez JCC also hosts Horizon Day Camp with Sunrise Association specifically for children with cancer. Last year, the camp had 42 campers, but the JCC is expecting to double that number this year, with an anticipated 75-100 campers in attendance.
Over the course of the pandemic, Dannick and the JCC leadership recognized the impact that COVID had on mental health, as well as opportunities for additional accommodations that came from the crisis that had “shaken the foundation” of societal norms.
“What’s become evident on the heels of the pandemic, in addition to the marginalized groups, is that everybody is dealing with challenges,” Dannick said.
He recognized camp as a way to address those new challenges, as well as help underserved demographics: “With diversity comes the need to make accommodations and to put extra effort into it.”
In the spirit of that extra effort, the Pozez JCC launched Camp Kesher last summer, a day camp which is tailored to neurodivergent teens and young adults aged 18-27. The camp, offered through the Pozez JCC Inclusion and Disability Services Department, hosted 15 campers last year.
“It is a special camp to help the neurodiverse teens and young adults to build friendships, gain independence skills and build their confidence in a camp environment,” Dannick said.Summer camp is a microcosm of opportunities for community blending.
The Northern Virginia Jewish community, though quickly growing, is spread out geographically, according to Dannick, with pockets of community existing over its 1,300 square miles.
“There are micro-communities centered around geography,” Dannick said. “For example, the Alexandria, Arlington Jewish communities feel very different than the Leesburg or Burke Jewish communities.”
These pockets have formed around Jewish institutions, such as synagogues, which are the epicenters of connection. But the different community silos are interested in blending, Dannick has observed.
The Pozez JCC’s camps, particularly since Camp Achva relocated to Gesher Jewish Day School in 2021, has become one of those blending places. A haven for Jewish (and non-Jewish) campers, Camp Achva is one way to engage previously unengaged Jews through instilling Jewish pride and connecting them with a central Jewish institution.
With the hopeful expansion of Horizon Day Camp this summer, Dannick believes that the Pozez JCC can become a community hub for a wide range of Northern Virginia residents. The JCC is continuing to look for other ways to bring people together, Dannick said.
“It’s a daunting task, and it’s an exciting task to look at.” ■