Capital Camps awarded $100,000 grant

Participants in the Capital Camps Institute for Leadership and Learning role-play how to have a  difficult conversation.  Photo provided
Participants in the Capital Camps Institute for Leadership and Learning role-play how to have a difficult conversation.
Photo provided

For its groundbreaking work in the personal and professional development of its staff, a local Jewish summer camp was awarded a signature grant from a leading Jewish education philanthropy.

The Covenant Foundation awarded Capital Camps and Retreat Center a $100,000 grant over two years to develop the Institute for Leadership and Learning, a national fellowship program for veteran counselors at Jewish overnight camps to be modeled after the Capital Camps Institute for Leadership and Learning piloted last summer.

“We’re enormously grateful to the Covenant Foundation for their grant and their recognition of the significance of leadership development at Jewish summer camps,” said Jonah Geller, camp director and CEO of the camp and retreat center located in Waynesboro, Pa.  “The Foundation clearly values the impact that this program will have on Jewish communities beyond camp.”

In coordination with the Foundation for Jewish Camp, this summer, administrators from 10 Jewish summer camps will observe the CCI program with the intent of bringing the program to their own camps in the second year of the grant.

The CCI program was crafted in response to a common problem across summer camps: how to retain counselors in the 21- to 25-year-old age range.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen incredible growth in our retention rates with third- and fourth-year staff members,” said Rabbi Miriam Burg, director of Jewish life at Capital Camps, “but we also hear they’re under a lot of pressure to take a year off from camp and go get an internship somewhere. We wanted to create an opportunity for them at camp to come back and grow.”

Ten college-aged camp counselors were selected based on their leadership potential both at camp and in their communities. The CCI fellows participated in leadership development training for eight to 10 hours a week, in addition to their work as assistant village leaders, assistant specialty area coordinators and other middle management positions at the camp.

Dr. Erica Brown, an award-winning Jewish educator and author, wrote the curriculum that combined leadership seminars, case study analysis, guest speaker presentations, character circles, weekly reflections and mentoring. Geller, Burg, Brown and Associate Camp Director Adam Broms facilitated the weekly sessions.

The pilot program was made possible through funding from the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Said Geller: “[The fellows] came into the program not really having a full understanding or comprehension of what leadership development is all about. By the end of the summer, they had come to embrace leadership development, as well as discussions about how to enhance their own personal and professional leadership skills.”

Adiva Berkowitz, 21, one of the inaugural fellows, praised CCI and said the skills she learned not only proved valuable at camp, but also at Dickinson College where she is a resident adviser and serves on the Hillel board.

“One of the things we learned was how to have tough conversations,” said Berkowitz, who grew up in Pikesville. “When I have to have tough conversations with staff members, it was great because I could open up my binder before [the conversation] and be prepared instead of doing it on the fly.”

The heightened sense of camaraderie was a surprise benefit, said Berkowitz, and it was eye-opening to see the diversity of leadership styles. “[We learned] how to work with others with different leadership styles and work together to strengthen the program. That’s what made us so strong as a group; we were so different and brought different things to the table.”

“Camp is a unique opportunity for this learning laboratory,” said Burg. “There’s a real dynamism with the work they’re doing today [and] the opportunities for growth are huge.”

One of the first seminars, said Burg, focuses on risk taking and vulnerability. “When you’re with a group of people you’ve known for a long time it’s easier to access the courage you need to take to be vulnerable to grow and learn. We felt there was an opportunity here that we wanted to maximize.”

Capital Camps’ administrative team expressed eagerness to share their experience with other Jewish summer camps.

“We don’t think we know more than other camps. What we did do is invest time and money,” said Burg. “Our hope is that we’ll bring these 10 camps together and as a cohort, as a group, we’ll be able to share the model we developed.”

“It’s about the opportunity to share. That’s really Covenant gave us,” she concluded.

The Capital Camps grant, said a spokesperson for the Covenant Foundation, “will have reverberations across the country.”

Harlene Winnick Appelman, executive director of the Covenant Foundation, added that once Capital Camps’ went through the foundation’s rigorous year-long review process, it was a “no-brainer” to invest in the project, as it meets the foundation’s core belief in developing “better educated, inspired Jews.”

“We know that successful organizations require great leadership development on all levels from board members to year-round staff to fourth-year staff members,” said Geller. “Our commitment to leadership development runs deep.”

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