As we reach the culmination of this year’s holiday season with our celebration of Simchat Torah, I am struck by the way the Jewish people simultaneously live in the past and the future. On Simchat Torah, we do so by reading the concluding words of the Torah and immediately return to the very beginning.
Each cycle, as we grow from the previous years’ experience and learnings, our perspectives advance, our questions deepen, and our knowledge increases.
Every Jewish holiday encourages us to reflect on our past in order to learn from it, with the hope that these lessons will guide us as we move forward into the future. For Jewish communal professionals — indeed for all of us involved in the Jewish community — this reflection, learning, and growth must be an essential part of our focus and attention each year.
At Foundation for Jewish Camp, we constantly strive to raise the bar for excellence for the entire field of Jewish camp. We know, however, that truly effective and innovative ideas don’t suddenly appear. No matter our profession, in order to move forward with wisdom and grace, we must evaluate what we’ve learned. To put ourselves on the path of innovation, we must consider the roads we’ve already traveled: which ones are heading toward exciting and wonderful destinations, and which ones have inspired us to pursue new horizons.
I would like to share a few examples of how we help camps grow and succeed, with the hope that the lessons we’ve learned can prove helpful to other organizations or fields.
One of the most effective tools for learning and reflection that FJC has developed and refined over the years is our annual Camper Satisfaction Insight survey. On behalf of more than 70 overnight camps, FJC administers this survey, asking parents and campers to rate their experience. The survey’s 40 questions probe several different areas, including communications, facilities, and staffing, among others. For summer 2019, we received feedback from close to 11,000 families representing more than 15,000 Jewish camper experiences, or almost 20 percent of this summer’s participants.
We’re committed not only to learning, but also to improving how we learn. CSI provides a wonderful diagnostic tool for individual camps as well as for the entire field, and each year we incorporate feedback from camps on how to make the survey more effective. This year — based on camp feedback — we’ve improved the survey by enabling camps to compare their scores not only to the national average, but also to the aggregate of their region, camp size, and denomination or movement. For the first time, we’ve also included response breakdowns by gender identification, as well as new versus returning campers. Additionally, FJC debuted pre-designed graphic templates into which camps simply can plug in their data, to improve the ease with which they share their data with their boards, families, and communities.
Just as learning Torah can be enhanced by doing so with a group or a chevruta, the feedback received and the perspectives offered each year help us better contextualize the data collected, leading to exciting and more in-depth learning for all of us.
When we talk about learning from our camp community, our considerations don’t stop at campers and families. It extends to camp staff as well. The powerful immersive experience of camp is possible only with top talent at the helm. The counselor experience serves as the linchpin for the success of any Jewish camp, and measuring staff satisfaction ensures that camps provide valuable, inspiring, and meaningful experiences for their staff.
To continue to raise the bar for counselor experience, we developed a survey tool to help camps solicit feedback from their employees as well: FJC’s Staff Satisfaction Insights. As with CSI, SSI enables the entire field to adapt and evolve. This year, more than 3,500 college age counselors (almost 30 percent) from nearly 50 different Jewish camps across North America participated in SSI. We’re still analyzing the responses, and we are excited to see what information this data will yield; that will shape the ways we continue to reimagine the counselor experience.
Jewish communal professionals know that “excellence” isn’t a destination or aspiration you reach — excellence is ongoing, active, intentional, and ever-evolving.
For camp professionals during the off season, FJC runs a range of training programs in cohorts of those in similar positions but working in very different environments across North America. These professionals inspire all of us by their commitment to year-round and lifelong learning.
We count on them not only to help us adapt to the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s families in this rapidly changing world, but to serve as our eyes and ears on the ground. They know what is working and what is not. We can effectively advocate as a field only when those working in it share their insights, observations, and reflections.
During Simchat Torah, we finish our annual cycle of reading the Torah, and joyfully begin anew once again. To be Jewish — and especially to be a Jewish communal professional — is to be a continuous and lifelong learner. This is our mandate, and also our great gift.
As we celebrate Simchat Torah in the year 5780, may the wisdom of the past guide us into a bright and thriving future.