Thinking beyond time and place

For the last six months, we’ve been all-consumed with the disruptive and broad-reaching wrath of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re exhausted, pained, and frustrated by the experience, and we remain rightly uncertain, anxious, and apprehensive as we look forward.

We should be concerned about the growing mental, emotional, and social health challenges caused by the upheaval and isolation since March, with no end confidently in sight. Add to that mix political divisiveness, economic upheaval, and social unrest, and we can begin to comprehend the enormous toll these dark days take on our collective psyche.

Despite these unsettling times, we’ve also witnessed incredible resilience, creativity, determination, and adaptability. Amazing acts of kindness and inspiration have brought us much-needed light and radiance to guide us. Many have come together to be voices and forces for good.

That’s especially true in our Jewish community, which has experimented and innovated in ways large and small. Rabbis, educators, communal professionals, and leaders have been nimble and thoughtful as we’ve navigated through the ambiguity and disruption. Our communal infrastructure must continue to generate and enhance new approaches to become more relevant, forward-thinking, agile, and expansive as we envision our future.

During this month of Elul, the daily sounding of the shofar serves as a wake-up call, reminding us to take stock — looking back at how we’ve experienced this global crisis to date and planning forward as we consider what lies ahead. This year, much of our consideration has been and will remain focused on our new reality: online, facing a screen.

We must put forth the effort, both individually and communally, in reflecting on these virtual experiences to aid us in preparing for Rosh Hashanah and the new year ahead.

I share an example from my perch leading Foundation for Jewish Camp, where I’ve been fortunate to work closely with truly inspired, dedicated professionals and lay leaders, along with committed, generous philanthropists and thought leaders. Our collaborative efforts have addressed immediate needs and have uncovered exciting future opportunities by reimagining and reinventing camp itself. Think beyond place and time!

I have often said that Jewish camp is both a laboratory and a launchpad. As an active laboratory, camp provides an incredible foundation for people to grow and change and try new things. As an effective launchpad, camp catalyzes individuals to make impact beyond camp, onto campuses, into Jewish communities, and even to the broader world.

Especially in the realm of Jewish education and engagement, we’ve seen not only creative Jewish learning, but the power and emotion of Jewish yearning. With the vast majority of overnight camps not running in person this summer, both campers and counselors (new and returning) and alumni and families (young and old), in the midst of their sadness, expressed a profound connection to their camp community. Together, these camp communities came together as virtual laboratories and launchpads to showcase new approaches, which will likely long outlast our current crisis.

To help meet the significant need now and for the future, Foundation for Jewish Camp partnered with Mosaic United and Israel’s Ministry for diaspora Affairs to launch the “Jewish Camp@Home” initiative. We are offering Jewish summer camps in North America their own online platform, allowing them to engage with their campers (and families) at home throughout the year. We are also equipping and supporting camps with customized, high-quality digital educational content, whether from Israel or from summer camps themselves, through our brand new site, experienceshuk.org. This new platform also will enable a mifgash, where young people from Israel and North America can meet and interact with each other. We imagine endless possibilities.

Our Jewish communal infrastructure — synagogues, schools, JCCs, and so on — can learn from some early online successes born out of this summer’s crisis. Many camps ventured into the world of the virtual, bringing camp-like programming, ruach, and connections to life.

This is what one parent wrote to us about that effort: “I want to thank you and all the others who worked so hard behind the scenes to bring a Jewish camp experience into our homes… I truly enjoyed listening in the background to what took place today, and seeing my son, engaged, smiling and laughing, truly warmed my heart.”

We could talk about the importance of bringing camp into the home, the power of fun, the hyper-intentionality of educational programming — but in the end, it all comes down to building strong relationships with campers’ bunkmates and with their role-modeling counselors. The yearning is for these meaningful, joyful relationships, forged at camp, which remain durable and long-lasting.

In the words of another grateful parent: “We continue to be so impressed at how the camp team has pivoted and re-created the camp spirit from afar. She loved her amazing counselors and made many new friends. You’ve brought joy back into Zoom for our understandably surly 7th grader. Thank you for that!”

As individuals and as a community, we use these days of Elul to reflect on how we’ve experimented with and adapted to virtual activities through the last six months. We also begin to prepare for a different kind of Rosh Hashanah, and the new possibilities that await us.

With creative use of technology, we will bring more light and joy into our daily lives. We will deepen our relationships and connections in new ways, to overcome physical and social separation. We will each work individually to fortify and strengthen our virtual engagement as we work communally to forge and sustain our post-pandemic world.

About the Author
Jeremy J. Fingerman has served as CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) since 2010. Prior to joining FJC, he had a highly-regarded 20+ year career in Consumer Packaged Goods, beginning at General Mills, Inc, then at Campbell Soup Company, where he served as president of its largest division, US Soup. In 2005, he was recruited to serve as CEO of Manischewitz.
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