A summertime find — future Jewish leaders

As a camper, Max Kates was full of energy, soaking up everything Camp Ramah in Ojai offered. He loved sports, singing, his friends and Shabbat. When the summer arrived for him to join the staff, he immediately applied to participate in Ramah’s counselor leadership-training program. In his first year as a counselor, Max was placed in a unit I supervised, and I watched with pride as he developed valuable skills in problem solving, public speaking, teamwork, program design and assessment.

Six years later, Max is a unit head working with veteran staff and counselors-in-training, and, as the camp’s assistant director, I support and guide him. While my path ultimately led to Jewish education, Max is now in medical school. He could sense his growth during his summers as a counselor, but was unaware that the same skills conquered then would be put to use as a medical student.

During the summer, teenagers and young adults like Max are presented with a plethora of options — summer school, jobs in retail, internships, travel programs and more. Choosing work as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp helps young people gain skills as leaders in any setting, while securing their commitment to the future of the Jewish people — and it is an option that our community must make a priority.

At Camp Ramah, as at other camps, young counselors — about 18 years old — inherit enormous parental responsibility. In helping campers become stronger individuals by creating a safe, fun and educational experience, counselors hone skills often found in highly experienced teachers, customer-service agents, social workers, nurses and spiritual leaders. In the process, counselors themselves transform into Jewishly literate young adults who serve the community in leadership roles beyond the summer experience.

The counselors we hire at Ramah are charged to be role models and educators at an age when they, too, are growing more independent. The results are outstanding. Not only do our counselors check for brushed teeth, comfort the homesick and cheer campers on during basketball games, but they also model Jewish values, use Hebrew, lead prayers and teach mitzvot, such as tikkun olam (repairing the world) through activities that take advantage of the natural surroundings at camp. Through their training in both skills and content, counselors absorb values and practices that stick with them for a lifetime. They commit to Jewish practice and values, such as Shabbat observance, Israel and continued Jewish education.

Recent research reveals a higher percentage of commitment to Jewish values in young adults who work in Jewish summer camps than in those who only attended as campers or never attended at all. For example, when surveyed in college, 34 percent of camp counselors expressed a commitment to supporting Jewish organizations, compared to just 22 percent among those who have not worked at camp. Further, 71 percent of counselors at Camp Ramah observe the laws of kashrut, compared to 36 percent who were only campers and 17 percent with no camp experience.

Young applicants who worry that they are “giving up” a summer that could be used to intern, take classes or travel should be assured that working at a Jewish summer camp develops skills that universities and employers will value. Developmentally, 18-year olds are ready to reach outside of themselves to lead and care for others in the world. They desire the adrenaline rush that comes from a feeling of accomplishment and are eager to accept leadership roles that allow them to express their opinions and develop marketable skills. Camp provides this very opportunity.

At Ramah we offer a counselor leadership-training program for first-year staff, in which counselors spend much time in the field with campers, along with hours each week in the classroom acquiring leadership skills in communication, youth development, crisis management, program planning, Judaics and other areas. Most importantly, camps give staff members — first year and after — a unique opportunity to exercise their creative abilities under a strong watchful eye and with more feedback than these young adults will receive in future jobs. At the end of this most recent summer, one counselor who completed our training program remarked, “Being a first-year counselor changed me. I took all my energy and channeled it into the right places. I felt so happy with the work I was doing and the impact I made on kids, whether through planning a program or leading a cheer.”

One summer on the job, however, is not enough. In order to maximize this potential, Jewish summer camps must retain counselors from season to season, so that young adults can build on their skills and deepen their allegiance to Jewish leadership. Camps must offer salary and training packages that are competitive with summer internship and travel alternatives available to young adults. Fortunately, some in the camping movement are working hard to design such packages. The Foundation for Jewish Camping’s Cornerstone Fellowship Program aims to retain senior counselors for at least a third summer of work by bringing cohorts of counselors to a national conference on Jewish camp counseling skills, helping them take on leadership roles during the summer and paying a generous stipend on top of their base salary. This fellowship program is one answer to a retention problem that will need many solutions.

From medical school, Max recently expressed appreciation for his experiences on staff at Camp Ramah. He described a moment when his anatomy professor broke students into groups and requested that they make team guidelines and expectations. Max led his group to create goals and discuss how they would work together as a team throughout anatomy, perhaps the most intense course in medical school. Max stated, “And that’s about when I realized it: The skills and experiences we all share at camp do not occur in some vacuum — separate from the world outside. They transfer directly to everything we are doing right now.”

Zachary Lasker, a doctoral candidate in education at UCLA, is the assistant director for Camp Ramah in California and a clinical instructor in education at the American Jewish University.