There is sufficient empirical and anecdotal information to indicate that the liberal Jewish community is facing a serious leadership crisis[a]. According to Jerry Silverman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federations of North America, in the next decade or so, 70%-80% of the executive positions in Jewish organizations will turn over without enough mid-level professionals to take their place. This impending predicament has been unfortunately largely ignored in our Jewish educational institutions. It seems that fewer and fewer choose to work in the Jewish world. And while we encourage those who are interested to pursue careers serving the Jewish community, we can and must do more to ignite our students’ passions and empower them early on to become the next generation of Jewish leaders.
As a Camp Ramah director, I know first hand that there is a sizable pool of talent among our staff members. Perhaps unlike any other Jewish milieu[b], camp enables young Jews to develop a deep passion for leadership and Jewish engagement. During the summer months, young adults are empowered to build cohesive, spirited and creative Jewish communities. Our staff are taught to be Jewish role models, to frame lessons around Jewish values, to speak Hebrew, to celebrate Jewish moments and to structure dynamic learning environments for their campers and peers. They are inspired by their colleagues’ creative talent, new ideas and innovative thinking. They work and live in an almost Utopian Jewish 24/7 setting and juggle few external commitments (school, part time jobs, commuting, family responsibilities). All this contributes to the unique Jewish drive that these young people feel during the summer. Understanding all this and recognizing the opportunity that camp presents, we ask how we can capitalize on the summer to more intentionally nurture and strengthen the pipeline from young staff member to Jewish professional.
Here I suggest practical steps, (many that we have taken at camp), that hopefully will move us towards this goal. First and perhaps foremost, we must develop intentional strategies in order to identify young adults with significant promise. Our communities naturally inspire many of these people to consider Jewish communal professional careers and there are ample opportunities to meet and network with the clergy and educators who spend time at camp. Yet we need to be more deliberate in our recruitment of future Jewish leaders. It starts by developing a sensitivity to those in need of mentoring and encouragement and providing them with the right guidance and opportunities. Oftentimes the most promising potential Jewish leaders are also the most spirited and charismatic young adults. Their talents are easily noticed and they naturally stand out in the community. But less often- and maybe more importantly-there are always hidden Jewish leaders in our environments[c]. In a sense, these are the students in the classroom who do not raise their hand as often, but earn the highest marks. But unlike a classroom, with the absence of grades the quietest leaders sometimes go unnoticed. We must train ourselves to notice all who are in need of mentorship and encouragement. During the summer, we have made the identification of prospective Jewish leaders and professionals a weekly agenda item at our senior staff meeting. Once identified, each prospective leader is paired with a Jewish professional on our staff or in the greater Jewish community. These young adults are invited to meet with senior Jewish leaders visiting camp during the summer and to schedule time with administrators from the Jewish Theological Seminary[d] in order to discuss graduate school. By devoting a set time for this on a weekly basis and establishing it as a priority, we feel that we are able to identify a stronger and larger cohort of future professionals and provide them with individual guidance at a very early stage of their adult development.
Second, once we have identified those with unique potential, we must provide numerous opportunities for them to experiment within the educational environment. This requires that we be flexible, open minded and not daunted by potential failure. Staff must see themselves as change agents and as challenging as it is, we must welcome change [e]without saying “no, we cannot afford it, that won’t work here, it does not fit into our schedule, the idea is not viable”. Instead we need to encourage our young adult staff to teach classes, apply for programmatic grants, create innovative programs and implement their novel ideas. They must be guided to work in teams and harness the creativity of those around them. Along the way, they need to be nurtured, mentored and given positive and constructive feedback. They should be taught to be reflective practitioners and evaluate their work. (Of note- It was at camp, where young staff members conceived of the idea for the Ramah365 App which received a Signature Grant from the Covenant Foundation, and it was at camp where a young aspiring author wrote and illustrated a children’s book which was subsequently read at a PJ Library event.)
Thirdly, it is imperative that we create a more focused, year round approach to leadership development for these elite staff members. This should include retreats, ongoing individualized mentorship and internships in a variety of Jewish educational settings. It is imperative that we create a structured forum for Jewish professionals to interact with our staff and model for them the practical realities of being in the field. And, it is just as significant that year round professionals work with us to determine what from camp can really produce institutional change in their synagogues and school. In an age where so many synagogues and year round settings are asking how we can be more camp like, we need to help our young staff identify what can effectively be implemented out of the camp setting. This question is imperative and cannot be limited to organizing a few camp like programs throughout the year. We need to address how our young staff can be taught to bring Ramah’s approach to tefilla, Hebrew, music, dance, the arts and athletics to additional settings. While in recent years we have devoted time and resources to develop new training programs for staff and alumni with the goal of keeping young adults connected, active, and motivated to serve as leaders in their year round communities (example: the Ramah Service Corps, now in its third year, was launched in order to help young Ramah staff enrich and expand upon their part-time positions as synagogue youth leaders and teachers, guiding and mentoring them as they infuse new, camp-style programming for youth and families into their institutions), this is still a significant role for Ramah to address.
Finally, we must be aware of each counselor’s specific academic and professional needs. In order to properly advise counselors and strengthen the pipeline, we must be fully aware of the graduate school programs that are most appropriate for our students. And, considering the significant financial burden placed on the current generation, it is imperative that these graduate programs be funded.
Camp staff are among the most Jewishly-educated, motivated, inspired and capable leaders. They are the prospective educators of tomorrow’s Jewish community. It is imperative that we identify them early on, provide mentorship and opportunities for experimentation. We must introduce them to the most outstanding Jewish professionals, ensure that they have year round opportunities to work within the Jewish community and guide them through the graduate school process. And finally, we must not be wedded to the notion that this cohort will produce the same types of communities that we have created. They won’t and that prospect is exciting.
Amy Skopp Cooper is National Associate Director, National Ramah Commission of The Jewish Theological Seminary, and Director, Camp Ramah Day Camp in Nyack. She received the prestigious 2011 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.