January 18, 2020

Ha’od Avi Chai? Is My Father Still Alive?

Photo from Pixabay.

Forty-six years ago, my parents took our family to Israel for my bar mitzvah. I often reflect on the amazing legacy gift they gave me in linking my Jewish coming-of-age ceremony to the city of Jerusalem. That gift still lives deep within me.

This week, we read my bar mitzvah portion, Vayigash, which contains the dramatic encounter between Joseph and his brothers. This year, with new perspectives, I have gained fresh insights into this story, which seem particularly relevant for the field of Jewish camp and for our broader Jewish community. 

After listening to Judah’s emotional plea, Joseph can no longer contain himself and he orders all of the Egyptians out of the room. Twenty-two years after being thrown into the pit, he reveals himself privately to his brothers in a cry that is “heard throughout all of Egypt, even in the house of Pharaoh.” Joseph declares, “I am Joseph” and immediately asks, “Ha’od Avi Chai — Is my father still alive?”

How appropriate to have this very question asked this particular week, when one of our Jewish community’s most impactful philanthropic foundations officially sunsets. 

The Avi Chai Foundation, established 35 years ago by Sanford “Zalman” Bernstein, has invested over $1.2 billion to strengthen Jewish education, culture, practice and peoplehood in North America, Israel and the former Soviet Union. In North America, its support has been focused on the most intensive and immersive educational experiences that exist today — Jewish day schools and Jewish camps.

Avi Chai’s initial work in Jewish camping began in 2000, with funding a study of the field, called “Limud by the Lake,” conducted by researchers at Brandeis University. The report inspired and guided much of the foundation’s support for overnight camping — developing counselors as Jewish role models, strengthening the bench of current professionals, and expanding facilities and capacity — all to deepen and broaden the camps’ lifelong impact on the Jewish identity and connection to Israel of its many participants. At the same time, Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), created by visionary lay leaders and business entrepreneurs Rob Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner, became a key vehicle and effective partner for Avi Chai’s investments in the field.  

We must carry forward the Avi Chai Foundation’s inspired work.

Together, the dream of a dynamic, growing, vibrant field has become reality. In 20 years, the number of youth, teens and college-age counselors attending one of the 300-plus Jewish camps across North America has increased by over 25% to more than 180,000 during the summer of 2019. This represents almost 20% of kids ages 4-17 growing up in households with at least one Jewish parent. Over this two-decade time span, more than 600,000 individuals have spent at least one summer in a Jewish camp!

Throughout my 10 years leading FJC, I have had the honor and good fortune to benefit from a very strong, effective partnership with Avi Chai, especially as we approached the planned sunsetting of its grant-making at the end of 2019. Working collaboratively during those years, we have found support from dedicated funders including the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Maimonides Fund and the Marcus Foundation, among others, who have followed Avi Chai’s leadership to invest significantly in the field of Jewish camping. 

This past week, as I considered and reviewed my bar mitzvah portion once again, amazingly, the Torah’s relevance jumps out just at the right time, speaking to us in such a powerful, relevant way: “Ha’od Avi Chai — Is my father still alive?”

After 35 years, we must answer in a strong, affirmative way. Yes, indeed, the amazing legacy gift of the Avi Chai Foundation will live on, as we continue to help Jewish camps work their “magic” forging powerful, joyous Jewish identities and lasting connections to Israel.

Those involved with Avi Chai should be justifiably proud of what they have achieved. Indeed, they have set the standard for extraordinary funder-grantee partnerships. In addition to their significant funding over the last 20 years, their advocacy, imprimatur and thought leadership have been key catalysts for growth and vibrant change in the field of Jewish camp.  

To best express our profound gratitude, we must continue to carry forward their inspired work. May their lasting legacy still live deep within all of us.

Jeremy J. Fingerman is the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp.